January 5, 2008

Our Mothers' Meat Pie

+NOTE: I talked to my mother over the weekend, and she tells me that she and one of her sisters had already decided (prior to this post) to have this dish for Papaw's 98th birthday meal. I just think that's really sweet and fitting. Happy 98th birthday, Papaw! Only two more till you're 100! Hand on, I know you can do it.

This is my very favorite in all the world comfort food one dish casserole meal. This dish of my mom’s has a biscuit crust baked on top of a browned ground beef and vegetable mixture, with a little salt and pepper. That’s it. The secret is to cook the beef on the stove top for an hour or so, keeping it covered with water, to tenderize it. Over lo these many years I have tried various enhancements to the recipe, but as soon as any other ingredient is added it’s not the same dish. So I leave it alone. No tomatoes, no cheese, no mushrooms. I like a little hot pepper sauce on it after it’s on my plate. And I tell you, I love this dish so much that I can only make it when there are plenty of hands and mouths to help me eat it. Otherwise I will overeat, stuff myself, eat half the casserole in one sitting, the other half for breakfast in the morning. It tastes to me of all my wishes and dreams of a mother’s love, of the memories of my mommy holding me “like a baby,” back before I was “too big” to be help that way anymore, that feeling of being encompassed and nurtured and loved for no good reason whatsoever. Even against all odds. Maybe that’s how I’ll know when I have finally come to a fulfilled heart: I will be able to eat just one serving of My Mother’s Meat Pie, then stop. I've called this "Our" Mothers' Meat Pie, because my mother and my aunts' and uncle's mother both made it. And if you are my cousin you can tell me if your mother and father made it. I would really like to know.

Our Mother’s Meat Pie

One pound of good ground beef *
One bag of frozen mixed vegetables, rinsed in a colander and drained a bit
Salt and pepper
Bisquick or your favorite short biscuit recipe

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

1. In a large Dutch oven or other heavy, deep skillet, brown the ground beef over medium heat. Make sure it stays soft – don’t let it get crispy. If the beef is too lean to get a good sizzle going add some olive oil or butter.

2. Add water to twice the depth of the meat and simmer on medium for an hour, checking frequently to make sure it doesn’t dry out. Keep a kettle of water steaming on the stove to add as you need it.

3. In the last few minutes before the beef’s cooking time is up allow the water to reduce, but leave enough to make sure that there is a nice gravy in the bottom of the dish after is comes out of the oven.

4. Add the vegetables. Cook for a few minutes, letting the vegetable thaw and warm.

5. Turn the heat to low.

6. Prepare your biscuit batter.

7. Turn off the heat under your pan.

8. Spoon the biscuit batter over the meat mixture, and spread it out a bit. Don’t worry about getting it too even, part of the charm of the dish is its peasant look.

9. Put in center of the preheated oven until the biscuits are browned. This will take longer than if you were cooking the biscuits by themselves, maybe twice as long. Just keep an eye on them.

10. Remove from the oven, let cool for 10 minutes, then serve. Mashed potatoes and a crisp lettuce salad make perfect accompaniments. A beer, or a light red wine won’t hurt, either.

*I like to use a combination of very lean and medium lean cuts; if it’s too lean the dish will be too dry** The basic ones: peas, carrots, potatoes, green beans, maybe lima beans in there, but stay away from broccoli or any of the more exotic mixes.

Mamaw, says my Mom, served these with the mashed potatoes, as did she. This is a great combination, and you’ll love the meat and gravy mixed in with your potatoes, as you’ll love the sticky bottoms of the biscuits and how they combine with the gravy to make this really sublime combination of flavors -- even though all this is going a bit heavy on the starches, obviously, given the already wondrous presence of the biscuit topping, but it’s worth it, just as having foi gras and caviar on top of your steak is worth it, so just keep a stiff upper lip and dig in. Eat fruit and fish for a few says after if you want to counteract the effects.

Further notes on the etymology of “casserole.”

Is My Mother’s Meat Pie a true casserole? I found myself wondering. Which lead me to wonder: what is a casserole? Really?

So off I went to the web – finding what Wikipedia says (

cooking a casserole, from the French for "sauce pan,"[1] is a large, deep pot or dish used both in the oven and as a serving dish.

The word casserole is also used for the food cooked and served in such a dish. These foods usually consist of meat and/or vegetables and sometimes bulked with pasta, potato, rice or other grains cooked slowly in sauce or other liquid, and may be served as a main course or a side dish.
What I like about this is the Frenchness of the whole thing. And of course, mon amis, casserole is a French word. What is French for “duh?”

Casseroles originate from the ancient practice of stewing meat slowly in earthenware containers. Types of casserole include ragout, hotpot, cassoulet and carbonnade. A distinction may be made between casseroles and stews: stewing is a cooking process whereby heat is applied to the bottom of the cooking vessel (typically over a fire or on a hob), whereas casseroling in done in an oven where heat circulates all round the cooking vessel.

One could argue in either direction the continental flavor or none of this really simple, really Anglo-Americanized dish. In reality, I suppose, if it’s not Native American or Asian or African or Aboriginal or a hybrid this by default is European, right? I mean, where did we get our recipes, from Space Aliens?

Bon Appettite.

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