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Hachis parmentier (French cottage pie)

A French country dish that is hearty as it is pleasing.

By The Runaway Spoon / February 7, 2012

Hachis parmentier is a rich beef casserole topped with Parmesan flavored mashed potatoes.

The Runaway Spoon

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My introduction to this French country dish was, oddly, in London.  And the first time I had it, I had never heard of it.  Since my graduate school days, I have made an annual pilgrimage to London, extending the trip each year, to spend enough time to settle in and not feel rushed or overwhelmed.  Sure, I go to museums and historical sights and see friends, but my main focus, as is always the case, is food. 

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The Runaway Spoon

Perre Magness has studied food and cooking around the world, mostly by eating, but also through serious study. Coursework at Le Cordon Bleu London and intensive courses in Morocco, Thailand and France has broadened her own culinary skill and palate. The kitchen of choice is at home, cooking like most people, experimenting with unique but practical ideas.

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The first thing I do when I arrive is hit the various markets in town to stock up on whatever is fresh and in season. I rent a flat for my stay so I have access to a kitchen. Several years ago, in my neighborhood, a new street market began. And it is fabulous. Not big like Borough Market, but a perfect gem of a Saturday stop.  The vendors offer mostly prepared foods in such a diverse array it’s like vacation with in a vacation. Oysters driven up from the South coast that morning, two Syrian brothers who sell sticky, sweet pastries. An Indonesian family making unbelievable rice flour fritters with curry and shrimp. A young English woman who sells the most meltingly delicious handmade fudge. Homemade Portugese jams, freshly baked breads, an array of cheeses from all over England, and another booth specializing in French cheese. When I plan my schedule, I make sure to be in London on as many Saturdays as possible to visit this jewel-box market.

A few years ago, as I was wandering and planning my meals for the next day, I came across a charming table decorated with flowers and a French flag, stacked with lovely little casserole-filled terracotta dishes. I of course stopped to chat with the vendor, a charming young British woman selling petite dishes of classic French casseroles. The earthenware dishes were filled with escargots in garlic butter, cassoulet, boeuf bourguignon, and coq au vin, all ready to pop in the oven and enjoy. 

I was a bit dazzled by the choice and asked the vendor (the traiteur, really) which dish to take home for supper, and she told me the hachis parmentier was her favorite. In fact, she confided, she liked it much better than traditional British cottage pie or Shepard’s pie (the former being made with beef, the latter with lamb). With that endorsement, I went home with my hachis for Sunday dinner.

The little dish was enough for two meals, but I devoured the greater part of it in one sitting. The remains, I dissected and made notes on, trying to tease out all the flavors so I could recreate it at home. I made notes, and jotted down a few questions for my traiteur the next week.  There was a £1 deposit on the terracotta dish, so you could return it the next week and choose another casserole. I dutifully carried my dish in my bag to Saturday’s market, but the vendor was not there.  And I have never seen her since, at that or any other London market. But she left me with a lasting favorite meal, and a lovely little dish (though I never make hachis for one, it’s just too good).

Hachis Parmentier (French Cottage Pie)
Serves 6

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped (about 2 cups)
7 slices (about 6 ounces) bacon, finely diced
2 carrots, finely diced (about 1-1/2 cups)
2 celery stalks, finely diced (about 1 cup)
4 garlic cloves, finely minced
2-1/2 pounds ground beef chuck
1 750 ml bottle of red wine [editor's note: substitute cooking wine or 3 cups of beef broth]
1-1/4 cup reduced sodium beef broth
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
7-8 generous sprigs fresh thyme
3 bay leaves
4 large russet potatoes (about 3 lbs.)
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, diced
1/2 cup dry vermouth [editor's note: this can be omitted but you'll need to add the same amount of another liquid, such as broth or water]
1/2 cup milk (possibly a bit more)
Salt and pepper, to taste
1/3 cup grated Parmesan

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