My introduction to this French country dish was, oddly, in London. And the first time I had it, I had never heard of it. Since my graduate school days, I have made an annual pilgrimage to London, extending the trip each year, to spend enough time to settle in and not feel rushed or overwhelmed. Sure, I go to museums and historical sights and see friends, but my main focus, as is always the case, is food. The first thing I do when I arrive is hit the various markets in town to stock up on whatever is fresh and in season. I rent a flat for my stay so I have access to a kitchen. Several years ago, in my neighborhood, a new street market began. And it is fabulous. Not big like Borough Market, but a perfect gem of a Saturday stop. The vendors offer mostly prepared foods in such a diverse array it’s like vacation with in a vacation. Oysters driven up from the South coast that morning, two Syrian brothers who sell sticky, sweet pastries. An Indonesian family making unbelievable rice flour fritters with curry and shrimp. A young English woman who sells the most meltingly delicious handmade fudge. Homemade Portugese jams, freshly baked breads, an array of cheeses from all over England, and another booth specializing in French cheese. When I plan my schedule, I make sure to be in London on as many Saturdays as possible to visit this jewel-box market.
A few years ago, as I was wandering and planning my meals for the next day, I came across a charming table decorated with flowers and a French flag, stacked with lovely little terra cotta casseroles. I of course stopped to chat with the vendor, a charming young British woman selling petite dishes of classic French casseroles. The earthenware dishes were filled with escargots in garlic butter, cassoulet, boeuf bourguignon, and coq au vin, all ready to pop in the oven and enjoy. I was a bit dazzled by the choice and asked the vendor (the traiteur, really) which dish to take home for supper, and she told me the hachis parmentier was her favorite. In fact, she confided, she liked it much better than traditional British cottage pie or Shepard’s pie (the former being made with beef, the latter with lamb). With that endorsement, I went home with my hachis for Sunday dinner.
The little dish was enough for two meals, but I devoured the greater part of it in one sitting. The remains, I dissected and made notes on, trying to tease out all the flavors so I could recreate it at home. I made notes, and jotted down a few questions for my traiteur the next week. There was a £1 deposit on the terra cotta dish, so you could return it the next week and choose another casserole. I dutifully carried my dish in my bag to Saturday’s market, but the vendor was not there. And I have never seen her since, at that or any other London market. But she left me with a lasting favorite meal, and a lovely little dish (though I never make hachis for one, it’s just too good).
French Cottage Pie
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped (about 2 cups)
7 slices (about 6 ounces) bacon, finely diced
2 carrots, finely diced (about 1 ½ cups)
2 celery stalks, finely diced (about 1 cup)
4 garlic cloves, finely minced
2 ½ pounds ground beef chuck
1 750 ml bottle of red wine
1 ¼ cup reduced sodium beef broth
2 Tablespoons tomato paste
2 teaspoons sugar
½ teaspoon ground cloves
7-8 generous sprigs fresh thyme
3 bay leaves
4 large russet potatoes (about 3 pounds)
½ cup (1 stick) butter, diced
½ cup dry vermouth
½ cup milk (possibly a bit more)
Salt and pepper to taste
1/3 cup grated parmesan
Preheat the oven to 450°. First, prep all your vegetables and the bacon. Now you’re really French-cooking with your mise-en-place.
Pour the oil into a large (5 quart) Dutch oven, then add the finely diced onions. Sauté over medium high heat until the onions start to turn golden and begin to caramelize, about 15 minutes. Add ¼ cup of water about halfway through to speed up the process. When nicely golden, add the diced bacon and sauté for five minutes until it begins to cook. Add the carrots, then the celery and continue to sauté until the vegetables start to soften and brown. Stir in the garlic and sauté for about a minute. Add the ground beef and stir, breaking the meat up into small pieces, until browned and no longer pink. Carefully drain off any accumulated fat, then return the pot to the heat. Add the red wine, beef broth, tomato paste, sugar and cloves and stir well to combine. Drop in all the thyme sprigs (count how many you add so you can remove the stalks later) and the bay leaves. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer, uncovered, for 1 ½ hours, stirring occasionally.
Meanwhile, prick the potatoes all over with a sharp knife and place on the rack in the oven to bake. Cook until the potatoes are soft when squeezed, about 1 ½ hours. When the potatoes are done, remove from the oven and carefully, wearing oven mitts or using a folded towel, cut the potatoes in half lengthwise and scoop the flesh into a large bowl. Add the butter, vermouth and milk and mash with a fork or potato masher until smooth. Salt to taste (remember that the meat will be flavorful).
When the liquid with the meat is almost completely reduced, with just a little sauce clinging to the meat, remove from the heat. Remove the thyme stalks (the leaves will stay behind) and the bay leaves. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Scoop the meat filling into an 11 by 7 inch baking dish and spread out to make a smooth top. Dollop the mashed potatoes over the filling, then spread out to cover the meat. Using slightly damp fingers is a good way to do this. Try not to let the meat or sauce poke through the potato topping. Use a fork to scrape light lines across the smooth top of the potatoes. This will give a lovely browned crispy effect. Sprinkle the parmesan over the top.
The hachis parmentier can be cooled, covered and refrigerated for up to two days at this point. When ready to serve, preheat the oven to 350° and cook until heated through, golden with some bubbling around the sides, about 25- 30 minutes.