How To Cook French, With Shortcuts

Hachis Parmentier, a French version of shepherd's pie i i

hide captionHachis Parmentier, a French version of shepherd's pie, is one of the featured recipes in Dorie Greenspan's new cookbook Around My French Table.

Courtesy Alan Richardson
Hachis Parmentier, a French version of shepherd's pie

Hachis Parmentier, a French version of shepherd's pie, is one of the featured recipes in Dorie Greenspan's new cookbook Around My French Table.

Courtesy Alan Richardson

It's no secret that Dorie Greenspan is a bona fide Francophile — the cookbook author has had a 30-year love affair with the country's people and its food.

Her new cookbook, Around My French Table, is the result of the many meals she's had with her friends in France, and the many meals she's made for them. It's full of enticing recipes, savvy tips and delicious cultural tidbits, like: The French eat asparagus with their fingers. The French peel their tomatoes. And French home cooks, who are just as busy as their American cousins, take shortcuts. They just don't talk about them as loudly as Americans do.

"You go to someone's home for dinner and you say, 'That tomato sauce you made was so great. How'd you make it?' " Greenspan tells NPR's Michele Norris. "Well, they kind of take you over to a corner and just about whisper in your ear, 'I started with canned tomatoes. And then I added just a little seasoned salt, and at the last minute I put in fresh tomatoes.' So you discover, what they've done is mixed convenience food with fresh food, and it's kind of something only your best friend will tell you."

Taking shortcuts fits in well with Greenspan's own no-fuss cooking philosophy. While making hachis Parmentier in Norris' Washington, D.C., kitchen, she admitted to sometimes adding frozen peas to the dish "for some sweetness and color." And hachis Parmentier, a French version of shepherd's pie, is a classic "no-fuss" dish.

Vocabulary Lesson

Hachis means "chopped or minced," and it comes from the same root as the English word "hatchet."

Parmentier is a nod to Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, a late 18th century, early 19th century French pharmacist who championed the use of potatoes as table food. His contemporaries often viewed the tubers as potentially poisonous, or as base animal food. On French menus, when the word Parmentier appears, you can bet potatoes will be main players in the dish.

Melissa Gray

"Usually, it would be made from leftover stew ... a pot-au-feu boiled dinner, so that whatever was left over would be shredded, and that would be the bottom layer, and mashed potatoes on top," Greenspan says.

That is, mashed potatoes that some home cooks might make from frozen potatoes to save time on peeling, cutting and boiling. But Greenspan's hachis Parmentier recipe is written for those who might not have leftover stew or frozen potatoes, or easy access to cheeses like Gruyere or Comte. And she includes a nontraditional ingredient: sausage.

"I've played with the dish a little bit," she says. "I feel that as an American and writing a book like this, I'm allowed to play with the food because I'm making it on American soil with American ingredients. What I like is that any one of my friends would give me permission to play. Some people may feel that French food is strict, actually codified. But, in fact, it can be a fun, easy-going way of cooking. This dish is like that. It's a family dish."

Hachis Parmentier

Makes 4 generous servings

Hachis Parmentier is a well-seasoned meat-and-mashed-potato pie that is customarily made with leftovers from a boiled beef dinner, like pot-au-feu. If you have leftover beef and broth from anything you've made, go ahead and use it. Or, if you'd like to shortcut the process, make Quick Hachis Parmentier (see instructions below). But if you start from scratch and make your own bouillon, and if you add tasty sausage (not completely traditional), you'll have the kind of hachis Parmentier that would delight even Daniel Boulud, a chef from Lyon who lives in New York City.

You can use chuck, as you would for a stew, but one day my stateside butcher suggested I use cube steak, a cut I'd never cooked with. It's an inexpensive, thin, tenderized cut (its surface is scored, almost as though it's been run through a grinder) that cooks quickly and works perfectly here. If you use it, just cut it into 2-inch pieces before boiling it; if you use another type of beef, you should cut it into smaller pieces, and you might want to cook it for another 30 minutes.

For the beef and bouillon

1 pound cube steak or boneless beef chuck (see above), cut into small pieces

1 small onion, sliced

1 small carrot, trimmed, peeled and cut into 1-inch-long pieces

1 small celery stalk, trimmed and cut into 1-inch-long pieces

2 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled

2 parsley sprigs

1 bay leaf

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon black peppercorns

6 cups water

1/2 beef bouillon cube (optional)

For the filling

1-1/2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 pound sausage, sweet or spicy, removed from casings if necessary

1 teaspoon tomato paste

Salt and freshly ground pepper

For the topping

2 pounds Idaho (russet) potatoes, peeled and quartered

1/2 cup whole milk

1/4 cup heavy cream

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus 1 tablespoon butter, cut into bits

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1/2 cup grated Gruyere, Comte, or Emmental

2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan (optional)

To make the beef: Put all the ingredients except the bouillon cube in a Dutch oven or soup pot and bring to a boil, skimming off the foam and solids that bubble to the surface. Lower the heat and simmer gently for 1 1/2 hours. The broth will have a mild flavor, and that's fine for this dish, but if you want to pump it up, you can stir in the 1/2 bouillon cube — taste the broth at the midway point and decide.

Drain the meat, reserving the broth. Transfer the meat to a cutting board and discard the vegetables, or if they've still got some flavor to spare, hold on to them for the filling. Traditionally hachis Parmentier is vegetable-less, but that shouldn't stop you from salvaging and using the vegetables. Strain the broth. (The beef and bouillon can be made up to one day ahead, covered and refrigerated.)

Using a chef's knife, chop the beef into tiny pieces. You could do this in a food processor, but the texture of your hachis Parmentier will be more interesting if you chop it by hand, an easy and quick job.

To make the filling: Butter a 2-quart oven-going casserole — a Pyrex deep-dish pie plate is just the right size for this.

Put a large skillet over medium heat and pour in the olive oil. When it's hot, add the sausage and cook, breaking up the clumps of meat, until the sausage is just pink. Add the chopped beef and tomato paste and stir to mix everything well. Stir in 1 cup of the bouillon and bring to a boil. You want to have just enough bouillon in the pan to moisten the filling and to bubble up gently wherever there's a little room; if you think you need more (a smidgen more is better than too little), add it now. Season with salt and pepper, especially pepper. If you've kept any of the vegetables from the bouillon, cut them into small cubes and stir them into the filling before you put the filling in the casserole. Scrape the filling into the casserole and cover it lightly; set aside while you prepare the potatoes. (You can make the dish to this point up to a few hours ahead; cover the casserole with foil and refrigerate.)

To make the topping: Have ready a potato ricer or food mill (first choices), a masher, or a fork.

Put the potatoes in a large pot of generously salted cold water and bring to a boil. Cook until the potatoes are tender enough to be pierced easily with the tip of a knife, about 20 minutes; drain them well.

Meanwhile, center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with foil or a silicone baking mat (you'll use it as a drip catcher).

Warm the milk and cream.

Run the potatoes through the ricer or food mill into a bowl, or mash them well. Using a wooden spoon or a sturdy spatula, stir in the milk and cream, then blend in the 3 tablespoons butter. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Spoon the potatoes over the filling, spreading them evenly and making sure they reach to the edges of the casserole. Sprinkle the grated Gruyere, Comte or Emmental over the top of the pie, dust with the Parmesan (if using), and scatter over the bits of butter. Place the dish on the lined baking sheet.

Bake for 30 minutes, or until the filling is bubbling steadily and the potatoes have developed a golden brown crust (the best part). Serve.

Serving

Bring the hachis Parmentier to the table and spoon out portions there. The dish needs nothing more than a green salad to make it a full and very satisfying meal.

Storing

It's easy to make this dish in stages: the beef and bouillon can be made up to a day ahead and kept covered in the refrigerator, and the filling can be prepared a few hours ahead and kept covered in the fridge. You can even assemble the entire pie ahead and keep it chilled for a few hours before baking it (directly from the refrigerator if your casserole can stand the temperature change) — of course, you'll have to bake it a little longer. If you've got leftovers, you can reheat them in a 350-degree-F oven.

Quick Hachis Parmentier. You can make a very good hachis Parmentier using ground beef and store-bought beef broth. Use 1 pound ground beef instead of the steak, and when you add it to the sausage in the skillet, think about adding some finely chopped fresh parsley and maybe a little minced fresh thyme. You can also saute 1 or 2 minced garlic cloves, split and germ removed, in the olive oil before the sausage goes into the skillet. (The herbs and garlic help mimic the aromatics in the bouillon.) Moisten the filling with the broth, and you're good to go.

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