Bensoir! It's me, Benjamin. I like to eat and drink. And cook. And write.

You may have read stuff I've written elsewhere, but here on my own blog as Ben Viveur I'm liberated from the editorial shackles of others, so pretty much anything goes.

BV is about enjoying real food and drink in the real world. I showcase recipes that taste awesome, but which can be created by mere mortals without the need for tons of specialist equipment and a doctorate in food science. And as a critic I tend to review relaxed establishments that you might visit on a whim without having to sell your first-born, rather than hugely expensive restaurants and style bars in the middle of nowhere with a velvet rope barrier, a stringent dress code and a six-month waiting list!

There's plenty of robust opinion, commentary on the world of food and drink, and lots of swearing, so look away now if you're easily offended. Otherwise, tuck your bib in, fill your glass and turbo-charge your tastebuds. We're going for a ride... Ben Appetit!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Cottage Pie and Broken Dreams

I’ve had an idea for a new TV food show, given that they’re all the rage at the minute’n’shit.

Probably called ‘Cook It!’, or ‘My Way’ or somesuch, it’s a format of such pure simplicity that it could make for fascinating contests, like the first couple of years of Big Brother before producers started wanking around with the rules and every housemate became a wannabe Z-lister.

And it might well have been done already – I don’t watch enough television to say for certain that it’s an original idea – but if it has, I’ve never seen it.

My screenplay, apparently
Little story: Many years ago I went for a meeting with a couple of TV producers to talk through some ideas I’d had, including one for an exciting, original drama full of intriguing twists.

They let me talk them enthusiastically through the synopsis for many minutes, perhaps with some degree of awkwardness on their part, before quietly informing me that I’d actually been recounting, with startling accuracy, the entire plot of The Pelican Brief. Oh.

I didn’t know! It wasn’t my fault I hadn’t read it or seen it and had just happened to come up with a similar idea! You've got to believe me!

I never heard from them again.

But life goes on

Anyway, here’s the deal: The contestants – three or four of them, probably - are told at the start of the programme what is on the menu that evening. Like ‘Spaghetti Bolognaise’ or ‘Eggs Benedict’ or ‘Cheese and Ham sandwich’ or ‘Apple Crumble’. Simple.

Perhaps after a couple of series, the prescribed dishes could be a little more ambiguous – ‘Pheasant Surprise’ or ‘Chocolate Outrageousness’ or something – but that’s it.

I think you see where I’m heading… we’d then see footage of the contestants going round shops buying up their ingredients, while the host watches on a big screen nodding and raising eyebrows as appropriate.

Later, in the studio, the cooks assemble in the on-set kitchens and - cue more nodding, eyebrow-raising and sarcastic comments - cook the specified dish. Their recipe. Their own individual take on whatever the menu might be.

Textbook Cottage Pie, this, texbook
The range of different interpretations of the same meal is bound to be interesting. Do they stick to a classic formula or ancient family recipe and concentrate on executing it perfectly? Do they take bold risks, topping their Bolognaise with slices of quince, or drizzling pigs blood over the crumble?

Will some poor sap spend hours perfecting an original and delicious Cottage Pie recipe, only to be told that ingredient-for-ingredient it's exactly the same as the Cottage Pie made by the catering unit on the set of The Pelican Brief?!?

God I wish those TV producers were reading this

I really like the idea that four different people could make four very different Paellas, and the winner would be determined by a vote after a tasting – though unlike Masterchef et al, I’d like to see the contestants make enough so the audience can try some too.

It seems ridiculous that the Ready Steady Cook winner is determined by the votes of a studio audience who only get to see (and possibly smell) the food. Surely you need to taste it to make an informed judgment, no?

And we’ll have no racing against the clock and plating up at the very last second or any of that needless manufactured drama either. They can start when they’re ready with a view to finishing at roughly the same time.

Anyway, I know it’s similar in a lot of ways to a number of existing shows, but then so is most TV.

On that note, here’s a relatively conservative – but extremely yummy – recipe for Cottage Pie, which I might possibly do if I were ever a contestant on this programme and ‘Cottage Pie’ was the dish of the day.

Actually, come to think of it, ‘Dish of the Day’ would be a far better title than ‘Cook It!’, wouldn’t it?

The BV Cottage Pie

Ingredients - serves four:

Lean minced beef, 1½-2 pounds
Carrots, 4 large or equivalent, coarsely grated
Onion, 1 large or 2 small, finely chopped
Chestnut mushrooms, a handful, chopped
9 out of 10 people we asked couldn't tell the difference!
Desiree or White potatoes, several, for the mash
Tomatoes, 3-4, chopped
Garlic, 2-3 cloves, smushed/finely chopped

Worcestershire Sauce and/or mushroom ketchup
Celery salt
Black pepper
Plain flour
Olive oil

Red Leicester or Mature Cheddar (or a mix of the two!), grated


Fry the onion and garlic in a little oil on a high heat until the onion softens, then add the minced beef. Season the meat generously with celery salt, paprika and black pepper as it cooks, then add the mushrooms, tomatoes and finally the grated carrot.

Once the meat is cooked through, add a big glug of Worcestershire Sauce/mushroom ketchup, reduce the heat and cover, letting it simmer for an hour or so, longer if you've time.

Coming along nicely...
While the meat is simmering, cook and mash your potatoes with lots of butter, aiming for a nice, creamy consistency, adding some grated cheese along the way.

Transfer your beefy mixture to a casserole dish, adding a little flour to thicken before so doing if necessary.

Ideally you want the dish to be filled evenly, and just over the half-way line to get the right ratio between potato and filling.

Spread your mash smoothly and evenly over the top of the meat, ensuring it’s completely covered, then add a sprinkling of grated cheddar to the top for extra cheesy goodness. Cheese goes well with beef and potato, don't you know!

Pop the dish in the oven (don’t cover!) at about 200 degrees for 15-20 minutes, so the cheese melts and the top browns slightly. When it looks ready, it’s ready.

Serve with a dollop of baked beans (be sure to add Worcestershire sauce) and a pint of good honest ordinary bitter.

For a ‘Shepherd’s Pie’ variation, use lamb instead of beef, substitute the carrot and paprika for diced aubergine, rosemary and mint, and perhaps top with crumbs of Feta instead of grated cheddar.


  1. Yummy, and I feel honoured that your recipe is very similar to mine - my cooking is obviously of a higher quality than I believed!

  2. Thanks Dawn - the reassurance goes both ways! (I'm more used to people telling me my recipe is nothing like theirs and how there are 12 things I should do differently...)

    There's nothing like proper winter comfort food... and as a poignant aside, I cooked this meal for my grandmother, shortly before she died.


Comments are always welcomed and encouraged, especially interesting, thought-provoking contributions and outrageous suggestions.