Nick Roumel- The pasty may have humble origins, but this version will satisfy miners and office workers

   My first block of lard. Sitting on my kitchen counter, white and glistening, perhaps quivering a bit. Sort of how I felt on the inside, as I undertook to cook my first ever pasties.
   So much to know! First, it’s pronounced pass-tee. If you say pay-stee, people are going to look at you like you just came from some sort of seedy club.
   Pay-stees are, yes, those things.
   Once you have pass-tee rolling off your tongue like a Yooper, the next step is to learn your pasty history, before you have your pasties rolling out of the oven.
Today’s pasties, including those popular in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, are said to derive from Cornwall, England in the 17th century.
   Called a “teddy oggin” in the Cornish dialect, every aspect of the pasty was practical, designed for the tin miners to eat at lunchtime. Its’ lard-enhanced crust was designed for strength and its insulating properties. It was supposed to be hard enough to withstand a fall down the mine shaft, and thick enough to keep the pasty warm throughout the day.
   The hot pasty could also be used to warm the miner’s hands or body on the way to work. Sometimes there were even large ovens placed at the entrance of mines to keep the pasties hot all day!
   The oversized, crimped edge of crust was also practical.
   By lunch, a miner’s hands were filthy, and one could eat the pasty by holding its edge without soiling the stuffed portion.
   Sometimes the pasties were large enough to serve as two meals, in which case the miner’s initials, formed with pieces of raised pastry on the outside of the crust, would identify whose leftovers they were for supper.
   Upon finishing the pasty, the miners would toss the soiled crust to the floor of the mine, said to appease the knockers – grizzled, miniature spirits of miners past – who made knocking noises before mine cave-ins, and otherwise caused mischief and mayhem.
   Traditional ingredients were a simple affair. These were bits of sliced or diced steak, stretched with locally-grown potatoes and “swede” (rutabaga, called “turnip” in Cornwall), and flavored with onion, salt, pepper, and perhaps a little parsley.
   Occasionally one might get elaborate and place a little diced apple with sugar to one side of the pasty, separated by a “hinge” of pastry on the inside.
   Traditional pasty ingredients are never pre-cooked. They are simply placed raw on a rolled-out pastry round, folded and crimped, and baked for about an hour.
   Arguments rage over whether a top crimp or a side crimp is best. This seems to be a matter of preference. Side crimps were presumably easier for the miners to hold with their filthy hands.
   As the Cornish pasty spread, so did variations. Australia, New Zealand, and parts of Montana and Minnesota all saw pasties follow their flourishing mining industries.
   In the U.P., an influx of Finnish immigration influenced the pasty recipe. Carrots were introduced. Suet (beef fat) was mixed with lard (pig fat) for the pastry recipe. Pre-cooking of ingredients was gingerly approached, through mixing with hot beef boullion, or brazenly placing the ingredients on the stove prior to filling the pasty (though some sniff and call this an “empanada”).
   Today, you can find pasties of all sorts in da U.P. and elsewhere, whether filled with traditional beef and root vegetables, or other kinds of meat, poultry, game, or even fish (I even found a recipe for a whole herring baked in a pasty).
   In making my own pasties, I first faithfully followed the traditional recipes. While I could tattoo a drumbeat on the outside of the pasty cooked with lard, I yearned for the flakiness of a buttery short pastry.
   I was also underwhelmed with the dryness and lack of flavor in the filling. A bit of panic was setting in, since in just two nights, I would be serving 60 of these at a fundraiser – competing with local chefs who actually do this for a living.
   Here it should be noted, as this is my inaugural column for the Legal News, that I am not a professional chef. Although I happen to have some memorable restaurant experience, I never went to cooking school, despite my mother’s urging.
   I went to law school, and continue, with some lingering resentment, to practice law.
   So the day before the fundraiser, after an intense arbitration hearing, I went at it again, making another eight pasties, three or four more variations.
   The conundrum: how to make them moist and flavorful, while staying true to the dish’s bland and unimaginative origins. I eventually settled on a recipe that I hoped would marry the traditional seasonal ingredients with my need to make a less dry, more flavorful dish.
   Although heretical to some, I decided to do some pre-cooking. I used ground Michigan lamb, barely heating it to render out the fat, and added some garlic and onion. I then moistened the lamb mixture with red wine and tomato paste, seasoning it with salt and a little ground Chile pepper.
   I also pre-cooked some of the vegetables. I liked the idea of mashing them for variation of texture. So I diced potatoes, rutabaga, and carrots, along with some Michigan sweet potatoes, and boiled half of them, mashing them with butter and Greek yogurt.
   In the final assembly, I placed the meat mixture on one side of the pastry round, the mashed vegetable mix on the other, and topped it with a tablespoon of diced raw root vegetables and onion. I folded the whole shebang into the pastry round, brushed it with egg, and baked it until golden brown.
    I also eschewed the glistening block of lard for Earth Balance vegan butter sticks, which in a Crisco sort of way made the perfect dough.
   The fundraiser was a success, although I worried whether any of the guests were furtively looking for a ketchup bottle.

Michigan Lamb Pasties

Ingredients:

4 1/2 C. all purpose flour
1/2 tsp. salt
Cold water
1 lb Earth Balance vegan butter sticks. Cut the butter sticks into the flour, mix and add water to form two equal sized balls of short pastry. Cover with cling wrap and refrigerate for half an hour.
1 lb. lamb
A potato
A carrot
A sweet potato
A rutabaga
Two onions
A clove or two of garlic
Greek-style yogurt
Butter
Red wine
1/4 cup tomato paste
Makes 12-18

Preparation:

Cook the lamb over medium-low heat with the garlic and one onion; drain some but not all fat. Add red wine and tomato paste.  Season with salt, pepper, ground mild or medium Chile pepper, and perhaps a bit of flat leaf parsley or chopped rosemary.
Dice the root vegetables small, and toss half in boiling salted water until tender. Mash with yogurt and butter until it resembles coarse mashed potatoes. Season with salt and pepper.
Cut the pastry ball into 6-8 pieces. Roll each piece into a 10” round. (I used a metal bowl to cut a perfect round shape.) Put a tablespoon or more of the mashed vegetable mixture on one side; a heap of the meat mixture on the other side; then a sprinkling of the remaining vegetable dice and chopped onion on top.
Fold the pasty in half into a crescent. Crimp the edges with your fingers and a fork. (Don’t bother with the fancy crimping tool I bought in a hoity-toity kitchen store.)
Brush the folded, crimped pasty with an egg glaze and bake on a lightly buttered sheet for 45-60 minutes at 350 until golden brown. 
Vegetarians/vegans can skip the lamb, increase the root vegetables - especially the sweet potatoes - and add some chopped sun-dried tomatoes and a little more Earth Balance to the filling. A good English cheddar or Michigan Pinconning is also a nice touch. Soy milk is a good substitute for the egg glaze.
The final result will suit the needs of today’s workers, who come no closer to a mine shaft than an office cubicle.
Oh, and that block of lard? Still sitting in my refrigerator. Email me if you’re interested.

Nick Roumel is a principal with Nacht, Roumel, Salvatore, Blanchard and Walker, P.C., a litigation firm in Ann Arbor specializing in employment litigation.
He also has many years of varied restaurant and catering experience, has taught Greek cooking classes, and writes a food/restaurant column for “Current” magazine.

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