Sometimes, when I’m thinking about food as balm, food as succour – comfort food – I feel two separate pulls: one towards the truly comforting; the nursery food, the braises and stews, the creamy mashed potato, or sharp cheese sauces, and the other towards the easy and the quick; the beans on toast, the bacon sandwiches, the Heinz cream of tomato soup.
But what is easy to forget when you’re craving comfort because you’re ailing or stressed, is that the time it takes to make the dish is part of the comfort: the gentle stirring of a risotto, or the slow simmer of a soffrito, the achingly long low bake of a really good rice pudding with taut, golden skin is its own type of therapy. The cottage pie is a good example of this: its dark, deeply savoury mince base needs at least an hour on the stove, over the lowest possible heat, as well as almost half an hour in the oven, once the buttery mash has been added. It requires chopping and peeling and browning and boiling and stirring and mashing. But all of those elements, building the dish, make the eventual eating of it even more satisfying, more joyful.
Takes: 25 minutes
Bakes: 1.5 hours, including unattended time on the hob
For the filling
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium carrots, diced
2 ribs of celery, diced
1 large onions, diced
400g beef mince
2 tablespoons tomato purée
½ tablespoon worcestershire sauce
200ml beef stock
For the topping
1kg potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
- Place a large casserole dish over a high heat on the hob: add one tablespoon of olive oil and the mince, and cook until browned. Set the mince to one side, and pour off any liquid that’s been produced.
- Heat a tablespoon of oil in the casserole dish and turn the heat down to low; add the diced vegetables and cook gently, until soft but not coloured.
- Return the mince to the pan and add the tomato purée, worcestershire sauce, beef stock, and a generous sprinkling of salt and pepper. Bring up to a boil, cover the pan and cook over a very low heat for an hour. After an hour, check on the mixture: if it is still quite liquid, remove the lid, turn the heat up a little, and cook for another twenty minutes until it is thick and casserole-like.
- Place the potatoes in boiling water and cook until tender, about fifteen minutes, but you can test by spearing a potato with a sharp knife: if it slides off the knife back into the water, it is cooked. Drain and leave to steam for five minutes. Mash the potatoes, or push them through a ricer, until very smooth; beat the butter into the mash.
- Preheat the oven to 200°C. Spoon the mash and spoon on top of the meat. Flatten with the back of a spoon, and then drag the back of a fork in concentric circles. Cook for 25 minutes until the top is golden, and starting to crisp at the edges.