Baked potatoes are real cold weather food – properly tasty fuel for a winter’s night when your radiator isn’t quite heating up the room enough. There’s a slight chill in the air and there’s need for comforting lap food, because you’re knackered, it’s Friday night and all you want to do is to sit and stare at a film before heading off to bed for a long sleep. This sort of situation calls for particular food – easy to eat on your lap, good strong flavours, but soothing and nourishing at the same time. A decent baked spud, all fluffy flesh and crispy skin is perfect here.
I’m not talking about some wet, thin-skinned and frankly rather sad microwaved spud here. This needs to be the real deal, cooked in the oven and airy, smooth and crunchy all at once. And a good spud needs a good topping or filling. I remember several from my youth where it was something of a staple. My dad used to scrape out the flash, mix it with corned beef, butter and sweetcorn before spooning it back into the shell, grating over some cheddar and grilling it. I also remember tuna, cheese and plenty of black pepper and of course, the immortal baked beans, tabasco sauce and cheese. And then, if you wanted something simple, just a slathering of butter and plenty of black pepper. Not much in the way of vitamins, but there was something wonderfully complete about it.
Tonight I wanted something properly meaty on top, and though I should probably have something vaguely healthy alongside it as well. Looking in the fridge I found some lamb mince, cherry tomatoes, brocoli and a couple of carrots. I had a tin of Italian tomatoes in the cupbard and plenty of condiments and spices. Thinking of shepherds pie I thought I would make a tomatoey, spicy lamb thing to go on top and roast veggie salad to accompany it.
The lamb spicy, saucy thing (must find a better name) was made at the same time the potatoes went into the oven and so bubbled away for a good hour and a half, getting a properly deep, almost casseroley flavour on the way. Sadly, having never roast brocoli before, I found out the hard way it doesn’t need very long in oven. So while the tommies and carrots were all caramelised and sweet, the brocoli was kind of charred and tasteless. In retrospect, I probably should have thought a little more about it before just bunging it all in together. But it was a Friday night, I was tired, and thinking too hard was not planned as any part of the evening.
The potato was marvellous though – all big, fluffy and piping hot – and combined well with the lamb in a sort of reverse-shepherd’s pie kind of way. Just the ticket to eat in front of a decent, easy, film with a glass or three of Nero d’Avola from Sicily – all spicy, peppery, fruity taste – not too subtle and properly packed with flavours and depth.
The Grubworm’s reverse shepherd’s pie
It’s important not to underestimate how long a good baked spud takes. In this case they were pretty big and took almost two hours at 180oC. Plan the rest of your meal accordingly. Or just have the spuds with black pepper, butter and maybe a grating of cheese. Simple and delicious. I always give the potatoes a bit of a scrub and then crumble some sea salt over their still damp skin before pricking them and chucking them into the oven.
Nigel Slater says to give them a whack when they come out of the oven to really fluff up the potato inside, but whenever I try this it always ends up a potato flying across the kitchen or simply exploding red hot potato flesh all over me. So I just cut them with a knife before adding the filling.
The topping (enough for two spuds with plenty left over)
500g minced lamb
1 onion chopped finely
2 cloves of garlic – crushed
A rough tablespoon of the following spices all mixed in roughly equal quantities: cinnamon, cumin, ginger, coriander, paprika, cayenne
A glug each of worcestershire sauce, balsamic vinegar, tomato ketchup/puree
1 tin of chopped tomatoes
half a glass of red wine
Heat a little oil in the pan and fry the onion over a low heat until it is coloured and soft, but not brown, add the spices and garlic, stir one or twice and then add the mince. Stir and fry and break it up before adding the red wine. Wait for it the alcohol to bubble away and add the tomoatoes, worcestershire sauce, balsamic vinegar and tomato ketchup or puree. Stir well, cover and leave to bubble over the lowest heat until the potatoes are done. Stir occasionally to prevent it sticking and if it is drying out add a little water to loosen it all up. When the potatoes are done, cut them open and pour over. If you’re feeling super unhealthy you could add some strong cheddar or similar.