Thursday, November 7, 2013

Cottage (or shepherd's) pie with an Italian twist

This past Halloween turned out to be special in a very unexpected way. It also brought back yellow tinted* memories of a Halloween long ago, when I was a little girl.
But let me start from the beginning. You know how sometimes the strangest things happen, like when you bump into a person in a totally unexpected place, or when you find out that you and another person know somebody in common, the famous six degrees of separation?

I have had my fair share of these kinds of coincidences (the ones I know about, because I often wonder how many times I have crossed paths with people without even realizing it... but I digress).
Once, for example, when I travelled from Italy to Florida to visit my grandmother with a girlfriend. My boyfriend at the time was in London with his best friend staying at my sister's. On the spur of the moment, my friend and I decided to drive from Palm Beach to see some Italian friends staying in Fort Lauderdale. In the afternoon we were looking for a restaurant and got totally lost somewhere in the suburbs. We stopped at a strip mall to ask for directions and as I was getting out of our car I saw my boyfriend's father drive right by me... I was so surprised I literally jumped on the trunk of his car to stop him. He was in the States on business and had just visited a client. Needless to say, we were both speechless.

Another time I went to a friend's wedding and was seated next to a mutual friend I hadn't seen in a while. She excitedly told me about her new boyfriend (now husband) who was checking their coats. When he approached the table, I realized it was a family friend I hadn't seen in about fifteen years, since we were both living in the same small town where I went to boarding school.
Then there was the time a friend from university finally introduced me to her boyfriend, who lived in another city, after hearing about him for a long time. It turned out we were classmates in elementary school in Venice. Or the time I went to a good-bye dinner for a close friend who was moving to Asia. She introduced me to a couple I had heard a lot about over the years because they often travelled together... turns out we also went to school together, he was in the same class as the guy in the story above.
I could tell you many such stories, and come to think of it not all related to the elementary school I went to (although I am noticing as I write that most of them do seem to lead back to that one classroom).

A lot of these surprise encounters happened before the age of Facebook, when the surprise factor was was still quite a thing. Now we pretty much know everything about anyone we ever met: where they live, what they are doing, what they are eating and where they are at any given moment. But since not everyone spends every waking hour on the Book of Face, these things can still happen, as I discovered on Halloween.
Last Thursday I was rushing from my son's classroom to his locker, so we would manage to pick up my daughter on time, when an acquaintance stopped me to ask me something. I distractedly noticed she was with a friend but between the three of us there were so many kids running around we just distractedly mumbled some "hellos" and then went back to trying to control our offspring. When we started walking away from each other, in opposite directions, the friend and I simultaneously stopped in our tracks and turned around to look at each other. It was like something hit us both at exactly the same time. As she was turning she tentatively said my name and the next thing I knew we were flinging ourselves into each others arms.

There was a lot of hugging, squeeling and some tears. In my son's preschool hallway I had refound my best friend from childhood, a friend from another time, another place, another life. She was my first friend when I moved to Italy. We were both the new girls at school (yes, believe it or not in that same class), from other cities, so we immediately bonded. She reminded me on this Halloween about our first Halloween together, her first Halloween ever. A few weeks after becoming friends  I invited her to the little get-together my mom had planned for us. Italians didn't do Halloween then, nobody even knew what it was. It was the beginning of a wonderful friendship. Unfortunately she moved a few years later, and then it was my turn again, but we kept in touch over the years. We were pen pals and in our teens she came to the States with me for a month.

Then we grew up, she moved to London, our lives got busier and we lost touch. Until last week. She was visiting her mother, who coincidentally lives where I live now. She doesn't come often and just for short periods of time and her only real contact in Italy is her other closest childhood friend. The acquaintance I mentioned earlier. To think how many afternoons we spent chatting outside of school and at the playground; our kids all know each other and play together yet we never knew we were connected by this one person who lives in another country.

Life is sometimes surprising this way, isn't it? What is the most remarkable chance meeting you have experienced? 

The recipe I am posting today is an English classic with an Italian twist, in honor of my Italian friend who maybe makes something like this for her British children.

Like all traditional dishes, there are as many recipes for this one as there are cooks. Purists use chopped meat, others use mince. Some add tomato sauce, others add only Worchestershire sauce, spices and/or gravy. Many refer to it as cottage pie when using beef and shepherd's pie  when using lamb (which makes sense, considering shepherds hang around sheep more than cows). So I guess I made an Italianized version of a cottage pie using some of that ragu I always have stashed away in my freezer. This just leaves the task of making some mashed potatoes, layering the dish and sticking it into the oven.

Ingredients (serves 4)

about 1lb/500gr ragu

Mashed potatoes
3 large (floury) potatoes, peeled
75-100gr butter
about 1cup/240ml milk
nutmeg, grated

rosemary to garnish

Prepare the ragu.
Prepare the mashed potatoes by peeling them and boiling them in salty water until tender all the way through. Mash them, add milk (more or less, depending on the texture of the potatoes and how silky you like them) and about two thirds of the butter. Grate in some nutmeg and mix well. Adjust for pepper and salt. Sometimes when I make mashed potatoes I add roasted, mashed garlic or Parmesan cheese but here I wanted to keep the flavor subtle to avoid overpowering the dish.

Preheat the oven to 400° F/200°C

Layer the ragu on the bottom of a baking dish and cover with the mashed potatoes. Dot with little pads of butter for a more golden crust, season with some freshly ground pepper and garnish with a little rosemary.

* the photos for this post taken in the evening in my dark kitchen - forgive me, but it was either that or another week before posting...


  1. I have connections like that all the time ... like my moving to Maine now! It can be a little eerie, but can also be so delightful and reaffirming!

    And the Cottage Pie looks great!

  2. Oh I just loved this stories and I got chills as I was reading it! I loved that you found each other and then realised who you were at the same time! Isn't life wonderful :D

    1. Life is pretty amazing at times. And I just had another one of those coincidences this week end, which I may have to add!

  3. That's amazing. You've had some incredible coincidences in your life. I'm glad Halloween was so wonderful xx

  4. I don't think I've ever had a chance encounter, let alone tens of them like you! Crazy!

  5. I love shepherds pie! This looks so good!


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