Everyone will tell you that the nightlife in New York is magnificent. You can sip cocktails in Waterford martini glasses overlooking the cities spectacular skyline or knock-back bottled beers in low key bars pumping out classic nineties hits until four in the morning. But what I miss is sitting in a good old English pub. Its low ceilings, wooden door-frames outdated patterned carpets, roaring fireplaces and its regulars- old chaps with drooping jowls and glazed eyes; propping up the bar with cigarettes and lager held between their puffy palms. With its many Irish immigrants in New York there are Irish ‘pubs’ all over Manhatten but having been to Ireland I can say quite credibly that they are not remotely similar to Irish pubs, which are like English pubs (with a few more drunk people). I was only 14 at the time- but the Irish don’t seem to bother with age restrictions and I seem to recall doing my first pub crawl there- snagging a coaster from each pub as proof of my first brush with law-breaking. Sure, the outsides look traditional but inside American ‘Irish’ pubs tend to have neon-lit signs saying ‘beer’, loud pop music and have a tendency to be overburdened with frat boys playing beer pong. They are commonly known as Dive bars meaning (and I think quite aptly) “a dirty or shabby disreputable bar”. Do Americans’ of Irish decent, who are so proud of their heritage really believe that this is what British pubs are like?
Décor aside, for most Ex-pats I’m sure that it’s the British brews that they yearn most longingly for but as a (shock, horror!) non-beer drinker and seeing as this is after all a food blog- yes you guessed it, it’s the pub grub that I miss the most! Grub meaning food and not dirty floors or faces- for those, my friend, would be referred to as ‘grubby’. Lately I’ve found myself dreaming about creamy fish pies with buttery smooth mashed potatoes, steaming steak and ale pies that burn the roof of your mouth, comforting shepherds pies, cottage pies, game pies, crumbles and steamed puddings drenched in hot custard all after a long Sunday walk on an inevitably wet and dreary English day. Aahh, comfort eating at its finest and most deserving. That is what English food represents for me. Shepherds pie and bangers and mash are often seen on an American ‘Irish Pub’s’ menu but they are followed by Chicken wings, mozzarella sticks, nachos and 8oz bacon cheeseburgers. It’s like Indian restaurants serving steak and chips- why go to a restaurant to eat food that you normally eat? Why go to an Irish pub and eat wings? It’s not the actual chicken wings or the mozzarella sticks or the nachos or even the 8oz bacon cheeseburgers that I take offence to- it’s the fact that they are on an Irish pub menu. You don’t after all buy a BLT in a kosher deli.
To console myself, I’ve reverted to cooking a lot of British food recently- but I have to say without the low ceilings, outdated carpets, roaring fireplace and the regular old chaps propping up the bar chain smoking and drinking pints of lager- they just don’t quite taste the same. A bar is simply not a pub.
A fact that I regularly take issue with is that as a child I was a fussy eater. To appease my young unadventurous self, I was always told it was cottage pie for dinner- regardless. I’m not so gullible anymore but I do enjoy the real thing.
Serves 4 (or two if your dinner partner is a 6’3” man with an excessively healthy appetite)
450g lean minced beef or leftover shredded beef
1 tbsp oil
1 large onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 large carrot, peeled and chopped
1 celery stick, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, finely crushed.
1 tbsp plain flour
1 tbsp chopped parsley
250ml beef stock
100ml brown ale
1 tbsp tomato puree
1 bay leaf
For the topping
900g potatoes (a creamy variety such as King Edwards) peeled cut into large chunks
50g butter (yes this amount is necessary)
splash of milk
You will need
Electric beaters or a potato ricer
A medium sized baking dish, 2.5 cm deep
1/ Preheat the oven to 130C/275F/gas 2. Heat a wide casserole dish over a medium heat and add the meat, breaking it up with the back of a fork until it is brown all over. Strain off most of the fat and set aside. Heat the olive oil in the same pan and add the onions, allowing them to begin to go brown (this takes about 5 minutes for me, or two blinks of the eyes for my other half). Add the remaining vegetables and cook gently for another 5 minutes.
2/ Throw the meat back into the pan and add the flour and parsley, stirring for one minute until the mixture thickens. Gradually add the stock, stirring and finally add the brown ale, tomato puree and bay leaf and season with salt and pepper. Place the lid on and let cook in the oven for a minimum of 30 minutes, but up to 2 hours. (This can be done the day before.)
3/ Make the mashed potatoes by placing them in a pot of cold water and bringing them up to the boil. Let simmer for about 20 minutes (depending on how big you left the chunks, but the idea is that they are very tender. Drain and cover with a clean towel for 5 minutes to absorb the steam- a good old tip from Delia. Add the butter and whisk with electric beaters or put through a potato ricer, beat in the splash of milk and season well. (Tasting at this point is strongly advised).
4/ Turn the oven up to 200C/400F/gas 6. Remove the bay leaf from your meat and place evenly in your baking dish. Spoon over the potato using a fork to rough it up to allow for crunchy bits to form. Bake in the oven for 25-30 minutes or until the potato is golden brown and crisp on top. Best served with peas on a murky winters day.