Quarter-Life Coaching: Caitlyn’s Midwestern Fiesta

The Birthday Girl, heapin’ a helping, making eyes at a cowboy.

EVENT: Alyssa’s Surprise Birthday Fiesta
VENUE: Phoebe and Caitlyn’s Apartment, Flatiron
TYPE: Weekend Festive Dinner
MENU: Chips and Salsa, Mexican Shepherd’s Pie, Spinach and Avocado Salad with Cilantro-Citrus Vinaigrette, Assorted Brownies and Cupcakes, Margarita

While I spent 9 post-college months attempting to cohabit with my parents, all the while venturing down the dark path of corporate America, my roommate-to-be Caitlyn was working in an orphanage in Tanzania. She may not have been entertaining in the traditional sense, as I was in the luxury of my parents’ dining room, but she was saving children, and that’s pretty great.

Though our apartment is a far cry from the hut she became accustomed to, I’d like to think that the big kids constantly coming in and out have helped in some way ease her transition back to the modern world. As we’ve both become more comfortable in our new digs—I’ve learned how to re-embrace the Solo cup and cope with not having a dining room table, and Caitlyn has stopped trying to lure children back to our apartment from the Foundling Hospital across the street—we’ve found that there are more and more hungry mouths coming through our door in need of a meal, and perhaps a little nourishment for the soul.

Caitlyn has always been a pro at the latter. I often fall asleep to the hours of good advice and comforting chatter that seeps through our thin, pre-war walls. And sometimes, when I too am in need of some quarter-life coddling, I crawl under her outrageously comfortable comforter, and let her remind me that I’m not crazy when it comes to most of the chaos in my life, but that my nightmares about radio-active vegetables are probably not normal.

When manning the kitchen on her own, Caitlyn often reaches into her arsenal of Midwestern comfort foods, many of which are tried and true dishes from her sister’s kitchen in Indiana, and are designed to be healthy, yet feed a small land-locked fleet. I’m occasionally skeptical of such culinary tastes, but I always enjoy Caitlyn’s concoctions, and I marvel at her ability to man a crowd, even in high heels and without a handmade Tanzanian baby Bjorn.

But for her friend Alyssa’s surprise birthday dinner, she asked me to suggest an easy, inexpensive meal that would feed and fill a crowd of not-so-Midwestern chicks. Since it was around Cinco de Mayo, I decided to stay close to Caitlyn and Alyssa’s roots by going Mexican by way of Motown. I wrote down a modified recipe, adding a little cumin, oregano, and corn kernels, and Caitlyn took it from there, transforming my mother’s classic shepherd’s pie into a fiesta casserole spicy enough for any New York city senorita, healthy enough for the chic urbanite, and comforting enough to bring the warmth back West where it was born.

From our kitchen, orphan-free, but full of Midwestern love, to yours,


Caitlyn, basting herself with margarita

Mexican Shepherd’s Pie
Serves 10-12

This recipe takes all the classic components of my mother’s shepherd’s pie (a favorite dish of mine) and gives it a Mexican kick. To offer the ladies some comfort for their waistlines, I suggested Caitlyn use ground turkey as the base, and stock to thin the potatoes instead of cream–both tricks that my mother uses in her version since she doesn’t drink milk and my dad is finicky about red meat.


For the potato topping:

4lb large russet potatoes (about 10, one per person), peeled and cut into quarters
1-2 cups Stock or Half and Half (to thin mash)
1 tbsp salt (to taste)

For the meat mixture:

31/2 lb ground turkey, chicken, or beef
2 medium yellow onions
2 carrots, peeled and cubed (fine dice)
4 cloves garlic, pushed through a press
1 tbsp chili powder
1 tsp oregano
1 tbsp cumin
1/2 tsp cayenne
1/2 tbsp salt
1 tbsp flour
1-2 cups chicken stock
1 ½ cups frozen corn
2 15oz can fire roasted diced tomatoes
1 cup Monterey jack cheese (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Bring a large pot of water to boil. Add the quartered potatoes and cook until a knife easily slips in and out, but does not cause them to fall apart. Drain or remove with a slotted spoon. Press through a mouli or ricer. Thin the potatoes with stock or half and half, whipping them until smooth and your desired thickness. Taste for seasoning, and set aside.

In the meantime, in a large skillet, sauté the onion and carrot in 1 tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat until soft. Scrape the vegetables to the sides of the pan, turn the flame to medium-high heat, and toss in the meat. Brown in the center, breaking apart with your spatula as it cooks. Once sufficiently browned, mix together with the veggies. Add the garlic, cumin, chili powder, oregano, salt, and cayenne. Sauté for a minute or two for the heat to awaken the spices, then add the tomatoes and the corn. Cook until the corn is completely defrosted and the tomatoes and their juices have reduced significantly, about 5 to 7 minutes.

Add a heaping tablespoon of flour and stir to coat. Cook for an additional minute before adding a cup of stock. Bring the mixture to boil and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes until the liquids have reduced by half and the sauce has thickened (during this time, add in any additional stock as necessary. You want the sauce just a little thinner than when you finally cut the pie open.)

Put the meat mixture in the bottom of a casserole and cover with the potatoes. Dot the top with melted butter or olive oil, and put the dish into a 350 degree oven for 20-30 minutes until beginning to brown on top. Remove from oven and sprinkle with cheese. Return to the oven, turn the heat up to broil, and cook for an additional few minutes to brown the top.

Serve with a side salad, chips, and salsa!


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