WHO: Rebecca Heiser, 28, of Tampa, a registered nurse
WHAT: Shepherd's Pie
ABOUT THE RECIPE: Six years ago, Heiser decided to make her new boyfriend, Tommy Stanley, a special dinner. It was the first time she'd ever cooked for him, and she wanted it to be impressive. "I'm going to cook dinner — what do you want?" she asked.
He didn't even think twice. "Shepherd's Pie."
A little nervous, Heiser bought the ingredients and tweaked a recipe she found online. "I had never heard of it before," she says. "I wasn't even sure what it was supposed to taste like. It's not like somebody asking you to make French toast and . . . you know what French toast is supposed to taste like."
That night, she fed Stanley and his roommate the traditional British meal.
She makes it almost every month now — and they're getting married in February.
"I caught him with my Shepherd's Pie," she teases.
She's still not sure why he requested that dish. "I've been meaning to ask him where the heck he got that idea from, or if he just pulled it out of his left pocket," she says, laughing.
Now it's one of her favorite meals, mostly because of the ingredients — the mashed potatoes, vegetables and meat. "It's just everything you'd like to have like in a meal, but altogether in a casserole."
THE PROPOSAL: Stanley surprised her by proposing during a trip to New York this February, in front of the stone Gapstow Bridge in Central Park. Heiser was busy photographing ducks in front of the bridge when she heard him say her name. "I turned around, and he was on one knee," she says.
TIPS FOR THE PIE: "If you're in a hurry and you don't have time to buy potatoes and boil and peel them, the boxed mashed potatoes work just as well," she says. She substitutes canned vegetables for the frozen kind. Since she and Stanley love cheese, they sprinkle extra over the top.
CAN'T COOK WITHOUT: Garlic. "Everything (my mom) makes has garlic in it, and that's become my favorite thing to cook with." A little garlic spices up eggs, mashed potatoes and even the browned meat for her Shepherd's Pie.
WHY COOKING? "It's relaxing," Heiser says. Cooking has always been a part of her family culture. As children, Heiser and her sister grew up helping their mom in the kitchen, listening to the radio so they could sing while they cooked. She says her grandfather can make an unforgettable meal out of anything, even leftovers, and his concoctions are never the same twice. He and her grandma taught her the joy of experimenting with ingredients. Every Fourth of July, when the family treks up to Lake Erie for their reunion, Heiser makes sure she spends a day baking with her grandma. They listen to the distant waves against the shore, baking cookies, cupcakes and especially pies — strawberry rhubarb, peach and elderberry. "She can figure out how to make anything into a pie," Heiser says.
Emily Young, Times correspondent
Signature Dish is published periodically in Taste. If you have a recipe that you would like featured or would like to nominate other home cooks and their dishes, please email the information to [email protected] with a name and daytime phone number. Include SIGNATURE DISH in the subject line. Nominations can also be mailed to Taste, Tampa Bay Times, 490 First Ave. S, St. Petersburg, FL 33701.