This page has been rather quiet this spring, mainly because there hasn't been a lot of cooking going on in my kitchen that I've not already shared. While our new life in Virginia has not been without adventures, they've not been of the culinary kind. I've been excavating and discovering our own Secret Garden.
Our house sits on more than an acre of land, which nowadays can be called a "garden" only in the very loosest sense of the term. Mind, it wasn't always that way: When Alice and Tom Maclin built the house in 1942, they set about turning the acre of land around it into a showplace. Tom grew and grafted camellias, Alice loved annual beds.
In it's prime, their garden boasted more than forty different camellias, some twenty azaleas in at least a dozen varieties, and more than six dogwoods. There was also a Japanese dogwood, tulip magnolia, white sasanqua, flowering quince, buckeye, nandina, English boxwoods, and a majestic red maple, many of which have survived to this day.
After Tom died in 1960, Alice shouldered on alone, nurturing their garden well into the 1990s. But then age began to impose its limits, and after her death in 2001, the house and garden began an almost two decade long decline into hopeless neglect.
By the time we were entrusted with their former showplace in 2019, the house was rundown and badly in need of paint, repair, and love. But what it needed was nothing compared to its garden. This is Virginia: it only takes a year or so of neglect for the state's namesake creeper, wisteria, Carolina jasmine, poison ivy, thorny brambles, and wild grapes to take over.
Multiply that by eighteen and add in a bamboo grove along the north side of the property, two felled tree trunks that had never been removed, a dilapidated greenhouse and ruins of a second one, a ramshackle potting shed, and you will begin to see what we're up against.
So, this past winter and early spring, a season I normally spend puttering in the kitchen, has instead found me hacking away at that jungle. There's still a long way to go and sometimes it seems as if the hours of back-breaking pruning, yanking, chopping, and hauling have barely made a dent. But reminding myself that it took eighteen years for the garden to get this overgrown, and that it can't be restored to its former glory in a day, I try to focus on what's been accomplished rather than what still lies ahead.
And it hasn't been without rewards. We thought we had maybe a dozen camellias and perhaps half a dozen azaleas. However, under all those vines were almost fifty of the former (most of them unique), and more than twenty of the latter. There were also a lot of other ornamental flowering shrubs and trees that were so buried that we didn't realize they were here.
And the discoveries haven't just been of plants: the tangle of vines had been hiding, among other things, a low brick terrace wall, a toppled sundial with its bronze face and cast stone pedestal still in almost perfect condition, the ornamental iron post of a gas lantern, and a cast stone urn.
There have been garden pots, buried glass hurricane shades that have emerged without a chip or scratch, and the flagstone-paved terrace is three feet wider than it had appeared to be.
Needless to say, with all that going on, my cooking has been basic and heavy on our favorite comfort foods. We've not had a lot left over for entertaining, and this year, with our family all committed elsewhere, for the first time in at least a decade I didn't cook for Easter.
That did not mean, however, that I had any intention of doing without my favorite Easter dinner recycle, Shepherd's Pie. A pound of very tender and flavorful ground lamb filled in for minced leftover roast, and might even have been better.
If you're using leftover lamb, trim it of any excess fat and gristle and chop it fine. Omit the browning step and use 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil or butter to sauté the vegetables.
3 large mature yellow-flesh potatoes such as Yukon Gold (about 1½-pounds)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
About ¾ cup whole milk, heated
1 pound ground lamb
Olive oil or butter, if needed
1 medium yellow onion, trimmed, split lengthwise, peeled, and diced small
1 large or 2 medium carrots, trimmed, peeled, and diced small
1 larger or 2 medium ribs celery, washed, strung, and diced small
1 large clove garlic, lightly crushed, peeled, and minced
1 rounded tablespoon fresh or 1 rounded teaspoon dried thyme leaves
2 tablespoons instant blending or all-purpose flour
About 2 cups beef broth
1 cup frozen petite peas, thawed
Whole black pepper in a mill
1. The best way to cook the potatoes for the fullest flavor is whole: scrub them under cold running water and put them in a large pot. Add water to cover by about an inch, lift the potatoes out, cover the pot, and bring the water to a rolling boil. Return the potatoes and add a large pinch of salt, let it come back to a boil, then adjust the heat to a lively simmer. Cook until they pierce easily with a fork or knife, about twenty-to-thirty minutes. If you're in a hurry, peel and cut them into even dice, then put them in the pot with water to barely cover, add a large pinch of salt, loosely cover the pan, and bring to a boil over medium high heat. Adjust the heat to a steady simmer and cook until tender, about 6-8 minutes.
2. Drain the potatoes, cover the pot and, off the heat, let them steam for a couple of minutes. If they're whole, let them cool until you can handle them and while still hot, peel and cut them into even chunks. Press the potatoes through a ricer back into the pan and return it to low heat, add the butter and mash until smooth, then mix in hot milk until they're the texture that suits you. Taste and add salt as needed, then set them aside.
3. Meanwhile, position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 375° F. Heat a large seasoned iron or nonstick skillet over medium heat. Crumble the lamb into the warm pan and raise the heat to medium-high. Cook until it's lost its raw red color and has rendered some of its fat, turning it often. Remove it from the pan with a slotted spoon.
4. Spoon off all but 2 tablespoons of the fat or if there's not enough, add oil or butter as needed. Add the onion and adjust the heat to medium. Sauté until it's translucent and beginning to color, about 3-4 minutes. Add the carrot and celery and sauté until they're beginning to soften, about 3-4 minutes longer. Add the garlic and sauté about a minute longer, then add the thyme, stir, and sprinkle the flour evenly into the pan. Using a flat whisk or wooden spoon, stir until smooth. Gradually stir in 2 cups broth and bring it to a simmer, stirring constantly, until it thickens, then adjust the heat to a simmer, season to taste with salt, pepper, and Worcestershire, and let it cook 3-4 minutes. Add the peas and when simmering once more, cook another minute or two. Fold in the lamb and let it heat through. Taste and adjust the seasonings, and if it seems too thick, add a little more broth as needed. Cook a minute longer and remove it from the heat.
5. Pour the lamb mixture into a shallow 2-quart casserole or 10-inch deep-dish pie pan and level it with a spatula. Dollop the potatoes evenly over the top, then smooth them to cover the entire dish. Rake the top with a fork, then bake it in the center of the oven until it's bubbly and the potatoes are lightly browned, about 35-40 minutes. Let it rest for 5-10 minutes before serving.