In the last surge of winter, when hearty braised meats simmer away in the kitchen, as they have for months, and the spring’s bounty still seems weeks away, fresh, seasonal vegetables — and time in the garden — can seem like a distant memory. But they don’t have to be.
It’s a point the chef, educator and food activist Darina Allen, who has been called the Julia Child of Ireland, makes in her new cookbook, “Grow Cook Nourish: A Kitchen Garden Companion in 500 Recipes.” All of Allen’s cookbooks are full of detailed culinary, historic and agricultural information, and her latest, an impressively weighty treasure, is no exception.
She is the proprietor, along with her brother the chef Rory O’Connell, of Ballymaloe Cookery School, on an organic farm in Shanagarry, County Cork, Ireland. Its centerpiece is a giant greenhouse, and, on the first day of class, students plant a seed. So basic is this lesson that it takes place before students ever set foot in the kitchen. The first recipe they are given is one for compost.
In keeping with that approach, the cookbook’s premise is that we can all grow something — herbs in pots on the balcony, a tomato plant in a bucket — and that doing so will teach us to become better cooks, more in tune with nature’s ways.
One recipe that caught my eye features parsnips, a favorite root vegetable, mashed with potatoes as topping for an unusual shepherd’s pie. And, instead of minced lamb or beef, the filling is made with duck. It was originally devised as a way to use leftover roast duck and gravy, the meat pulled from the carcass to make an irresistibly homey dish.
I had no meaty duck leftovers, but it sounded so delicious that I went out and bought a few duck legs and braised them with wine and aromatic vegetables. Then I pulled the meat from the bones, chopped it and simmered it in a quick gravy for a rich and delicious filling. Topped with the earthy blend of fragrant mashed parsnip and potato, and baked until bubbly and browned, it may be the best shepherd’s pie I have ever eaten. I highly recommend it.
But to be true to the spirit of the recipe, you should feel free to replace the duck with other combinations of leftover braised meats, vegetables or mushrooms. And if some of the ingredients are homegrown, so much the better.
Darina Allen’s Shepherd’s Pie
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
Total time: 3 hours
6 duck legs, trimmed, at room temperature (about 3 pounds)
Salt and pepper
1 cup chopped onion
1 large carrot, diced
2 celery stalks, diced
1 thyme sprig
1 bay leaf
6 allspice berries
4 cups hot chicken broth, more as needed
1/2 cup red or white wine
For the filling:
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup diced onion
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
For the topping:
Salt and pepper
1 1/2 pounds medium yellow-fleshed (or russet) potatoes, peeled and cut in 1-inch chunks
1 1/2 pounds medium parsnips, peeled and cut in 1-inch chunks
6 tablespoons butter, plus 2 tablespoons for dotting the top
1/4 cup grated Parmesan
1. Cook the duck: Heat oven to 400 degrees. Season duck generously with salt and pepper. Place in a roasting pan in one layer. Scatter with onion, carrot and celery, thyme sprig, bay leaf and allspice, then add broth and wine (liquid will not cover). Roast, uncovered about 30 minutes, until skin has browned nicely. Turn legs over, cover pan tightly and return to oven. Reduce temperature to 350 degrees. Cook 1 hour, or until meat is quite tender when probed with a fork.
2. Remove legs from pan and set aside to cool on a baking sheet. Pour liquid from roasting pan into a measuring cup. There should be about 3 cups; add broth if necessary. Spoon off any rising fat (save if you wish for another use). When duck meat is cool enough to handle, pull it off the bones and roughly chop, discarding gristle and skin. (This step may be done up to 2 days in advance, if desired.)
3. Make the filling: In a wide, heavy skillet or Dutch oven, melt butter over medium-high heat. Add onion, season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring, until softened and beginning to color, about 5 minutes. Add flour, stir well to coat and continue cooking until mixture is a nutty brown, about 5 minutes more. Slowly whisk in 2 cups of the braising liquid, whisking well as mixture thickens and reducing heat to a simmer. Taste and add more liquid as needed until you have a medium-thick gravy. Adjust the seasonings to taste. Off the heat, carefully fold in chopped duck meat and parsley. Transfer mixture to a 9-by-13-inch baking dish or 4-quart casserole.
4. Meanwhile, make the topping: Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil over high heat. Add potatoes and parsnips. When water returns to the boil, adjust heat to a brisk simmer and cook until completely tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Drain in a colander, reserving 1 cup cooking liquid. Return potatoes and parsnips to pot and mash with 6 tablespoons butter. Season to taste with salt and pepper, thinning with a little cooking liquid if mixture seems dry.
5. When ready to bake, heat oven to 350 degrees. Drop large spoonfuls of the mash evenly over filling. Use a knife or spatula to spread mixture until it evenly covers the top. Cut the 2 tablespoons butter into small chunks, dot over the top, and sprinkle with Parmesan. Bake until bubbling at the edges and well browned on top, 30 to 40 minutes. Let cool at least 10 minutes before serving.
And to drink ...
The combination of braised duck, potatoes and parsnips calls for a hearty red wine that nonetheless is well structured but not oaky. This offers many options. Good Cahors, made with the malbec grape, would be wonderful with this dish, as would Bordeaux from St.-Émilion, Pomerol and their Right Bank satellite appellations. Bandol, especially with some aging, would be delicious, as would a richer Burgundy, like a Nuits-St.-Georges, or a pinot noir. From Italy, a Chianti or other Tuscan sangiovese-based wine would go well, as would an aglianico from Campania or Basilicata. I think a Rioja Reserva would work well if the oak flavors are not too prominent, as would a garnacha-based wine from Montsant or Priorat. As an alternative, you could pretend you are in an Irish pub and drink good dry stout.
— ERIC ASIMOV