Late summer is upon us. The garden is needy, and the weather, until two days ago, had not been willing to do any of the obligatory watering for me. I mostly let the tomatoes go. They were on their...
Retro recipes have been coming back into fashion lately. I've seen a few aspics in popular food magazines, and rumaki got a shout-out on Mad Men. There are probably many reasons for this trend, including changes in barometric pressure and the phases of the moon, but I like to stick to philosophizing about tangible reasons for things being the way they are. I have a one-word response to all this: Grandmother.
Most of my personal Proustian moments occur when I smell something that resembles the smells in my grandmother's house. Collard greens are a prime example. The smell of cooking collard greens is not inherently pleasant, but it is nonetheless capable of making my stomach growl simply because I remember my grandmother cooking them. Ditto brown gravy. Thoroughly unexciting, especially to someone with a palate for highly-flavored foods. But Grandma made it.
Of course, we could go deeper. We think so fondly of these homely foods because they are foods from a simpler, sweeter time in our lives when our biggest worries were acquiring one of the swings on the playground at recess and getting the dog to eat our green beans without Mom noticing. Ah yes, the good old days. I find that I especially crave things like this when the world is going crazy, as it has been lately. Listening to the radio in the morning is enough to make you want to get back in bed and pull the covers over your eyes. Wake me when it's over! At least you can return to childhood at your dinner table. Just don't play with your food, and remember to use your utensils. You probably have a reputation to maintain, after all.
This recipe is a true classic gem from Irma Rombauer's 1939 cookbook, Streamlined Cooking. Being a recipe from 1939, it is a little lacking in flavor. If your family likes food on the subtle side, it will probably suit you just fine. If you like more spice, please feel free to add it liberally. I can imagine that a good dose of chili powder or, if you like Indian spices, some garam masala or a spicy curry powder would be a good companion to this dish. The white bread crust is terribly cute, but you could always use whole wheat bread or even a real piecrust. I tend to think that the crust as-is gives this dish more character.
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Heat in a large skillet over medium-high heat:
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
Cook, breaking up the beef with a spoon, until it is browned and the onion softened, about 10 minutes:
1 pound lean ground beef
1 medium onion, chopped
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons chili powder
Cook, stirring, 1 minute. Stir in:
One 14 1⁄2-ounce can tomatoes, with their juice
One 15 1⁄4-ounce can corn, drained, or one 10-ounce package frozen corn, thawed
Bring to a simmer, breaking up the tomatoes with a spoon, and cook 3 minutes. Stir in:
3⁄4 teaspoon salt
(1 to 2 teaspoons minced garlic)
(1 teaspoon brown sugar)
Transfer the mixture to a 9-inch glass pie pan or 8 x 8-inch baking dish. Set aside. Trim the crusts from:
6 slices white sandwich bread
Spread one side of the slices with:
2 tablespoons butter, softened
Cut the bread slices into quarters. Arrange the quarters buttered side up over the meat mixture, overlapping the pieces by about 1⁄2 inch and covering the mixture completely. Gently press the bread down to anchor it to the filling. Bake until the crust is browned, about 30 minutes.