Some of the world’s most delicious dishes evolved as a way of using up leftovers. Such a mainstay of our culinary repertoire have a Shepherd’s or Cottage Pie become that many people buy fresh minced meat to make them forgetting that they too originated as a way of using up leftover cooked meat. Technically I believe a Shepherd’s Pie should contain lamb whilst a Cottage Pie contains beef, although the two names are frequently interchanged – even in the following rhyme which comes from Dorothy Hartley’s Food in England.
Hot on Sunday,
Cold on Monday,
Hashed on Tuesday,
Minced on Wednesday,
Curried on Thursday,
Broth on Friday,
Cottage Pie on Saturday.
Actually the use of the name Cottage rather than Shepherd’s Pie is not the only strange thing in this rhyme, for this particular dish comes at the very end of the week even though it actually contains quite a large proportion of meat – or perhaps that too is only the modern incarnation? An 1894 recipe required between half and three-quarters of a pound of cold meat to a pound and a half of potatoes. But the sentiment behind the rhyme is what is really important. It shows us that although the British culinary culture is predominantly based around meat it was considered a very precious item and one joint (albeit this must have been a very sizeable one) was eked out to feed the family for a whole week. This rhythm of cooking is the foundation of every soundly managed kitchen, domestic or commercial, although it is sadly followed less frequently in modern times. The grandfather of restaurant cooking in Britain, George Perry Smith, whose Cold Table was created as a method of using up leftovers but which became the most eagerly anticipated part of a meal at The Hole in the Wall, must be turning in his grave observing modern restaurants’ portion-sized meat orders – x fillets rather than whole-carcase.
When I give cookery lessons one of the frequently bemoaned aspects of cooking is thinking what to give the family for everyday suppers. This difficulty is often compounded by choice and certainly by a tendency to leave the decision until after work, when the cook is already hungry, and tired. When you cook with the seasons, using the ingredients that are to hand locally, the largest part of the decision has already been made for you. Couple this with planning your meals for the week, as in “Vicarage Mutton” above, and the rest falls into place.
Perhaps the biggest change of mindset required is to cease seeing the meat as the central focus of every meal. One of the tastiest leftovers from the Sunday roast comes from the bones – extracted by slow simmering and a procedure conducted on “auto-pilot” in my kitchen every Sunday evening. The resulting stock, stored in the freezer so that it is always to hand, makes the best risottos and soups even where the main ingredient might be vegetable. Although the meat part of our “Meat and Two Veg” culture remained a luxury for most people until relatively recent times it was still the aspiration. There are many more examples of predominantly, if not strictly, vegetarian dishes if we look abroad for our inspiration. A stir-fry, for example, is a perfect example of a mid-week supper dish where meat is only a minor component with vegetables the star players. Greek-style stuffed peppers or other vegetables are another.
When re-heating cooked meat it must be hot through to the centre to ensure that all bacteria are killed and cutting it up small aids this process. A “hash” (Tuesday’s supper in Vicarage Mutton) usually means that the meat is diced into cubes to be fried with leftover potatoes, similarly cubed, with the addition of onion and spices. Mixing the meat with mashed potato and onion, then frying the resulting potato “cake” is another variation. Topping the hash with a fried or poached egg adds further protein when the meat content is low.
The uninspiring sounding Rissoles are one British solution to using up small amounts of cooked meat. When mixed with breadcrumbs (one of the most important leftovers in any cuisine) the meat stretches further and in fact if one looks to other cultures for spices and perhaps dipping sauces, rissoles can make a very tasty supper indeed.
My recipes for the above and other mid-week supper dishes, all based on using up cooked meat left over from the Sunday roast, can be found here.