The Leaves that are Yellow :: {Frontier Pie}

The Very Strange Tree
We have a very strange tree in our back yard.  I think it's a baby tree because it has a slender trunk, but the leaves are the size of umbrellas.  I've tried to find out what kind of tree it is, but the closest picture I can find is in a Dr. Seuss book.  The leaves are already starting to turn yellowish brown and wrinkle up a bit -- a sure reminder that it is, indeed, September, if only the beginning. 

We had a mulberry tree in our backyard when I was growing up.  It was a good for nothing tree, which killed the grass with its stinking, fermenting berries in the summer.  The most dreaded summer chore (second only to deadheading my mother's sticky petunias) was sweeping, nay, smearing, the fallen berries from the center garden path.  You had to hold your breath while you did it, to save yourself from the smell of rotten fruit.  To further recommend this tree, it lost its leaves all at once.  They didn't even change color first.  One day they were on the tree, green and waxy looking, and then next morning they'd all be yellow and on the grass.  My brother and I would be sent out that very day to rake them.  They weren't lovely and crisp like autumn leaves should be, nor did they rake into a big puffy pile of wonderful colors.  They stuck to the rake because they were still moist, they smelled like old socks, and they sat in a great heavy heap on the grass.

My autumn fun not to be stymied by this tree, however, I always jumped into the soggy pile and happily flopped about.  Every year, my brother went lumbering off to tinker with something more interesting, leaving me to imagine the leaves into confetti, a cloud, a dune.

The last fall I ever jumped in the leaves was the year my brother came lumbering back, apparently having found nothing more important to do other than shatter my illusions.  "Phe," he reported with a convincing amount of conjured wisdom and self importance, "There are probably slugs stuck to the bottom of those leaves.  They'll go down your shirt, and then you'll have slugs down your shirt."  And he went lumbering off, smiling, I'm sure, as I catapulted myself out of the leaves and started shimmying and squealing.

This fall both of us are doing, more or less, the things we did then.  My brother is starting a weekly radio talk show on NPR where he'll relay facts to the listeners about where they live and what they might want to do about it.  It probably won't have much to do with slugs, but knowing my brother and his limitless capacity to find interesting nuggets of life everywhere you least expect it, slugs could very well be featured.  As for me, I'm still imagining things, but this time I'm going to do something about it.  See?  Not much has changed.

Frontier Pie
I figure if shepherd's pie is made with lamb and cottage pie with beef, then if you use bison meat it must pie!!  Of course, you can adapt this recipe to use any kind of ground meat.  Bison is becoming increasingly more available, tastes great, is lower in fat than beef, and is grass-fed and humanely raised.
{serves at least two very hungry grown-ups and one toddler, with leftovers}
Coat the bottom of your pot or large skillet (a deep cast iron skillet works brilliantly) with olive oil and place it over medium to medium-high heat.  While the oil is heating, chop one onion, two stalks of celery, and two large carrots into small dice (about 1/4 inch squares).  Add this to your hot oil and saute, stirring frequently, until your veggies start to develop some nice color and your onions go translucent.  Strip the leaves off about five twigs of fresh thyme or a teaspoonful of dried thyme and add this to the pan.  Season with salt and pepper and empty the contents of the pan into a bowl and reserve.  Add a bit more oil to your pan and when it's hot add one pound of ground bison meat.  Season with salt, pepper, and a few splashes of Worcestershire sauce, breaking up the meat with your wooden spoon and moving it around the pan until it's nice and browned.  You might need to turn the heat up a bit to get some nice color on your bison.  When it's lovely and brown, add your veggies back to the pan, and a giant heaping spoonful of tomato paste, and stir and fry to caramelize everything.  Sprinkle over a heaping tablespoon of flour, and cook this, stirring, for a minute or so.  Now add your liquid.  You'll need about a cup and a half of wine, broth, water, beer, or a mixture.  I used wine and broth.  Turn the heat to low and simmer while you make your potatoes. Taste and season with salt, pepper, or more Worcestershire sauce if you need to.
Now, I had an epiphany about potatoes as they are concerned with pies like this.  You need a fairly dry mash so that it holds up as a nice crust when you serve it, but you don't want the mash to be dry for lack of unctuous dairy and butter.  Here's my solution: bake (don't boil!) your potatoes.  You can either do this ahead in the oven, or at the last minute in the microwave.  I never use the microwave for real cooking, but in this case it's absolutely forgivable -- just remember to flip your potatoes half-way through cooking.  You'll need about 4 large russet potatoes for this dish.  After you've baked or microwaved them, cut them in half and scoop the flesh into a large bowl.  Add about 2/3 of a stick of butter, a splash or two of milk, and two heaping spoons of sour cream and mash until smooth.  Season with salt and pepper, taste, and adjust.  The consistency of these potatoes should still be quite dry.  They should look almost unappetizing.
Transfer your meat to an ovenproof dish (if you've used cast iron, you're all set!) and dollop the potatoes on top.  Smash them around until they're more or less even and all the meat is covered.  Now take the tines of a fork and rough up the top surface -- this will give you lovely little crunchy bits.  Put a few little pats of butter on top.
Bake in a 375 degree oven until everything is bubbly and the top is beginning to brown, about 15 minutes.  If the top isn't browning well, you can broil it for a few minutes at the end of the cooking time.  If you're more patient than I am, let this sit for about 10 minutes after you pull it out of the oven -- it will hold together better while you're serving.