Growing up in Argentina, my siblings and I knew exactly what was for dinner almost every Tuesday and Thursday: pastel de papa. My mother used to make it in the morning so that it would be ready to pop in the oven in the evening, when she was tired after her afternoon tennis practice or matches. Back then, we would sometimes roll our eyes and put on martyred expressions at the table: Not this again! Now, I look back and understand that this hearty dish was a practical and economical meal to make for a family of six.
Years later, I met my now husband, Sean, a British telecoms engineer who had come to Buenos Aires with a temporary contract but ended up staying a lot longer. He loves to cook and entertain, which he does very well. One day when we were dating, Sean said he’d make a typical British dish for me: cottage pie. I was excited because I wasn’t familiar with British cuisine. I looked forward to trying it and the name conjured up new and exotic flavors and ingredients.
Sean opened the door to his apartment, and the appetizing flavors he’d created greeted me. I inhaled the tasty aromas, trying to identify them. Sean took the dish out of the oven and set it on the table. I sat there speechless, trying to say something appreciative. Cottage pie looked and tasted very similar to my mother’s pastel de papa. In fact, it’s the same dish with some regional variations.
British immigrants introduced cottage pie in Argentina when they came to work for the railway companies in the second half of the 19th century. Eventually, it was adopted as an Argentinian comfort food. Served at home and as the day’s special in neighborhood cafes and working-class establishments, pastel de papa is a big local favorite. Over time, some ingredients like chopped hard boiled eggs, raisins, green olives or cumin were added to the original recipe to reflect my country’s Spanish heritage. Since it’s such a hearty dish, people usually eat pastel de papa by itself or with a green salad. In Britain however, peas, green beans or boiled Savoy cabbage are served alongside the cottage pie.
Another big difference is that the British version of cottage pie includes diced vegetables, gravy and Worcestershire sauce. Pastel de papa recipes call for chopped onion, scallions and occasionally, a red bell pepper. Cottage pie consists of a layer of mashed potatoes on top of the beef, whereas the beef filling is sandwiched between layers of mashed potatoes in the pastel de papa.
I continue my mother’s tradition of playing tennis on Thursdays and making pastel de papas. However, mine is a British-Argentinean hybrid: I use green olives and cumin and serve it with green peas. Life’s twists and turns have taken me from my childhood home in Argentina to a new life in Dallas as a married woman. I brought some of the flavors from my mother’s table because they are part of me. I’m geographically far but those flavors help me feel close. And, like our marriage, my dish is also a blend of our cultures and reflects both of our heritages, Argentinean and British.
Basic recipe for pastel de papa
6 cups leftover mashed potatoes
6 large potatoes peeled and cut into chunks
1 stick butter
1 cup milk
Salt, to taste
1 lb ground beef
1 large onion, chopped
3 scallions, chopped
3 tbsp. olive oil
½ cup beef broth
2 tbsp. raisins (optional)
2 tbsp. green olives, chopped (optional)
2 hard-boiled eggs, chopped (optional)
½ tsp. cumin
½ tsp. grated nutmeg
½ tsp. black pepper
1 tsp. salt
1 tbsp. tomato puree
Heat the oil over medium-high heat. Sauté the onion and scallions until translucent. Add the beef and cook through. Add the spices, broth and raisins and olives if using. Cook a little longer until the flavors blend.
Meanwhile, boil the potatoes until fork tender. Drain. Add salt, butter and milk and mash until smooth.
Layer the ground beef mixture in a baking dish. Add the chopped eggs. With a spatula, evenly spread the mashed potatoes on top of the beef.
Broil until the mash becomes crusty and golden.
Serve with a side salad or green peas. Or both, why not!