dark days challenge #3: wild mushroom shepherd’s pie

This weekend was the perfect storm for wintery cuisine:  (1) the last day of school was Friday, (2) I’m working on some cookbook reviews for the Eugene Weekly, and (3) it has been freezing — the cold front will hover for most of the week.  So I spent considerable time cooking warm comfort food: a rosemary leek bread pudding, oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, baked Korean ribs with a Brussels sprout stir-fry, buttery rosemary roasted sweet potatoes, and on and on.

The holiday market at the Fairgrounds is in full swing, and bustling with shoppers buying local crafts.  We picked up a woven wool scarf for Retrogrouch from John Meyers, but spent most of the time mulling over winter produce at the farmer’s market area.  This year it’s in the room adjoining the holiday market instead of the building to the north, and I’m sure that increases foot traffic.  I was amazed and pleased by the range of offerings.  I managed to snap up the last local sweet peppers in town for freezing, celery, carrots, leeks, three different kinds of persimmon and three different kinds of wild mushroom (plump golden chanterelle, hedgehog and candycap), and some potatoes, garlic, and storage onions.

I wanted to crawl inside an insulating snuggie made of mashed potatoes, so I did.

Making a shepherd’s pie is easy.  This old English one-pot supper is basically a layer of juicy ground lamb, fortified with an army of peas, carrots, and onions and a moat of broth all nestled under a topping of mashed potatoes.  The dish is finished in the oven, where the mashed potatoes are browned on top. When you scoop into the pie, the brothy meat juices mix with the potatoes, and you have the most wonderful, comforting dish ever.

The picture immediately above is the dish ready for its final oven browning.  With the local base vegetables I bought at River Bend Farm and Groundwork Organics (potatoes, onions, leeks, garlic, carrots and celery), and Cheviot Hill ground lamb, I had a terrific start on this pie.  After browning the lamb and onions, I added the rest of the aromatics — carrot, leek, garlic, and celery.  When everything looked soft and slightly caramelized, I combined the vegetables with the lamb, added rosemary, a bit of wine and a chunk of tomato paste from the freezer, then loosened the fond from the pan with about a cup and a half or so of chicken broth.

Unsatisfied with pure meat in mah pie, I thought I’d add a layer of earthiness with all the wild mushrooms I had bought — probably about a pound’s worth.  Our golden chanterelle season is just about over, but the hedgehogs and candycaps are plentiful.  Candycaps add a slight maple-syrupy sweetness to the lamb.  (I used about half of the cup or so I bought, and dried the rest for future experiments.)  The mushrooms were sautéed in butter and salt, and then layered atop the lamb with their juices.

The rosemary was from my own garden, and I used a heavy hand.  Butter and cream were from Noris Dairy, as usual, and the chicken broth was from my freezer, via Draper Valley (not local but nearby in WA).  The only thing you really need to remember with shepherd’s pie is that you need the bottom layer to be quite brothy — I think I used two cups total, plus the liquid from the cooking mushrooms, for a standard 9 x 13 glass baking dish.  A nice slug of local red wine finished it off.

Also not local:  a tablespoon of tomato paste, salt, pepper, and allspice.

I served the dish with some steamed local broccoli, simple as can be, and some homebaked chocolate chip cookies.   My husband thought he had died and gone to heaven.  It was that good.

lane county postal food drive

Amid our celebration over the Oregon football team’s victory and journey to the Rose Bowl, yesterday’s news reported more sobering realities: our local food pantries have much smaller reserves this year than they did last year.  With the economy still slumping, and the weather so cold, it’s going to be a tough winter.  Here’s your chance to help in an easy way: give some warm soup through your postal carrier!

Lane County residents only —  don’t forget to leave out your bag of non-perishable food for the U.S. Postal Service food drive tomorrow (Saturday, December 5) and next Saturday, December 12, 2009.  High protein and heat-and-eat items (e.g., chili, tuna, beef stew) are most appreciated.  These foods greatly supplement the commodity goods provided by the federal government (hunger basics like dried beans and rice).

Individual donations for this major drive diversify the diet of those who visit the food pantries.  Just like the rest of us, this population includes vegetarians, diabetics, picky kids, ethnic food lovers, great cooks, gluten-free eaters, etc., so a wide range of products is very much appreciated.

If you’re on the way home tonight and want to pick up a few things from the grocery store, here is a link to requested items from Food for Lane County.   Anything in cans or packages would be appreciated, but FFLC requests that you leave at least three items for the postal food drive, if you’ll be participating.  There are also links on the FFLC website about volunteering at food banks or pantries for those who would like to be more involved.

And:  if you need food in Lane County, some information about how to get food boxes can be found here.  If you are a senior, a family, or an individual struggling to make ends meet and/or think you might qualify, please don’t hesitate to call.  The people are kind, efficient, and non-judgmental, and will get you the resources you need.  The food pantries are located all over Eugene and other places in the county, and have a wide range of boxed and canned foods, plus bread, frozen meat, and dairy products.  Some pantries have baby food, pet food and fresh vegetables and fruit, depending on availability. Some of the pantries are held in churches, but they don’t expect you to be a member of the congregation or religious.  And know you will be treated with respect.


hazelnut millet granola, with variations

In my pre-Thanksgiving pantry investigation, I discovered I had two big containers of oats.  In an ongoing effort to break my morning bagel habit, it seemed I had no choice but to make granola.  We did a double batch of Nigella Lawson’s ridiculously simple nut granola recipe that several bloggers have adapted for their own, including Orangette and David Lebovitz.  I was interested in the recipe because it uses non-sweetened applesauce to moisten and flavor the oats, and I am particularly loath to eat anything sweet most mornings.  Plus, I just so happen to have a few low-sugar homemade applesauces stashed away in my canning cupboard.

The three cookie sheets full of baking granola took almost twice the time to dry and roast as the recipe states (I should have used four sheets, but I didn’t have oven space for four!).  The double batch I made ate up most of this year’s hazelnut crop, too.  Must go to OSU Extension office to buy more.  I used agave syrup instead of rice syrup, and only hazelnuts, adding a handful of millet for a bit of contrast instead of the sunflower seeds.

When the granola came out of the oven, I tossed one tray with currants, the second with crystallized ginger, and the third with home-dried sour cherries and cocoa nibs.  All three are delicious.  The applesauce makes the granola crispy and full of flavor, and the proportions are just right.

The granola is delicious mixed into yogurt or with milk.  I may try it with a flaked grain cereal if I can find one, as David Lebovitz suggests.  My favorite commercial granola, a German brand with a bewilderingly wondeful range of flavors, uses an oat that seems to be processed a bit differently than our rolled oats — almost as if the roller smashed the oat down even more.  It makes the oats less chewy and more pleasant when raw (or basically raw).  Anyone have a source for these cereals?

Try making it for gifts in a jar this holiday season.  Your family and friends will thank you!

Hazelnut Millet Granola with Fruit

Adapted from Nigella Lawson’s Feast and Orangette’s variation (see link above)

5 cups rolled oats (not instant)
2 cups coarsely chopped new crop Oregon hazelnuts (or almonds), roasted*
1/2 cup sesame seeds
1/2 cup millet
3/4 cup dark brown sugar
2 t. ground cinnamon
1 t. ground ginger
1 t. kosher salt (less if using regular salt)

3/4 cup low sugar apple sauce
1/3 cup agave syrup
1/4 cup full-flavored honey (meadowfoam is particularly good)
2 T. vegetable oil

Preheat the oven to 300°F.  In a small bowl, combine the applesauce, agave syrup, honey, and oil.   In a very large bowl, combine the remaining dry ingredients.  Pour the wet ingredients over the dry ones, and stir well.

Spread the mixture evenly on two large rimmed baking sheets as thinly as possible.

Bake sheets on top and bottom racks of oven for 45 minutes, or until evenly golden brown (watch for burning around the edges).  Every 15 minutes, carefully stir and re-spread out granola on the sheets, switching positions in the oven so the granola will bake as evenly as possible.

When it turns golden brown, remove the pans from the oven and stir once more.  Orangette says “this will keep it from cooling into a hard, solid sheet” and “The finished granola may still feel slightly soft when it comes out of the oven, but it will crisp as it cools.”

Let cool for about 15 minutes before adding the dried fruit of your choice.  Dried currants, raisins, cranberries, blueberries, sour cherries are all good choices; stickier fruit, such as mangos or apricot pieces, are not because of storage issues.  You may also add crystalized ginger pieces (tiny), cocoa nibs for a chocolatey taste and/or toasted coconut shreds.  The amount of fruit is up to you — I found about a half-cup of sour cherries was good for one tray, and two teaspoons of ginger or cocoa nibs was just right for one tray.

Store in the refrigerator for no longer than three months, if it lasts that long, in a sealed container or ziploc bag.

Yield: about 10 cups.

* To roast hazelnuts, place on rimmed baking sheet in 300 degree oven for about 15 minutes.  When the nuts smell fragrant and the flesh turns creamy from white, they are finished.  It isn’t an exact science, so it’s better to undercook them than overcook them.