I recently spent about two weeks in Atlanta, where I planned to hit a couple of favorite barbecue joints in and around Decatur – Fox Brothers and Maddy’s. The former had a tree fall on its head, not unusual for the forest that shares its space with the city of Atlanta and, the latter, unfortunately, had closed down. Pity. Maddy’s had a ridiculously sinful potato salad that I could swear was laced with copious amounts of sour cream and bacon.
While I didn’t end up with any barbecue, I did find myself at two very different pubs on a couple of occasions, facing Shepherd’s pies. First, there was the version served at the Old Blind Dog Irish Pub in Crabapple, near Alpharetta, a handsome brick building loaded with plenty of wood and stained glass. The dish caught my eye because while the filling sounded pretty predictable – lamb and vegetables, the topping was made of colcannon. I’m a peasant at heart when it comes to food, so whenever you mush up cabbage and potatoes, well, I’m all over it. And this colcannon had melted cheese running through, providing a memorable Shepherd’s pie.
The second version was not quite as refined, but it went far to satisfy on a windy autumn evening. Mac McGee is an Irish pub on the Decatur Square. Unlike the more polished Old Blind Dog, this small, dimly lit pub boasted a more authentic feel. And the Shepherd’s pie was simple and rustic, but just as comforting, especially when accompanied by a nice chocolaty stout.
So, all of this Shepherd’s pie business started me thinking about other gratin type dishes that bury meat under a blanket of mashed potatoes. You can find some permutation of this dish all around the globe. The French have a version called hachis parmentier. Often it comprises leftover stew tucked beneath flavored mashed potatoes. There’s no real set recipe, and your imagination can pretty much run wild. And that’s exactly what mine did.
These dishes often are considered the epitome of comfort foods. But I wondered how it would be to dress up the modest hachis parmentier, elevating it to a dish grand enough to serve to holiday company. I’m not talking about fussy, nor do I mean difficult. Elegant and comfy, that’s my aim.
And that’s what led me to concoct this version of hachis parmentier. I teamed steak au poivre with sautéed mushrooms, to make it more substantial, then topped it with swirls of mashed potatoes scented with garlic and bay leaves, and blended with gorgonzola cheese. It’s a simple combination of three dishes, and you can put it together ahead of time, then pop the individual ramekins into the oven just before serving. I served them in individual All-Clad casseroles that my friend, Nell, gave me ages ago. They’re gorgeous and oven proof. Perfect foils for this stylish meat and potatoes pie.
Steak au Poivre Hachis Parmentier with Gorgonzola Mashed Potatoes
2 6 to 8 ounce beef filets at least 2-inches thick
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper
1 ounce (2 tablespoons) good quality Cognac
1/4 cup minced shallots
About 2 cups fresh mushrooms, quartered. I used a combination of button and cremini, but you can use just about any variety you like.
3 tablespoons cream mixed with 1 teaspoon French mustard
3-4 splashes Worcestershire sauce
Small handful chopped flat-leaf (Italian) parsley
Coat the steaks with kosher salt and plenty of freshly cracked black pepper – about a heaping teaspoon of pepper per steak. Let them sit until they come to room temperature.
Heat a heavy bottomed pan over medium-high heat and add the olive oil and butter. When it’s smoking and the butter has browned, add the steaks, making sure they don’t touch. You want to sear them, not steam them. I use a combination of oil and butter whenever I sear meat because the oil keeps the butter from burning so quickly, and the butter imparts its flavor to the oil.
Cook the steaks for about 3 minutes per side. They’ll be blue, very rare. But, remember, they’ll cook more in the oven. When the steaks are seared, remove them from the pan and set them aside. Don’t cut into them at this point or you’ll lose all of the juices.
Meanwhile, remove the pan from the burner. Let it cool for a minute if it’s smoking because you’re going to deglaze the pan with the Cognac, and you really don’t want a burst of flame. It’s much more exciting on television than in your kitchen. Trust me.
Add the Cognac to the pan and scrape up any bits from the bottom. Place the pan back on the burner with the heat set to medium. Let the liquid boil until it’s almost all gone. Toss in a tablespoon of butter if it looks dry, and add the mushrooms and shallots. Stir until the vegetables are soft and completely cooked. Near the end of the cooking time, add about 3 splashes of the Worcestershire sauce and the cream/mustard mixture. Stir to coat well. Remove from heat and stir in the parsley. Set the mixture aside to cool.
When the steaks have cooled completely, slice them into pieces about the same size as the mushrooms or slightly larger. I make them into bite-sized cubes so that they remain moist. Mix them gently with the cooled mushroom mixture. Place the mixture in lightly buttered oven proof dishes about 2/3 full.
Pipe or spread the mashed potatoes over the mixture, making sure to cover completely.
Gorgonzola Mashed Potatoes
1/2 cup heavy cream
3 or 4 bay leaves
3 garlic cloves, crushed
In a heat-proof cup, add the cream, bay leaves and garlic, then heat in the microwave for about a minute. Set aside and let the mixture steep for about 30 minutes.
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 ounce gorgonzola cheese (or any creamy, mild blue.)
2 large Idaho potatoes, peeled and quartered
You can boil the potatoes until they’re tender, or you can steam them. I prefer to steam the potatoes so that they don’t get watery. You want the mashed potatoes to hold their shape for this dish.
When the potatoes are cooked through so that you can easily pierce them with a knife, whip them with a hand mixer. Add the butter and gorgonzola, then the cream (remove the bay leaves first). You can reheat the cream a little, if you like. Whip until smooth and add a little salt to taste.
Spoon the potatoes into a piping bag with the tip of your choice. Pipe the potatoes over the steak and mushroom mixture.
Place the ramekins on a cookie sheet. Now, you can either bake them for about 15 minutes at 375 degrees, or if you want to brown the potatoes and keep the steak rare, broil the potatoes carefully until golden.
Serve hot. Makes two large servings or four smaller servings. Add a simple green salad, a baguette, my French apple tart, and dinner is served.
Now, doesn’t that look easy? Give it a try. But, remember, if you like your steak super rare (I do), then broil, don’t bake. For me, this is a little too done. I baked. Drat.