More rain. It gets to the point where I begin to wonder if there can actually be more water in the sky. The ground is so sodden that it feels as if it’s wet everywhere, that there is no escape out from beneath the gun metal blanket which seems to have been draped across us all for much of the winter.
The weather never gets me down unless it stops me from doing something eagerly anticipated. Rain on a day planned for the beach or snowfall that is enough to be disruptive but not quite enough to be magical are disappointing but I love our weather. Genuinely.
Nothing which happens outside can be so powerful that it cannot be made better by something created in the kitchen and at this time of year I want comfort.The sound of the rain battering the kitchen window has no impact greater than making me want to create food which holds you in its arms, wraps a scarf around your neck and ensures that you have put your vest on.
Two things I can eat in quantities that border on the obscene. Ragu and well made mashed potatoes. Maybe it has been done before but I am claiming it as my own creation. The combining of the sauce from a great spaghetti bolognese and a good helping of creamy, savoury mashed potato. I give you “Villetta Pie” (Villetta is Italian for cottage…can you see where we’re going with this?)
I have Italian heritage so perhaps it is genetic imperative that I believe that a good ragu sauce can only be made with time. It’s not unusual for me to leave mine bubbling away on the stove for three hours. I see this as a great example of simple cooking because leaving something alone to simmer gently can never be described as anything but ‘low maintenance’. The mistake it’s easy to make with something as simple as what is effectively a pan of savoury mince is that it can be rushed and needs little care. No. It can’t be rushed and, when it needs your attention, it needs it like a demanding child with a box of matches.
This isn’t a quick midweek supper unless you have a bit of spare time in the afternoon or cook the sauce the day before (this is a GOOD idea because the sauce improves after being cooked and left) but neither is it complicated. Very little of what I cook is but it is no less tasty for that.
First fry off the onion in the butter until it is coloured (not blackened!) and soft. Set it aside on a plate or in a bowl and then brown the meat in the oil in the same pan. When it is browned all over add the tomato puree and the herbs and cook through for a few more minutes until the whole pan of meat has taken on a rich brown hue. Add back the onions and the tomatoes, wine and stock. Sprinkle a little salt, but not too much because as the sauce reduces it will become more salty, and a few good grinds of pepper. I like to use white pepper but thats just the way I roll and you can add black or white as you choose. Now put the ragu on the lowest possible heat and preferably with a heat defuser underneath the pan and leave it to bubble and gurgle away gently for a couple of hours. Leave the lid off and it will reduce to a thick and unctuous sauce moist but without much liquid.
Mashed potatoes. I am pretty lazy if I think I can get away with it and I am not averse to any shortcut in the kitchen if the results are still top quality. I have taken to making mash by baking the potatoes in their jackets just as you would if you were to be eating them with butter and cheese. When they are done scoop out the soft fluffy potato insides, add a generous knob of butter and a handful of parmesan cheese. Mash it all together and loosen it a little with a splash of milk so that it is easier to spread over the top of the ragu. By virtue of your lazy cleverness you will now have a pile of baked potato skins with which you can make “loaded skins” by adding grated cheese, pickled chillies, gherkins, bacon or whatever else takes your fancy and then popping them in the top of the oven whilst the Villetta Pie cooks underneath. A word of warning here though. Don’t leave the skins in for too long so they get unbelievably crispy. Whilst this might be attractive you might break a tooth which could make for a somewhat painful evening and require an emergency visit to the dentist the following morning which messes up your morning appointments and necessitate the rearranging of your clients. You will feel a twit if this happens. I did.
Put your now beautifully cooked ragu into an ovenproof dish and stir in a few torn up basil leaves if you have them. Top with the mashed potatoes and use a fork to make a fancy pattern finally sprinkling over some more parmesan. Put it into a pre-heated oven at Gas 6/200C/400F for around 30 minutes or until the top is browned and crisping. The sauce might well have peeped through the top but this just adds to the magic.
Serve with some peas, a crisp winter salad or eat it with a fork from the dish when nobody is looking.
800g minced beef (if you can buy good braising steak and mince it yourself so much the better)
a thick slice of butter (around 25g)
1 tbsp tomato puree
1 tsp chopped oregano, thyme or marjoram
400g chopped tomatoes
a glass of white wine (or red)
200ml beef stock
2 tbsp olive oil
a few basil leaves
For the potato topping
4 or 5 large potatoes for baking (you can do more than you need and save some mash for tomorrow)
a handful of parmesan
a splash of milk