Cottage pie for comfort

Cottage pie title © J Horak-Druiff 2011

As Alannis Morisette said: “Well life has a funny way of sneaking up on you when you think everything’s okay and everything’s going right” – and she wasn’t kidding.

This post was meant to be a joyous recounting of our incredible 2 weeks in South Africa; of the super successful Food Blogger Indaba 2011; of the glorious time we spent at the Beacon Isle Hotel in Plettenberg Bay; of our wedding vow renewal on the beach at Cape St Francis; and of our whirlwind tour of Cape Town’s culinary hotspots. But the universe evidently had other plans.  24 hours before we returned to London, my 88-year-old father fell on the stairs in his house and broke his hip.  I was already 800km away in Cape Town and after talking to boith my father and my brother, decided not to cancel my flight back to London.  My father sounded calm and in good spirits from his hospital bed and hip surgery is fairly routine.  Besides, everybody agreed that the real difficulty would be the long and slow recovery time, so I decided that visiting him a month or so after the operation would probably be of more benefit to everybody.

But although it is now four days after the fall, he is still in hospital, in traction and on morphine, still with a broken hip.  Various tests have revealed that the fall may in fact not have been a case of him tripping, but rather having a heart attack which caused him to fall.  His heart, besides being 88 years old, was found to be in a compromised position.  And while general anaesthetic for somebody who is 88 years old is risky, it’s even more so for an 88 year-old with a bad heart.  While the doctors have debated the pros and cons and sent my brother and his wife on a runaround of medical protocol hell, my father has become increasingly confused and agitated, wanting on occasion to get out of bed if only somebody would hand him his walking stick; or believing that he is in Plettenberg Bay rather than a hospital.  Speaking to him on the phone is increasingly difficult and heartbreaking; but I am sure it is even harder on my brother who has to see his father helpless in a hospital bed.

Surgery has been postponed and postponed – first because my father was choosing an orthopaedic surgeon (he’s a doctor and has strong opinions on who is a “quack” and who is an expert!); then because they were trying to ascertain the condition of his heart; and yesterday because there was no bed available in the intensive care unit for him after surgery.  The latest plan is to have surgery this afternoon. I have been on the phone to my brother and sister-in-law constantly; trying to keep track of what is happening; trying to do what I can from here; and talking to my dad, even though the morphine makes him almost indecipherable.  I have debated rushing home, but although that seems a gllibly simple solution, work and financial commitments here in London mean that it is easier said than done.  I keep reminding myself that I have just spent ten days of quality time on holiday with my father, talking , eating, laughing, celebrating and walking on the beach.  He knows I love him.  And I pray that it will be the love of his family that will strengthen and sustain him through the operation he will be having this afternoon.  He’s a tough old bugger, as my husband keeps reminding me.



I, on the other hand, don’t even pretend to be tough.  I feel physically exhausted and emotionally drained by the worry and uncertainty. On some theoretical level you know that living on a different continent to your family wil entail some tough choices, but you never know just how tough until Fate throws you a curve ball like this.  I arrived home last night in no mood to cook or eat, but I know my body needs sustenance to carry me through the coming days and weeks.  Whatever I made had to be supremely comforting but fairly simple, and this cottage pie fits both requirements perfectly.  The longer you can leave the mince to simmer, the better the flavours will be.

Serve this with green vegetables and an easy-drinking red wine like Graham Beck’s Railroad Red.


Cottage pie
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
This traditional British dish of beef mince under a cheesy topping of mashed potatoes is hearty and comforting - like a hug in a bowl.
Recipe type: Entree
Cuisine: British
Serves: 4
  • 750g (27 oz) lean beef mince/ground beef
  • 2 medium onions, chopped
  • 4 medium carrots, finely diced
  • 4 sticks celery, finely diced
  • 2 large cloves garlic, crushed
  • olive oil for frying
  • 1 x 410g (14 oz) tin chopped tomatoes with juice
  • 250ml (8.5 fl oz) beef stock
  • 2 Tbsp tomato concentrate paste
  • 1 Tbsp
  • chipotle ketchup
  • (optional)
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 1 bay leaf
  • salt and pepper
  • 4 large floury potatoes, peeled and diced
  • 75g (1/3 cup) butter
  • 50ml (1.75 fl oz) milk (or more, as needed)
  • 1 tsp mustard of your choice
  • 100g (3.5 oz) Cheddar cheese, grated
  • salt and pepper
  1. Add enough oil to a large, deep frying pan to cover the base and heat. Sautée the onion, carrots and garlic in the oil until the onion is translucent but not yet browning. Add the garlic and beef and continue to cook until the mince is browned and almost cooked.
  2. Stir in the tin of tomatoes, beef stock, tomato paste, sugar, chipotle ketchup (if using) and bay leaf. Bring to a boil, then turn the heat down and simmer over medium heat until the sauce has reduced to the desired consistency (about 30-40 minutes). Check for seasoning and add salt and pepper at the end.
  3. Pre-heat the oven to 190C (375F).
  4. In the meantime, boil the potatoes in water until soft enough to pierce easily with a sharp knife (about 20 minutes). Drain well. In a bowl, mash the potatoes well together with the butter, mustard and milk. Check for seasoning and add salt and pepper to taste.
  5. Spoon the cooked mince into an ovenproof casserole dish, discarding the bay leaf. Spread the mashed potato as evenly as possible over the top, making sure all the mince is covered. Score some lines in the top of the potato with a fork, then sprinkly liberally with the grated cheese. Place in the pre-heated oven for 30 minutes or until the potato topping turns golden brown. You can also turn the grill on for a few minutes towards the end.

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  1. says

    Oh, sweetheart, I am sending you hugs and your dad my thoughts and prayers. I, too, live far from my family and have had to struggle with the decision many times of whether or not to go back to help a sick loved one or even whether or not to go back for a funeral. My mom is old and frail and I want to be with her but I know I can’t always be there. My life is here now. But as you said (and I have also been in the same place) you just spent a wonderful holiday with him and that is so important. If you must go back you’ll do it. It is not easy when one lives far from those we love. And hope that things like this wonderful Cottage Pie do bring you comfort. xoxo

  2. says

    I’ve said what I wanted to say in my emails. I am here always and forever. You do not have to be strong – I will be for you when you are weak. Love you!

  3. says

    I can’t imagine what you’re going through. Both my parents are still alive and also live in South Africa. If something happened to them I’ll shit myself. I don’t know how you’re coping, you must be stronger than me! Best of luck and I hope to hearing good news from you soon. x

  4. says

    Such a hard thing to deal with, even worse when you are far away. Thinking of you, and I hope it will all go well with him, so that he can get out of hospital as soon as possible.

  5. says

    Oh sweetie, just remember those 10 days you just spent with your dad. You know that I am praying….for your dad, for you & Nick, your brother and his family. Wish I could put my arms around you now as you wait…and wait!! Its just the worst part. I think back to when Don was in hospital and morphine was doing the talking. It makes them very confused and agitated. Big hugs to you. Love you xx

  6. says

    Oh Jean! sending so many hugs and such love to you and your family.. Being far from family at a time like this is TOUGH.. you’re lucky to have your husband with you, and that time with your dad so recently.
    Your dad knows you love him, he knows how much you care and how much you want to be there, and he understands that you can’t.
    Rest assured that we’re all here with you, holding your hand each step of the way :)
    hugs and love from sa!

  7. says

    Jeanne I am so sorry to hear about your dad. When you are far away it makes it that much more difficult. I was talking to my own dad this morning who lives 1,000 of miles away, and is about the same age, and my heart goes out to you. Comfort food like cottahe pie are perfect at times like this.

  8. says

    Oh Jeanne – my heart is breaking for you and your family, andy thoughts are with you. I hope like hell he pulls through and recovers. Here’s a big virtual hug. Robyn x

  9. Gill says

    Oh Jeanne honey, this must be soooo tough on you! Thinking of you and your Dad at this horribly trying time xxx

  10. says

    I’m so sorry to hear about your dad, Jeanne. I can only imagine how gutting this whole situation is for you. Sending you big hugs and hoping for healing, understanding and wisdom for everyone involved.

  11. says

    Dear Jeanne, best wishes to your family and your dad. I know how it feels, we are also thousands of miles away (Beijing) from our family in SA. It breaks your heart when something like this happens.

  12. Barbara says

    Hi Jeanne – just been reading the news about your Dad and wanted to send a cyberhug and note to say we Scatterlings have such a hard time being so far away … as you say, we know it’s part of what we have to deal with but, when the time comes it’s so very much harder than we imagined. Sounds like your Dad is in good medical hands, with family close by. Take time to enjoy your portion of cottage pie, while you reflect on the happy holiday you’ve just had with him. Stay strong and positive while they take care of him back home.

  13. says

    That is the hard part about living in a different country from your loved ones, as so many of us do. I hope the surgery goes well, and the important thing to focus on is the fact that he does know how much you care. Miles cannot stop love flowing from one continent to another. take care

  14. says

    Oh man. I hope he gets better quickly. At least you were close to home in case you had to rush to him. As for the cottage pie, we had some just the other night.

  15. says

    Jeanne, I’m so sorry to hear about your dad! Sending hugs and prayers your way. I think if it was me eating the cottage pie I would have cried all the way through as cottage pie reminds me of home. Hope he recovers soon! Robyn

  16. says

    I’m sorry to hear your dad is not well, I hope he recovers soon! I know very well how it is like to live far away from your family (myself being in Australia, my parents in Finland I couldn’t be much further away) and one feels so helpless when something happens to them. This cottage pie is such a warming, welcoming dish – perfect for any situation.

  17. says

    My dear friend I know exactly how you feel. I have just been through that with my boss (who is like a father to me). It’s very hard when they are confused and agitated. I’m praying for you and your family. Being far away from the ones we love is so painful, when they are healthy – can not imagine your pain being so far. Love and strength to you (and Nick).

  18. says

    My dad was very ill last year due to a serious back operation that went wrong, 10 years after he had huge heart bypass surgery. I know the uncertainty and worry that goes along with something like this!! I am thinking of you and your dad and your whole family! Be strong and calm, and be thankful that he is in good hands. xx

  19. says

    Twenty or so years ago when I decided to live on another continent, my parents were healthy and strong. Now they are getting weaker, and my heart breaks every time I talk to them.
    My dad is also a retired physician, which makes him the worst possible patient.
    I feel your anguish and wish that I can do more than offer my thoughts and well wishes.
    I hope surgery goes well and he recovers soon.
    He knows that he has a loving family.

  20. says

    Lots of love and prayers going your way Jeanne! It is so hard to see a parent in that situation. I hope he recovers quickly and ENJOY that cottage pie, you need all the comfort you can get now! xx

  21. says

    My heart goes out to you Jeanne, I know how hard it is to not be able to be there with your dad right now. I saw my mother go through it with my grandfather and I understand that helpless feeling. I’ll be thinking of you and your family, and wishing for the speediest of recoveries.

  22. says

    I’m very, very sorry to hear about your father’s accident. What a stressful time you’re going through. You and your brother certainly won’t feel better until he does so I do hope he’s feeling better soon.
    If all of the good thoughts of all of your friends around the world make a difference, it won’t be long. Do take care of yourselves, too.
    One of my favorite comfort foods is cottage pie but my recipe is different. I’m going to try this one. I would never have thought to put the chipotle ketchup in it but I’ll bet it’s wonderful.

  23. says

    O no! So sorry to hear about your fathers accident and all the trouble that came after!! It is so hard when one of your loved ones is in bad health!! I hope the operations went well! And wishing your strength to cope with it all.
    And you’re right you definitely need good food to help you through the bad times and this is as good a comfortfood as they can get! Hugs for you!

  24. says

    I’ve often heard that seeing food as a comfort is a bad thing, but here is an excellent example of it being a good thing. I can’t help but see food as a solution or cure to so many situations, a way to cheer someone up or help them feel loved, safe, and comfortable. It runs in my family. I hope you enjoyed your comfort food and I hope things improve for your family soon.

  25. says

    Sorry to hear about your dad – and how much harder is it when you are so far away. I think you are right that having had a great holiday with him is worth a lot and he probably would prefer that you saw him laughing and enjoying life with you than stuck in a hospital bed – best wishes for his operation and I hope you will have the chance to spend more time with him soon

  26. says

    Sorry to hear about your dad’s fall, sending good thoughs your way and hope he’s on the mend soon.
    The cottage pie looks perfect for this dreary, damp weather. A great winter warmer, for sure!

  27. says

    Much love to you and your family at a difficult time. It’s so hard to be so far away when things go wrong. You are in my thoughts xx

  28. Suzanne Prezioso says

    Just a question. Is mince ground beef? Also can you give the measurements in ounces?
    Thanks, Suzanne

    Will offer prayers to your Father for a successful surgery and recovery.

    • Jeanne says

      Hi Suzanne – yes, beef mince in indeed ground beef/hamburger, and I have now updated the recipe to include US measurements :) Happy cooking!

    • Jeanne says

      Thank you Cheryl – much appreciated. I hope you also enjoyed the recipe – it is one of my go to recipes when I need comfort food.