Thursday, March 5, 2009

End of Winter Indulgence #4: Savory British Beef Pie

"You shall have some Pip."; a Dickensian end-of-winter treat.

Besides memories of little microwaveable beef pot pies I ate many a weekend as a young child, the first time I really understood the existence of savory pies was when I read one of m
y favorite books: Charles Dickens' Great Expectations.

Pip is such a delightful character - complex and endearing and unfortunate. And while he doesn't seem to care much about food himself, Dickens certainly took the trouble (as many British authors do, I've found) to recount in great detail the usually meager but often tempting repasts Pip and the other characters shared. One of these, involving a stolen cold Pork Pie at a socially horrific Christmas Dinner, is particularly memorable to me:
"We were to have a superb [Christmas] dinner, consisting of a leg of pickled pork and greens, and a pair of roast stuffed fowls. A handsome mince-pie had been made yesterday morning (which accounted for the mincemeat not being missed), and the pudding was already on the boil...

...Among this good company I should have felt myself, even if I hadn't robbed the pantry, in a false position. Not because I was squeezed in at an acute angle of the tablecloth, with the table in my chest, and the Pumblechookian elbow in my eye, nor because I was not allowed to speak (I didn't want to speak), nor because I was regaled with the scaly tips of the drumsticks of the fowls, and with those obscure corners of pork which the pig, when living, had the least reason to be vain...

...I began to think I should get over the day, when my sister said to Joe, 'Clean plates ---
I clutched the table leg of the table again immediately, and pressed it to my bosom as if it had been the
companion of my youth and friend of my soul. I foresaw what was coming, and I felt that this time I was really gone.
'You must taste,' said my sister, addressing the guests with her best grace, 'you must taste, to finish with, such a delightful and delicious present of Uncle Pumblechook's!'
Must they! Let them not hope to taste it!
'You must know,' said my sister, rising 'it's a pie; a savoury pork pie.'

The company murmured their compliments. Uncle Pumblechook, sensible of having deserved well of his fellow-creatures, said quite vivaciously, all things considered, 'Well, Mrs. Joe, we'll do our best endeavours; let us have a cut at this same pie.'

My sister went out to get it. I heard her steps proceed to the pantry. I saw Mr. Pumblechook balance his knife. I saw reawakening appetite in the Roman nostrils of Mr. Wopsle. I heard Mr. Hubble remark that 'a bit of savoury pork pie would lay atop of anything you could mention, and do no harm,' and I heard Joe say, 'You shall have some Pip.' I have never been absolutely certain whether I uttered a shrill yell of terror, merely in spirit, or in the bodily hearing of the company. I felt that I could bear no more, and that I must run away. I released the leg of the table, and ran for my life."
In fact, that pork pie haunted Matt and me for months (we read the book almost simultaneously upon our arrival into the UK), until one day I walked into Tesco and saw some bonafide British Pork Pies staring me in the face, and looking rather delicious, if I may be so bold. They prompted a proper Great Expectations weekend lunch in Pip's honor, and opened up the world of savory pies to me forever.

Our Dickensian pork pie lunch one soggy afternoon in Earl's Court.

End of Winter Indulgence #4 is Savory Birtish Beef Pie. Not quite Pip's guilt-ridden yuletide meal, but I'm sure Dickens would have approved all the same.

* * *

For the past few months Olive Magazine has been offering up a series of "Meat Masterclass" articles patronized by Masterchef's John Torode. I love to read these articles, being a huge fan of "non-premium" cuts of meat and offal (which is not so awful!) in general.

This month's cut of meat was Beef shin, something we probably eat more often than we think in the ambiguously named "stewing beef" packets we buy at supermarkets. Having one packet just like that defrosted from the freezer and some puff pastry just aching to be used, I ventured to make a Savory British Beef Pie, using the featured John's Big Beef Pie as my inspiration.

Boneless Beef Shin: A Savory Pie's best friend.

Having had my share of "dodgy" pies at less than memorable pubs in the UK I was somewhat weary of what could very well end up being a rubbery-meated, bland-sauced, burnt-crusted misery of a meal. Now fully in Lent, I am determined to enjoy every non-Friday meal with gusto in all its meaty allowance! A masterchef I am not, but I would actually venture to say that this Savory Beef Pie recipe has brought my cooking-ego to a new level. Call it therapy of the tastebuds, call it madness,call it flat-out meaty overload, but don't call it a day until you've tried this recipe.

The verdict? Thank GOD for John Torode and beef shins.

His recipe (altered slightly by mushroom-loving me) was simple and unbelievably delicious - not to mention extremely cheap to make! I would highly recommend it for anyone looking for a delicious, stewy end of winter meal that is not only relatively uncomplicated, but gets extra points on the "vaguely associated with a good book" scale (which now, apparently, officially exists).

We should always endeavour to "eat intelligently" no? :)

* * *

Brenda's Big Beef Pie
(inspired by John Torode's John's Big Beef Pie)
Serves 6

I am and always have been a big proponent of the belief that beef and hearty meals in moderate amounts can do you nothing but good. Pair good, tastily-fatty beef with mushrooms (among my top 3 veggies ever) and you've got a match made in heaven (for this little piglet anyway).

This pie, to me, exemplifies everything good (and often underestimated) about British cuisine: it is simple, inexpensive, and full of the flavor that only good ingredients can bring. Now if only I could convince the pubs to start using this recipe...


4 tbsp butter
1 medium onion, diced finely
1 1/2 lbs beef shin (stewing beef), diced
1 cup plain flour
2 cups beef stock
2 1/2 cups chestnut mushrooms, quartered
2 sprigs fresh thyme or 1 tsp dried Thyme
2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
flat-leaf parsely, a handful chopped
nutmeg, an eye-balled grating
500g block of puff pastry, defrosted and ready to roll
1 egg, beaten


1. Melt the butter in a large casserole or pan with a lid. Add the onions and cook over medium heat until soft and caramelized (10-15 minutes). About halfway through, add the mushrooms until well sauteed. Remove onions and mushrooms to another bowl.

2. In the same pan, over medium-high / high heat, cook and brown the beef in batches so as not to steam it. You want it to look nice and caramelized (see picture). Remove to bowl with onions until the last batch of meat is complete at which point you should put everything (onions, mushrooms, beef) back into the pan.

3. Sprinkle the flour over the beef and veg mixture, stirring and cooking for another 2 minutes. Do not let the flour burn and adjust the heat as necessary.

4.Gradually add the beef stock stirring constantly until the mixture boils and thickens. Then add all the remaining ingredients (except egg and pastry of course). Cover the pan and allow to simmer over low heat for 1 - 1 1/2 hours, checking and mixing periodically so that the sauce does not burn to the bottom of the pan.

5. Heat oven to 400F / 200C. Spoon the filling into a large pie dish. Roll out the defrosted puff pastry and lay over the top. Press down and trim the edges, then lightly brush with the beaten egg. Prick a few small holes in the top to let out steam and then cook for about 30-45 minutes or until the pastry is golden and crisp, but not overdone.

the filling and the crust, pre-baking

Serve with boiled peas and carrots and enjoy!

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  1. Oliver Twist probably wished he was written into Great Expectations with the gruel he was eating! Looks really delicious, especially since the chill in the air is not going away!

  2. I love savory pies such as this, and while I do not have a pub atmosphere here to fully recreate the experience, SF is cold and damp with a definite nip in the air, and well have to make do with the bellow of fog horns rather than the clinking of pint mugs. I'm due for an elevation of my culinary ego and this recipe appears to be just the thing to take me there.

  3. Glad you liked my gulab jamun rcipe. You have a neat space here!