Shepherdless Pie — or — Don’t Kvetch About Guvech

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Gyuvech: It's not only the container... it's what's inside.

Gyuvech: It’s not only the container… it’s what’s inside.


One-paragraph history and etymology lesson rolled into one: In Bulgaria (and throughout the Balkans), meat and vegetable casseroles are often made in beautifully decorated earthenware pots known by a staggering variety of names, including guvech, gyuvech, đuveč, ѓувеч, гювеч, ђувеч, and others. The word has become not only synonymous, but indeed coterminous, with the meal prepared within it. [In that sense, it’s kind of the opposite of the word restaurant, which, back in the mid-18th century, was the name of a bouillon, later morphing into its modern definition of where that bouillon is served (when bouillon is served there at all, rarely the case these days).] By the time the word reached Turkey, it had become güveç, which more or less transliterates into guvech or guvetch, which is how we know it in North America.

Just like my great-grandma didn't used to make. But someone else's did.

Just like my great-grandma didn’t used to make. But someone else’s did.

As with any casserole/stew/hotchpotch, there are something approaching an infinite number of recipes for guvetch, but I’m quite fond of this meatless commercial variety, produced in Bulgaria by Konex Foods and marketed In America by Indo-European Foods under the label ZerGüt. It may be my favourite guvetch because it’s the only kind I’ve ever had (which is true), but it’s quite delicious on its own terms. According to a spokesperson for Konex, the commercial recipe is derived from one handed down by one of the company founder’s ancestors. The vegetarian guvetch they market (pictured above) is a simple mélange of aubergines, peppers, potatoes, carrots, water, sunflower oil, green beans, tomato paste, peas, salt, okra, onion, sugar, and parsley, with no preservatives, artificial flavours, or colours. At 250 calories per 19 oz. bottle, it’s easy on the diet, too.

A potful of potatoes.

A potful of potatoes.

Flash forward to earlier this evening. I’d had a hankering for shepherd’s pie, but there wasn’t any ground lamb to hand, and I decided to take a whack at a vegan version.

SHEPHERDLESS PIE

Ingredients
2 large Russet potatoes
4 smallish yams (about a pound or so)
3/4 cup unsweetened almond milk
2 tsp salt
1 jar ZerGüt guvetch

Directions
Set a pot of salted water on to boil. Peel potatoes and yams; cook in boiling water for about 20 minutes, or until soft. Drain. Return to pot and mash with almond milk and salt; set aside to cool slightly.

Mashed potatoes, yeah.

Mashed potatoes, yeah.

Divide guvetch evenly into six ramekins. Microwave on high for about 2 minutes to warm.

Microwave me, baby!

Microwave me, baby!

Here’s where I got silly. The simple thing to do would have been to spoon the mashed yam-and-potato mixture on top, fluffing it with a fork to create those peaks that would brown underneath the broiler (about 8 minutes, and rotate the tray at 4 minutes). Instead, I pulled out a pastry bag and a star tip, and piped the potatoes in over the guvetch. Totally unnecessary, totally fun.

Sack o' spuds.

Sack o’ spuds.

If you decide to do it that way, work in a circular motion from the edge toward the center, finishing with a little peak on top.

Piped, but not yet piping hot.

Piped, but not yet piping hot.

Place the ramekins on a foil-lined baking sheet. Eight minutes under the broiler (or you can use a kitchen torch, if you wanna get fancy about it). Rotate the pan at four minutes, and have a care, because some broilers are more efficient than the one in my sixty-year-old O’Keefe & Merritt.

Good to go, after they've cooled a tad.

Good to go, after they’ve cooled a tad.

Allow the ramekins to cool sufficiently that you can handle them — albeit gingerly — with your bare hands. Serve while warm. Makes six.

[NOTE: Bottled guvetch is available at markets that cater to an Eastern European clientele, but it can also be purchased online. The big issue here is the shipping cost, which makes it kinda prohibitive to buy a single jar. If you are willing to purchase a six-pack, you can bring your cost down to about $6.50-$8 per jar (depending on where you live), which is about twice what you’ll pay for it in an ethnic market. It can be ordered online from Salonika Imports in Pittsburgh, so the closer you are to them, the less you’ll pay to have it shipped. Alternatively, you could chop and heat your own vegetable mélange; Google “guvech recipe” for ideas, or just go for it as the vegetable bin provides and the spirit moves.]

Potatoes au Gratin sans Fromage (Vegan-style)

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It's plane to see.

It’s plane to see.

We’ve been doing Meatless Mondays around the pad for years now, and that frequently means one of several standbys, often involving potatoes. [What can I say, I’m Irish.] My original intent had been to take a whack at Chef Thomas Keller’s Potato Pavé recipe, but time and energy conspired against me, so I opted for Potatoes au Gratin. As luck would have it, The Bride and I dined a few days ago at Crossroads, an excellent vegan restaurant in Los Angeles, and that inspired me to retool the cheese-oozing, cream-dripping, diet-busting fave of my youth.

Generally speaking, I’m not much of a fan of ersatz food products (diet sodas largely excepted). I’d much rather have a beautifully grilled portobello mushroom served like a burger than any sort of the Frankenmeats that often try to pass themselves off as beef patties. As a consequence, my first order of business was to strike off most of the over-the-counter vegan cheese substitutes available, as they more often taste like Firma-Grip paste with a side of FD&C Yellow No. 6 than anything resembling fromage. What I wasn’t willing to sacrifice, though, was the creamy, viscous, umami-laden mouthfeel of the real deal. Fortunately, I didn’t have to.

Gotta give some props here to Tori Avey’s blog, The Shiksa in the Kitchen, which published a recipe for Dairy-Free Saffron Scalloped Potatoes that launched me in the right direction. Basically, there are two parts to the recipe: The potatoes and onions, and the sauce. Here’s a list of ingredients:

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DAIRY-FREE, GLUTEN-FREE, VEGAN POTATOES AU GRATIN

For the Sauce:
2 tbsp non-hydrogenated butter substitute (I used Earth Balance)
3 1/2 tbsp flour (I used Cup4Cup gluten-free flour)
1 can (13.5 or 15 oz) coconut milk* — NOT THE NON-FAT OR LOW-FAT VERSION!
1 cup Almond Breeze almond milk, unsweetened
1 tsp sea salt
1 tsp finely minced garlic (or 1/2 tsp garlic powder)
½ tsp tamari sauce (gluten-free soy sauce)
1 ½ tsp mustard powder
¼ tsp Piment d’Espelette (or hot paprika or cayenne powder)
1 tsp celery flakes or parsley flakes (optional)

For the Taters:
4-5 lbs Russet potatoes (you could use Yukon Gold as well, but Russets are way cheaper)
1 large onion
several dashes paprika for colour and presentation, optional

You have a couple of choices here (more if you are not acting as your own sous chef, which I was). Either make the sauce first (which I did), or slice the potatoes and onions first. If you are slicing the veggies first, please feel free to skip ahead. [Do remember to put your potato slices in a bowl of cold water to keep them from going brown while you’re working on other stuff.]

Making the Sauce:

Making the roux.

Roux the day.

Melt the butter substitute (or margarine, even if it’s not called that) over medium heat in a saucepan or pot, and whisk in the flour a tablespoon at a time, stirring more or less constantly to make a roux. Let it brown a bit, maybe two minutes or so, and then begin adding the coconut milk, about 1/3 of a can at a time. [The full fat variety of coconut milk will probably have a big fatty plug at the top of the can; this is a good thing. Smooth it as you whisk.] Then add the almond milk and spices, continuing to whisk all the while (nothing says “M-m-m-m, tasty!” quite like a thumbnail-sized lump of mustard powder in your finished dish). The reason I used tamari rather than regular soy sauce was to keep the recipe gluten-free; if you don’t care about that, your basic Kikkoman will work just fine. All that need be done from here on is to keep it at a simmer; it only has to be warm (and liquid) enough to pour over the potatoes. Cover it (to keep it from reducing) and turn the heat down low while you focus on the next task: preparing the potatoes.

Preparing the Vegetables:

Spud ends.

Spud ends.

First, preheat your oven to 350ºF / 175 (actually 176.67)ºC

The potatoes (peeled or unpeeled, according to the chef’s whim) should be sliced to a thickness of about 1/8″ or so. More skilled craftsmen than I can perform this task handily with nothing more than a knife, but I use a mandoline (as you can see at the top of the post), and because I am a manly and foolhardy man, I use it without the safety guard. [THIS IS NOT RECOMMENDED!] Should you find the safety guard oppressive, one alternative is to wear a steel mesh or Kevlar glove. But in the true Anthony Bourdain spirit of recklessness, well, I don’t do either of those things. That being said, not only is slicing off your fingertips or shaving your palm — a real possibility! — painful and disfiguring, it also invalidates the recipe’s claim to being vegan. (Blood, even accidentally spilled, is an animal product.) When all the potatoes are sliced (and put in a bowl of water to prevent their discolouring), repeat the process with the onion.

Potatoes and onions, ring the bells of St. Bunion's.

Potatoes and onions, ring the bells of St. Bunion’s.

Layer the potatoes and onions into a greased large baking dish or Dutch oven (I used a 5 qt. Le Creuset Braiser, which worked magnificently). First set down a layer of overlapping potato slices, then scatter some onions on it, then ladle some of the sauce over. Lather, rinse, repeat, until the dish is full (I had about 1/2 lb of sliced potatoes left, which I put in the fridge, and will roast or fry later). Sprinkle some paprika on the top, if you so desire.

Ready for some ovenizing.

Ready for some ovenizing.

Cover with foil (or put on the lid), and pop it into the oven for 60 minutes at the aforementioned 350ºF / 175ºC. By then, the potatoes should be soft and yield easily to a fork. Give them another 10 minutes in the oven uncovered, and finish them off with about 5 minutes under the broiler to brown the top (be watchful during this process, because it can go pretty fast, depending on the distance between the dish and the flame).

Remove from oven, and allow them to cool for about 10 minutes.

Brown is beautiful.

Brown is beautiful.

Coda: I realized (a little too late) that some diced green chiles would be a terrific addition to the sauce; I heated some up and spooned them over top, but it didn’t have quite the same effect. Also, you may want to add some salt (or allow your diners to) at the table, as it was a tiny bit shy on the NaCl for my taste. And a little fresh ground pepper is also nice.

*The full-fat variety of coconut milk runs about 700 calories a can, which is a not inconsiderable amount, but don’t be tempted by low- or non-fat substitutions, because they won’t provide the same mouthfeel. And when you consider how many fewer calories it has than cream (52 per ounce vs. 103), it’s totally worth the “splurge.” [Also, the almond milk is only 7.5 calories per ounce, and given that you’ve also left out all the cheese, there’s a pretty dramatic reduction in calories compared to the standard au gratin recipe.]