Bon Appétit: Bison and red wine shepherd’s pie

This is Marie, whose usual contribution to the culinary delights detailed in this blog is eating something on the menu different from what my husband ordered, so we can share. However, on intermittent Sunday nights I am doing something a bit more special than just the daily “what can I make with whatever’s on hand” cooking technique.

For these meals, I am entertaining myself (and with any luck my guests and family) by making a meal out of recipes from Bon Appétit magazine and serving them to my friends. So far the results have been tasty, although not always terribly photogenic. This week’s endeavor was the Bison and Red Wine Shepherd’s Pie. The photo below was borrowed from Bon Appétit’s site, where you can read the recipe. I’ve made bison chili before and liked the results so this looked like a good opportunity.

I am constitutionally unable to attempt a recipe without changing something. In this particular recipe I changed a fair amount. That can be dangerous, especially when your victims/friends will be there pretty soon to proof the results, but on the other hand it makes the recipe a bit more “mine” (my own, my precious). The most significant change was that the recipe called for bacon, right at the beginning. Also, the cut of meat needed was not available; there were no bone-in options. Those two things could very easily change the entire meal. The bacon was presumably there to add extra flavor notes and possibly some fat, and the bone…well, there are few stew-like meals that can’t be improved with a bit of gelatin from a fresh bone. The meat was fairly well marbled so the fat wasn’t an issue. The compromise I came up with was to throw in a bit of chuck hamburger to compensate for the lack of bacon.

Our daughter came along to help with the shopping. She was in charge of checking all the displays for free samples while I picked up potatoes, onions, pearl onions, some really nice sweet organic carrots, and went on a wide-ranging but ultimately successful quest for parsnips. She was also in charge of hitting one bunch of celery with another to mime the fate that should befall all celery, followed by a deep philosophical argument regarding the exact status of celery as food and whether anything else (besides celery) that was not originally a food item could be improved with peanut butter. I did not feel this particular recipe could be improved with peanut butter; fear not. However, considering that another part of the recipe involved turnips, which I hesitate to use, celery and turnips were both passed over in favor of some frozen sweet corn. Oh, and my paprika was not sweet, it was smoked, but I figured that would also help compensate for the lack of bacon. In fact, there was a disturbing moment for me as the meat was originally browning, when a smell arose from the meat that nearly (but not quite) triggered that part of my palate that revolts violently to the presence of that particular cut of pig. Thankfully it passed quickly, but if you are a bacon fan, you would probably not want to follow me in leaving the pig out of this recipe!

At this point it seemed that any further changes would make the whole point of the exercise moot, so I tried to follow the rest fairly exactly. One of the first rules of recipes is to add an hour of prep time to anything that has more than about 5 ingredients or which requires stages of cooking. This was no exception, and another half hour or so could have come in handy as the pie went into the oven just about the time as the guests walked in the door. The neat chopping tool my in-laws gave me might have cut down on the time, but I was rather attached to the idea of having the carrots be neat discs of the same general size, rather than irregularly-sized bits. Anyway, once everything was bubbling away and looked to be cooking down well I realized that there was going to have to be some compensation for the lack of a bone. A small amount of corn starch seemed to do the trick. The girlchild also provided some good encouragement along the way, as “Ewww, bison?!?! Is that like a buffalo?” turned into wide-eyed “Man, that smells good! How soon ’till dinner?” Eleven isn’t necessarily a terribly experimental age, so I assume resistance; if it changes to enthusiasm I get extra points.

Everything went very well up to the point where the last touch was added. The potatoes had an egg wash that was supposed to brown and make the peaks all pretty, but the gravy was bubbling so vigorously that I didn’t dare leave the pie in the oven long enough for the really pretty browning to set in. Even the garlic toast didn’t brown well. Therefore, there is no picture of the untouched serving dish. However, everyone took at least seconds and some took thirds. The corn went very well with the other vegetables, retaining a bit of a crunch. The pearl onions were almost as sweet as Vidalias. Dessert was pumpkin bread that baked while we ate dinner. Overall a successful evening, even if the aesthetics weren’t quite up to standard. The important thing is that we had a good time and the food was appreciated.