Meat and potatoes. The phrase has grown to mean more than just a protein and a starch. It’s become a descriptor, shorthand to describe an unadventurous—possibly even boring—eater. Every so often, you’ll hear a chef or manager describe their customers this way: “Well, I would love to put something different on the menu, but our customers…they’re very meat and potatoes.”
Well, meat-and-potato dishes like chorizo empanadas, Cornish pasties, Southwestern shepherd’s pies and Indian samosas just might be the way to change all that. Flavor profiles from around the globe and portable presentations take meat and potatoes (and your “meat and potatoes” customers) on a flavor adventure.
Miner Food and the Latin American Hot Pocket
Let’s begin underground to find the origins of portable meat and potatoes. The tin miners of Cornwall are said to be the originators of the Cornish pasty, a sturdy pastry shell surrounding meat, root vegetables, gravy and diced potatoes. The pasty was a portable lunch, taken into the dark depths of the mine. Pasties stay warm for hours, can be eaten without cutlery and—legend has it—are tough enough to survive a fall down a mineshaft.
From those mines, the Cornish pasty traveled to miners’ lunchboxes across the ocean to the mining towns of the new country.
In the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the Cornish pasty is a local favorite, something the chefs at Michigan State University (MSU) are very familiar with. This portable meat pie is a jumping-off point for Jason Strotheide, executive chef, MSU Culinary Services, East Neighborhood, who finds meat-and-potatoes inspiration everywhere.
“One of my favorite things about food is that across the globe there are different cultural versions of the same foods represented in countless ways,” Strotheide says. “It’s all about the methods of preparations and, more importantly, what ingredients the locals have to work with.”
In a college dining environment, the idea of a portable feast that works for every daypart and even catering, is especially appealing, and Strotheide draws on the “endless varieties of the prestuffed, folded sandwich,” he says.
“In the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, it’s Cornish pasties. But how about a curried lamb samosa from India?” Strotheide muses. “Both of those are great, but my favorite is the empanada: The Latin American version of the beloved Hot Pocket.”
Empanadas in the MSU kitchen begin with masa harina (translated to “dough flour,” it’s a traditional Mexican flour made with corn). Strotheide likes to blend masa harina with white flour, a combination that yields a tender dough with a light corn flavor and a crisp snap when fried.
For the filling, he browns crumbly chorizo sausage with onion, garlic and diced potatoes (skin on), along with some spicy chilies. Strotheide tastes the filling, and if chorizo lacks oompf, he adds some chili powder and cumin. The filling is then cooled, queso fresco or queso Chihuahua cheese is added along with cilantro. From there, the empanadas are formed: dough circles, filling added and edges crimped with a fork. These can be baked, but, “let’s be honest, we all know they taste better out of the fryer,” Strotheide says.
“Once they’re finished cooking,” he cautions, “no matter what your mind tells you, do not take that first bite for a couple minutes, unless you like searing pain on the roof of your mouth! Then, go ahead and take your best shot.” He also recommends “minimizing the damage” by offering some cool guacamole or crema on the side.
Living dangerously aside, empanadas like these present a great opportunity to use the last of late summer’s bounty. Sweet corn, peppers and zucchini all go great with chorizo.
Shepherding in a New Era of Comfort Food
Shepherd’s pie, another meat-and-potatoes dish with a working-class history, makes mashed potatoes the star of the show.
The classic version, with ground lamb, carrots and peas in a super savory gravy topped with fluffy mashed potatoes, is the blueprint. Chefs like Sarah Falls, executive chef at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., are making the comfort food icon.
“I’m always inspired to find easy ways to make everyday meals different,” Falls says. She’s built on the blueprint of shepherd’s pie (see sidebar), changing up the aromatics, ingredients and proteins, creating the mashed topping with root veggies and adding new cheeses to the crust.
Kid-friendly meat and potatoes
Tex-Mex cuisine tends to appeal to the K-12 crowd, and it’s another way to riff on shepherd’s pie. Dayle Hayes, MS, RD, the school lunch advocate behind School Meals That Rock, a school nutrition resource, points to this, and other ideas that mix the familiar with world flavors as good kids’ dishes. One idea is the Lomo Saltado, the Peruvian meat-and-potatoes dish that introduces the tastes of green onion, jalapeño and soy sauce. Hayes is also a fan of bowls for kids, like a Denver omelet brunch bowl that works any time of day. She sees potatoes as a way to get kids started with vegetables.
“We know that kids love potatoes. That’s why I sometimes call them ‘the gateway vegetable,’” Hayes says. “We also know that they love burgers and chicken fingers. K-12 innovators are learning to combine meat and potatoes in ways that maximize kid appeal with nutrition.”
Some of those ways that Hayes has seen in the schools include mashed potato bowls, potato nachos and the updated baked potato bar (with more beans and veggies).
When it comes to meat and potatoes, it’s definitely possible “to go above and beyond burgers and fries,” Hayes says. “Creativity is the key.”