A year ago I was browsing commercial real estate listings with a long term plan to invest in a building for a long term home for Patty Pan. I stumbled on a property close to my house that was just the right size and just the right price. It was a commercial space in a residential neighborhood and I've always liked those very much. The savvy broker had included an email from a neighbor testifying to the neighborhood's readiness to support a community-minded food business. The neighbor's email went on to wish for a Fair Trade espresso bar or a bistro run by an established chef.
We had no intention of opening a coffee shop or café. (Been there, done that.) But we certainly were looking for a place that we could grow into a neighborhood institution, fostering connections around food.
Back in 2011 I launched a series of monthly local foods dinner events dubbed the "Humble Feast", an antidote to the lavish, expensive local foods galas featuring celebrity chefs and ingredients donated by hardworking farmers and fishermen. Instead of a mind-blowing meal made up of dishes few home cooks could replicate, I wanted to prepare simple, tasty, affordable fare that could also inspire home cooking.
It seemed like an obvious, appealing idea but it turned out to be a tough sell. It was hard to find a comfortable, affordable space where we could host our dinners and we just weren't very good at getting the word out. We had some reasonably successful events and some morale-busting evenings when almost nobody showed.
Early this year I bought the building in Briarcrest, which included a small dining room off the kitchen. We built a beautiful pass-through window with an onyx counter and bamboo plywood trim. And we invited the neighbors for dinner. They came, they ate, and they told their friends. They've come month after month, enjoying our humble endeavor, filling our tiny dining room to capacity and spilling into the kitchen and the parking lot.
The dinners are going so well that, starting the first of the year, we'll begin holding them weekly rather than monthly. We're so grateful to have landed in this neighborhood.
Here's a recipe for the Shepherd's Pie that we served at the last dinner. It's tasty and adaptable, and makes a great winter comfort food.
Shepherd’s Pie (makes 6 servings)
6 medium-size potatoes (any kind but russets)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound ground beef, ground lamb, crumbled tofu, finely chopped seitan, or cooked lentils or beans
2 teaspoons salt
2 cups finely chopped vegetables (I recommend carrots, parsnips, turnips, rutabagas, and winter squash)
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
2 tablespoons other finely chopped fresh herbs (I recommend rosemary, oregano, and thyme.)
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
Boil water in a large saucepan. Cut the potatoes in quarters, add them to the water, and cook them for about ten minutes, until they’re very soft.
Meanwhile, heat two tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet. Add the onions and garlic and cook for about 5 minutes, until the onion is soft and translucent. If you’re using beef or lamb, crumble it into the pan once the onion is well cooked, along with one teaspoon salt. If you’re using a vegetarian protein, you’ll add it later.
Cook the meat on medium-low heat for 5 to 10 minutes, until it’s nicely browned. Add the vegetables and salt and cook for about 10 minutes longer, until they’re very tender. If you’re using a vegetarian protein, add it now. When the protein and vegetable mixture is heated through, add the herbs.
Drain the potatoes, add the remaining tablespoon two teaspoons olive oil and one teaspoon salt, and mash well. Spread the protein and vegetable mixture in the bottom of a large casserole pan, and spread the mashed potatoes on top. Divide them in four portions and drop them in different portions of the pan to make the potatoes easier to spread.
Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until it’s piping hot.