Pasties and other delights

by Katherine Larson

Just about every culture enjoys its versions of a meaty, starchy comfort food, preferably inexpensive, that warms the heart, nourishes the body and replenishes the soul. In the U.P., of course, it is often the pasty.
My husband’s family has lived in the U.P. since his grandparents emigrated to work in the mines, and we’ve enjoyed many a pasty over the years, but now that we live here ourselves I felt the need to explore pasties more deeply.
1501_table_pasty_1We decided to try a small tasting. We chose “original” pasties, of course, with beef — none of the nouveau versions with broccoli or cheese or jalapeños. And, because Larsons are Swedes, we wanted our pasties to include rutabagas.
One chilly day, then, we bought three different pasties and brought them home for a blind tasting. They were shuffled in the kitchen so we couldn’t tell which was which, and we dug in.
Here are the results – idiosyncratic, opinionated, and ours alone.
1501_table_pasty_2Pasty No. 1: This pasty was excellent, with a good meld of flavors. A nice light crust enclosed a well-blended mix of flavorful meat and potatoes, though the meat was so finely chopped as to be a little mushy. We found little evidence of any vegetable other than potatoes, but it was delicious nonetheless.

 

Pasty No. 2: With our first bites, we both emitted happy moans — “Mmm!” The golden-brown crust was extraordinarily tender and flaky, so much so that we wondered whether it was a true pasty crust; this one would not, I think, hold up well in a miner’s pocket. But, on a plate, it was delectable. The meat had more integrity than No. 1’s, and we liked the bigger, beefier pieces. We found recognizable chunks of rutabaga in the savory filling.

 

1501_table_pasty_3Pasty No. 3: Oh, dear. Perhaps the cook had a bad day? The crust was pale and flaccid, with an off flavor, reminiscent of bad oil. The meat-potato mixture was exceedingly bland, with a mushy texture. We spotted one morsel of rutabaga in the relatively small percentage of the pasty that we finished.
Overall, of these three pasties on this one day, the clear winner was Pasty No. 2, purchased from Jean Kay’s Pasties and Subs, 1635 Presque Isle Avenue, Marquette, for $4.77. Pasty No. 1 was a close second, perhaps demonstrating a more classic style; we purchased it from Lawry’s Pasty Shop, 2164 US 41 West, Marquette, for $4.93. The cook who had the off day was from Irontown Pasties, 800 North Teal Lake Avenue, Negaunee; we might try spending another $5.78 for a pasty there some other time, in hopes this one was a fluke.

1501_table_pasties_123

Inspired, I tried to make a pasty myself. It was a failure. Ignorant about doughs, I went with our tried-and-true recipe for pizza dough, but what works on a pizza is ridiculous on a pasty. And then there’s all that fiddly rolling and filling and crimping. I am now thoroughly intimidated, but at least I know where to go for one that tastes far better than I can manage.
But what if I want to make my own comfort food?
I turn to shepherd’s pie. It involves potatoes, too, a quintessentially U.P. vegetable. Despite the name, it involves no dough. And it’s so delicious.
There basically are two parts to shepherd’s pie: the meaty part, and the mashed potatoes.
Mashed potatoes are — what? A “piece of cake”? “Easy as pie”? The metaphors are all way harder than mashed potatoes themselves. Just boil them for about half an hour (whole and unpeeled is fine, so long as they were scrubbed first) and drain them, then beat them in the pot with a pat of butter and a good slosh — maybe half or three quarters of a cup — of the cooking water. That’s it.
The meaty part is not much harder. Even if you’re pressed for time, it can be assembled while the potatoes boil.
For a classic shepherd’s pie, use fresh ground lamb. It’s also wonderful with leftover lamb minced fine, with fresh ground beef or pork or turkey, or with leftover cooked beef or pork or turkey. I’ve never tried ground venison, but I bet that hunter’s pie would be as yummy as shepherd’s or cowherd’s or swineherd’s or poulterer’s pie.
If I’m starting with fresh meat, I like to sauté it first in my big nonstick skillet. That way, I can quickly see whether any extra oil or butter might be needed (if the meat is extremely lean) or whether I’m going to have to pour off extra grease. Either way, brown it vigorously enough to get some nice brown crustiness. Then set it aside in a medium bowl.
After getting rid of any excess grease, it’s time to sauté the vegetables in the drippings. A couple of handfuls of sliced mushrooms will add a delectable earthy flavor to the pie, and sautéing them by themselves will ensure they, too, get brown and crusty instead of steaming into beige blandness with the other vegetables.
While they cook, there’s time to mince some garlic. One clove is fine if you’re using fresh, local garlic — fat, juicy, and bursting with flavor. If you’re stuck with those hard old things from California or, worse, China, you’ll need more to give yourself a ghost of true garlic flavor. The garlic can go in with the mushrooms for the last minute of sautéing, and then they both join the meat in that bowl.
Now it’s time for the magic trio of vegetables that harmonize together so well in so many dishes: onion, carrot and celery. One of each, chopped small. If you happen to have a parsnip sitting in your refrigerator, staring out reproachfully each time you open the door, toss it in too.
While this combination wilts in the drippings, add your herbs: thyme, a hint of allspice, a big grind of black pepper, the tiniest whisper of salt. Scraping up the brown bits from the bottom of the pan as you go will help the mixture blossom.
Dump the contents of the medium bowl back into the pan, add a tablespoon of flour, and stir and cook it all for a minute or two. If your image of comfort food is flecked with Italian, a squeeze of tomato paste from one of those handy tubes might be welcome at this point.
Add about three-quarters of a cup of stock — chicken, beef, lamb or vegetable, just about whatever stock you might have in your fridge or freezer except fish. Stir it in to your mixture for a few minutes till it thickens. This is the last chance to scrape up all those brown bits, which have now reached a truly glorious state of caramelization in the bottom of the pan — don’t miss them.
In a pinch, lacking stock, use water. But you also could have used some of your potato water plus your vegetable trimmings (onion and garlic roots and skins, carrot and parsnip tips and peelings, maybe a stalk of parsley if you have a handful languishing forlornly in the fridge) to make a nice light stock while all that sautéing was going on. Or not. A lot of this depends on time.
Ah, time. Are you doing this over the course of a leisurely afternoon, perhaps with the help of the kids who would otherwise be going stir-crazy because it’s yet another snow day and you want to nourish their souls as well as their bodies?
Are you fitting in a precious half an hour of prep time, maybe the night before or early in the morning, predawn, getting the thing assembled so you can pop it into the oven when you stagger home bedraggled from the hassles of your day?
If time sprawls lavishly before you, by all means make that vegetable stock. If not, don’t sweat it.
Anyway, at this point the meat mixture goes into an ovenproof dish, anything from eight inches square to nine inches round, if you started with about a pound of meat and maybe two pounds of potatoes. Then spread the mashed potatoes on top. If you’re feeling lavish, make pretty swirls and, perhaps, dot them with a few dabs of butter.
Now you can set it aside for later in the day or tomorrow or the next day, nicely wrapped and refrigerated of course, or deal with it immediately. Half an hour before you want to eat (or more like forty-five minutes if you’re starting with it cold), pop the pie into a preheated 400-degree oven.
Then serve it forth, a warm concoction of savory flavors all melded together into rich goodness.
That’s the basics. If you’re using meat that was previously cooked, you won’t need to sauté it a second time, and the herbs and spices you use might change depending on how it was cooked in the first place. They also might change if you use meat other than lamb. Do you love sage with ground turkey, for example? Or basil and oregano with beef?
What flavors speak to you of comfort and nourishment on a bitter day when the house siding lifts and flaps in the howling wind? Use that, and be warmed.
But suppose all this leaves you cold. Or time doesn’t permit. Or “the kids” consists of three under the age of four, two of them still in diapers, and all of them tugging at you with needs far more urgent than tonight’s dinner?
(For me, when they were that age, I enjoyed doing this sort of thing while they were napping, or on Sunday afternoon for later in the week.
But that’s me, and you may well prefer to spend any spare moments napping yourself, or writing a philosophical treatise, or contemplating the beauties of the snow swirling in the wind…)
Anyway, what if real life intrudes but you still want that good meaty, starchy warmth?
Well, we do live in the U.P. And, happily, there are good pasties nearby.
— Katherine Larson

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