yuca & venison shepherd’s pie (the venison diaries, part II)

This dish has been a long time in the making… some of you may remember that I mentioned Marvin’s mom making a version of it for Christmas Eve in ’08, and I’ve been wanting to try it ever since.  She uses ground beef in her version, but I rarely ever cook with ground beef.  However, I do have a freezerful of ground venison courtesy of my dad, and have been looking for different ways to use it.  So far I made a really good venison & porcini mushroom ragu, and I’m sure there will be a batch or two of chili, but I wanted to be a bit experimental and I’ve been wanting to cook with yuca for quite a while now, so this casserole was born. (See this post for more about yuca.)

I call the dish “shepherd’s pie” because that’s the closest thing I’m reminded of, with the seasoned ground meat being cooked under a layer of starchy veg.  The yuca is quite a bit different than potato in that it is very dense and has a lot of “chew” to it.  When you mash it, it holds together almost like dough, and when it’s baked, the top gets a nice crunchy texture.  Even if you don’t follow this recipe, I would encourage you to play around with yuca because it’s a fun and unique starch.   My photos were not taken in the greatest lighting, so this may not look like the most attractive dish, but it’s easy and homey and familiar yet exotic all at once.  By all means, if you’re not a fan of venison, use ground beef like Marvin’s mom does; my use of venison was just because that’s what I had.

This was also the fist time I had used achiote (aka annatto).  I used the whole seeds to flavor some canola oil, which I then used to saute the vegetables and meat.  To make achiote oil, just warm some neutral oil in a skillet (I prefer a silver skillet so you can see the color).  Add some achiote seeds and gently swirl the oil until it reaches a deep orange color and becomes fragrant.  Don’t let the oil get too hot or the seeds will burst and become bitter.  Strain the oil before using. 

Yuca Shepherd’s Pie
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For the yuca layers:

24-oz bag frozen yuca, or 1 1/2 lbs yuca, peeled
3-4 cloves garlic, smashed
small onion, quartered
salt & pepper
1/4 to 1/2 cup olive oil

For the meat layer:

1 lb ground beef or venison
2-4 Tbs achiote oil or vegetable oil
1 large white onion, diced
3-5 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium carrot, peeled & diced small
2 jalapenos, minced (remove pith & seeds for less heat, or sub 1/2 a green pepper for a non-spicy version)
2 Tbs tomato paste
1 tsp ground cumin
1/4 cup chopped cilantro

salt & pepper

Directions:

Put a large pot of well-salted water to boil.  Cut the yuca lengthwise and then into chunks of roughly equal size.  Add the yuca, garlic, onion, and a few grinds of pepper to the water.  Let simmer, covered, for an hour.  Check the yuca by cutting or smashing a piece- it should be a pale yellow and have no opaque white spots.  You may need to cook the yuca for up to 90 minutes to get it fully cooked through.  When the yuca is done, remove with a slotted spoon and discard the garlic, onion and cooking water.  There will be a tough stringy core in the center of the yuca that you should easily be able to remove with your fingers.  Place the yuca in the bowl of a stand mixer and use the paddle attachment to mix the yuca into a smooth paste, adding the olive oil in a thin stream.  Start with 1/4 cup and add more if needed, based on the taste and consistency of the yuca.  Taste for salt, adding if needed.

While the yuca is cooking, prepare the meat: Heat 2-3 Tbs oil in a large skillet over medium heat.  When hot, add the onion, garlic and carrot.  Cook for a few minutes until the onion & carrot begin to soften; then add the peppers.  Cook for a minute longer and add the meat, cumin, 1 tsp salt and a few grinds of pepper.  If you’re using venison you may need to add a bit more oil to prevent sticking.  Cook the meat, stirring frequently, until it is fully browned and cooked through.  Stir in the tomato paste and cilantro. Taste for salt and adjust as necessary.

Preheat the oven to 350.  Spray a 9×13″ lasagna pan or other casserole dish with cooking spray, or brush with olive oil.  Spread about 1/3 of the yuca over the bottom of the pan using a spatula
(if that’s not enough to cover the bottom you can use a little more; just make sure to reserve more than half for the top layer because it’ll be harder to spread).  The yuca will be very sticky so it may help to lightly oil the spatula.  Dump the meat in a layer over the yuca (if using beef, you may want to use a slotted spoon to drain off some of the grease).  Spread the meat in an even layer, pressing it into the yuca.  Take the remaining yuca and spread it over the meat.  You may need to use your hands to spread and press it down; if so, you’ll want to oil your hands first.  (Looking at my photos, you can see it was a challenge to get the yuca all the way out to the sides!)  Lightly brush the final layer of yuca with olive oil.

Bake the casserole for about 30 minutes or until the yuca starts to become crisp and brown.  If after 30 minutes the yuca is not browning, you can run it under the broiler for a minute or two to get a nice crunchy top.  If you have any cilantro left over, you can use it as garnish.

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