Chameleon Cooking


The title of this tab may be slightly misleading, or misunderstood. I call myself (sometimes) “the chameleon cook” because my cooking changes to suit the country where I happen to be living at the time. What I mean by “chameleon cooking” here is a somewhat different animal — and, I do not mean cooking chameleons. In essence, chameleon cooking involves taking a basic recipe that you know well, and altering it to suit what you have on hand, or what takes your fancy at any particular time. This, to me, is the crux of real cooking. I rarely, if ever, follow recipes to the letter. Usually I change the proportions of ingredients (except when baking), and, more often than not, I make substitutions. Probably most cooks do this once in a while, but real cooks are always at it – shaping their favorite dishes to the seasons, the availability of ingredients and so forth. No real cook ever says, “I want to make shepherd’s pie, but I don’t have enough potatoes.” They find a way. I am planning a cookbook called The Chameleon Cook, which may or may not ever see the light of day, so I don’t want to give the whole game away here. I will give some essentials, though, because these principles lie at the heart of most of my recipes in this blog.

Let’s start with shepherd’s pie, or, perhaps, cottage pie. Both pies are ground meat cooked in a sauce (perhaps with vegetables), covered with mashed potatoes in a baking dish, and baked. Cottage pie is made with ground beef and shepherd’s pie is made with ground lamb, although “shepherd’s pie” is sometimes used generically to mean any pie made with ground meat and a mashed potato topping. It was in my house growing up. I’ll get to names later; for now let’s focus on making the pie as a chameleon cook. Chameleon cookery involves getting underneath the specifics of recipes to find underlying principles. With cottage pie this is straightforward. Cottage pie (my generic name for the moment), is a baked dish with a cooked meat layer on the bottom, and a mashed potato layer on the top. Giving you a precise recipe is only necessary if you have limited experience as a cook. I don’t believe my mother used a recipe, and I certainly don’t. Here’s the basics of what I do for a simple cottage pie (from memory of course).

I take some onions, some ground beef, and some vegetables. I peel and dice the onions and sauté them gently in a large skillet in olive oil until they take on some color. Then I add the beef and brown it. Then I add the vegetables to the mix along with some stock, bring it to a simmer and let all the ingredients cook along with some seasonings (certainly parsley and pepper, but maybe thyme and Worcestershire sauce also). While the skillet is working away I dice some potatoes and put them on to boil. To finish the meat filling I check the flavor of the stock, adjust the seasonings, and thicken the sauce with flour or cornstarch. Once thickened, I turn off the heat.

When the potatoes are well cooked, I drain them and mash them with some butter. Then I assemble the pie while the oven is preheating (200˚C). I use a slotted spoon to take the solids (meat, onions, and vegetables) out of the gravy and place them in a deep casserole. Then I spoon enough of the gravy over the filling to moisten. Then I spread the mashed potatoes over the top and level it with a fork, making sure at the end that I have a nice ridged pattern to finish. I dot the potatoes with butter, and bake the dish until the mashed potatoes are golden. I serve the pie with the extra gravy from the skillet, reheated.

There’s your basics. If you have any experience as a cook, you ought to be able to take these ideas (plus a photo), and produce a decent cottage pie, even if you have never had one in your life. Likewise, if you sample one at a restaurant or friend’s house, you ought to be able to replicate it without much difficulty. At most, you need an ingredient list. But . . . playing with the ingredient list is what turns you into a chameleon cook. The simplest example is exchanging the ground beef for ground lamb. That turns cottage pie into shepherd’s pie. But why stop there? I make swineherd’s pie with ground pork. You could just as easily make goatherd’s pie – or whatever. Let’s stop giving the pies names, and revert to the generic cottage pie for simplicity.

Cottage Pie

You have two main layers in cottage pie: (1) Filling (2) Topping. Let’s handle the filling first. It can be pretty much all meat, meat and vegetables, or all vegetables. If it is all meat then you have a choice of meats, or you can use a mix. Usually, I do not use a mix unless the different meats are really distinctive. With my pork version I used ground pork, sausage, and bacon. They are all clearly distinguishable. You could mix ground pork and beef, or some such, but I do not find the combination terribly interesting. What you can do is chop the meats rather than grind them. That makes combinations such as steak and kidney (one of my favorites) more palatable.

If you mix meat and vegetables, the main trick is to pair the meat with appropriate vegetables – which is not all that limiting, but needs thought. The classic vegetables for lamb or beef are peas and carrots. Nothing wrong with that. You have many options, though. Green beans instead of peas, parsnips instead of carrots, are a start. But they are only a start. Here in SE Asia I am in love with the variety of mushrooms, so I often use a range of mushrooms as my only vegetables. I could use pea pods also, but I don’t. I do often use a combination of mushrooms and leeks, though. I love leeks. In fact, I frequently replace onions with leeks in soups and stews.

Using all vegetables for the filling is a bit outside my normal scope, but it’s not impossible for me. It’s going to very much depend on where you are in the world. Vegetables vary much more greatly from continent to continent than just about any other ingredient. At this point I should introduce this website — — A Cook’s Thesaurus. It is a gold mine of information about vegetables, sauces, spices, grains, you name it, from around the world. When I come across an ingredient in a recipe I am unfamiliar with, I consult this site. The idea of a “thesaurus” of ingredients troubles me a little, however. Do vegetables have “synonyms”? With words we understand that substituting one for another with a similar meaning has its problems, but they can be accommodated (especially if you are a decent writer). Any substitution for a particular vegetable is going to change the taste (and mouth feel and look) of a dish. I’ll get to that point in more detail a bit later.

A vegetarian (or vegan) filling is not hard to imagine; it’s just going to depend on what combinations you like. For me, 5 or 6 different mushrooms plus onions or leeks is wonderful. The thing is that I have that option because in Asia mushrooms come in many varieties as a normal rule. In the West you could do something similar if you got hold of shiitakes, oyster mushrooms, straw mushrooms, creminis, etc. It’s not that hard these days. The problem (if you can call it that) with vegetable fillings, is that meat fillings traditionally have ONE main ingredient, and it is ground. Of course I am advocating being a chameleon cook, so there are no rules as such. But if you stray too far from the original concept the result may be stellar, but it might be stretching things to call it cottage pie. At this stage I would think, therefore, of a main vegetable as the basis, and then add to it. It could be cauliflower or zucchini. Not root vegetables, I think, because your topping is made of them.

Speaking of topping, mashed potatoes are classic, of course. But even here we have choices. I rarely peel the potatoes before mashing them. This is partly sheer laziness, partly functional. There’s a lot of flavor and nutrients in vegetable peels. I scrub the potatoes well (with a steel brush), to make sure they are thoroughly clean, and then dice them small to make sure that the peels are small (they don’t mash). Do as you wish – peel or not. That is a minor point, as is method of mashing. I use a fork, and my mashed potatoes are a bit lumpy by some people’s standards. But you can go all the way from lumpy to puree. You can use a fork, food processor, ricer, or whatever. The greater chameleon issue concerns whether you use potatoes or another root vegetable. Sweet potatoes will work, so will rutabagas, or parsnips. In the latter case I’m inclined to mix parsnips with potatoes, because I find them a bit too strong on their own. Cook’s choice. Any combination will work.

Sometimes I add finely chopped leeks to the potatoes when they are cooking, so that they get included in the mash when it comes time. As with the peels, you must chop them finely if you are using a fork for the mashing. With a food processor, you can be less precise because everything will be ground together anyway. Adding herbs or spices or seasonings in general to the topping is a judgment call. The basic idea of cottage pie is to keep the topping simple and make the filling more complex. With potatoes, I find butter and (maybe) cream to be enough, but with something like rutabaga I like some spices (ginger, cloves, cinnamon, etc.).

All right . . . that little description gets you started on the road to chameleon cooking; but it has just scratched the surface. Yesterday I found some ground chicken at the supermarket and decided to make a chicken cottage pie. Customarily I will use leeks with the chicken filling, making a chicken and leek gravy with parsley and pepper, when I use chicken as the meat. But I had some nice Asian mushrooms on hand, so I thought that it would be a bit more flavorful to add them. Then I noticed that I had some Cambodian ham (like Italian bacon) in the refrigerator, so I chopped that up and added it to the leeks and mushrooms as I was prepping them. Think about your combinations (using your knowledge of pies with pastry as a starting guide). Chicken and mushrooms, chicken and leeks, chicken and peas, are all standard. Chicken and bacon is not as usual, but it makes a good combination. In fact chicken, ham/bacon, leeks, and mushrooms worked out just fine. The ham flavor dominated but I was OK with that.

When it comes to fillings, the issue is as much about the sauce as about the combinations. This brings me to fish. The normal English fish pie is filleted fish flaked and mixed with mashed potato and then baked. This means that you do not have the cottage pie distinction of filling and topping, but it also means that you do not have to worry about a sauce. If you decide to make a cottage pie with fish instead of plain English fish pie, you do have to be concerned about some kind of sauce for the fish, otherwise it will be dry. Here your preferences (and experience) will show through. I go with a cream sauce of some sort. Could be béchamel or velouté or nothing more complicated than fish stock thickened with heavy cream and reduced. This does raise the issue of sauces, however.

At its most basic, cottage pie is a meal in itself, containing meat, vegetables, potatoes and gravy. The gravy is not only essential for keeping the filling moist, but is also a complement to the mashed potato when you are eating it. It has to be given proper consideration because it is a mainstay of the dish in terms of both moistening and flavoring. In a certain sense, I should leave you alone in terms of gravies and sauces because we all have our preferences. With beef I usually go with a gravy made of stock, parsley, garlic, Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, and a touch of powdered cloves or allspice. But, why not make a sauce with red wine, stock, garlic, thyme, and parsley? It’s not by any stretch of the imagination a traditional cottage pie any more, but it’s good. How about a pork filling moistened with an apple sauce (perhaps suitably spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg? I have never tried such a thing, and I’d need to be careful not to overdo the apples.

Apple sauce puts me in mind of mashed apples as a topping, and some kind of fruit concoction as a filling. Here, however, we definitely leave the realm of cottage pie altogether. We do have to be aware that chameleon cooking has boundaries. Where those boundaries are is up to you. This thought does put me in mind of dessert, though, which brings me to apple crumble.


[To be continued . . .]

 Posted by at 3:54 am