For many people, shepherd’s pie is comfort food, something they grew up with, which reminds them of home cooking: Mom’s weekly or possibly every other week’s dish. Often it was served with ground beef (here in America, at any rate), without a clue towards nomenclature.
My parents never ever made shepherd’s pie or any variant thereof — it wasn’t part of Southern German cooking, which Mother excelled at — it wasn’t part of Dad’s fascination with Asian or Mediterranean cuisines or seafood, and odd body parts — all that is MY actual comfort food! — I don’t think I tasted it until I went away to college, where it was the Sunday night weekly hodge-podge of whatever was left over in the cafeteria kitchen that we didn’t particularly like the first time around (which in this case was WHY it was left over), topped with some mighty tasteless and dry mashed potatoes with all the culinary appeal of cardboard. At any rate, for me comfort food it was not. (There was a reason I LOST 15 pounds in my first college semester instead of gaining the Freshman Fifteen. Okay, I did live on the fourth floor of a dorm with an elevator ONLY available when students were moving in or out, too — but I seriously didn’t eat much when confronted with that cafeteria.) And at that point in time, there wasn’t much excess of me to lose!) We had another name for this creation which sounds sort of like shepherd’s pie, but I’m trying to keep this a polite blog.
Um, you also don’t want to know what happened that Freshman college September, when I saw the beautifully-red tomatoes, lined up in the salad bar, in what should have still been prime tomato season. My parents had often grown their own tomatoes, and ignored them when not in season, so I had expectations. That mucking big huge pile I took to enjoy — ended up as compost, well, maybe, if a composter wouldn’t expect much nutrition. Probably landfill.
So I’ve spent the succeeding years and decades avoiding the dish, usually with success. Whenever I DID have it, it was in a cafeteria setting, so no wonder… (And besides it was always really “Cottage” pie, not made with genuinely wonderful lamb.)
(Note: in the above photos: Local pastured lamb meat, sold as “lamb kebab meat”, so I’m not sure what portion of the lamb. Traditional for meatloaf is the shoulder — simply find a lean cut. Below that: browned. To the right: chopped up even finer — and you can definitely do that from the get go!!! I simply decided my original chunks were too big…)
Somewhere in between I learned the following details about shepherd’s pie:
- Authentic shepherd’s pie is made with lamb, not beef, at least if you want to hearken this back to Ireland. The Irish back in the day were more apt to have money for lamb or mutton, than for meat from cattle. They often reared their own sheep, too. Um… the name includes the word, “shepherd” – sheep-herder??? Duh.
- The proper name for the pie made from beef is “cottage pie” — although I wonder if “cowboy’s pie” could be a valid substitute?
- For St. Patrick’s Day, shepherd’s pie in Ireland is more traditional than corned beef and cabbage, which is an Irish-American development (but good in its own right).
- Most recently, I learned that the lamb (or mutton) for shepherd’s pie isn’t necessarily ground, but chopped up finely. Recipes I have come across online that do this are using lamb shoulder.
- Yes, the other ingredients with the meat, under the potatoes, were things that the frugal Irish housewife had an abundance of in her kitchen (yes, the cooks were typically the housewives).
- According to Jamie Oliver, the very oldest shepherd’s pies had a layer of mashed potatoes at the bottom, up the sides of the pan, and of course on top of the filling. You know, encased like a typical pie.
- And of course, the potato is a New World food, and the Irish took this item on like no tomorrow once it was available in the Old World, and since they only grew one variety, when the Irish Potato Famine came on, they were in trouble. They never did take on New World corn in the same way, so I don’t include corn in this recipe. (Well, unlike the college cafeteria, which usually had almost as much corn as potato in their unpalatable recipe…)
So, having learned that the meat didn’t have to be ground (or could be very coarsely ground), I decided to experiment. I mean, I DO like the ingredients this dish is supposed to have! My first effort yielded way too much potato to filling — at least for modern sensibilities, although I suspect back in the day, it turned out rather closer to authentic considering the availability of the other ingredients. Just add more potato surroundings than filling… This dish is definitely adaptable to quantities!
I riffed on recipes from a couple of reliable sources online: Jamie Oliver actually has two or three different recipes; and Kenji from Serious Eats provides another. The links are at bottom.
Prep time: 20 minutes.
Cooking time: About an hour and a half.
Rest time: 10 minutes or so to cool down.
- 1.25 pounds lean lamb meat, shoulder meat preferred. Mince with scissors or a good knife.
- a touch of your favorite healthy cooking oil.
- 1 small potato (preferably a “golden” variety), diced fine — about 1/4 inch cubes. You don’t have to peel this one.
- 1 small turnip, cleaned up, diced fine — about 1/4 inch cubes.
- 2 stalks celery, diced fine.
- 2 medium parsnips, skin removed, and diced fine.
- 1 small/medium onion, diced.
- 2 large cloves garlic, minced.
- 2-3 cups low sodium vegetable broth.
- Several sprigs of fresh rosemary, remove stems.
- Dried oregano and thyme, about 1/4 teaspoon or so apiece.
- Salt and pepper to taste.
- 1.25 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes (or another Golden variety), peeled.
- 1 tablespoon butter.
Brown the meat in a little oil, say five to eight minutes. Use a large skillet….
Add in all the veggies and most of the seasonings (not the rosemary, the additional potatoes; nor the cream or butter.
Simmer and saute for around 5-8 minutes longer. The onions should be translucent, and the potato and turnip somewhat soft. (You can always add that celery later in this process if you want it to have more crunch — I suspect back in olden days in Ireland this may not have been a consideration.
Add in the broth, and seasonings. Simmer on low for about an hour, uncovered, stirring occasionally.
The peeled potatoes – roughly quarter (or more) and bring to a boil in a pot with water to cover, reduce heat, and allow to simmer for about 40 minutes.
Pre-heat the oven to 375F.
Remove the potatoes from the heat, drain, and mash with the cream, butter, and salt.
In a meatloaf pan or small square casserole dish, lay out a layer of potato, reserving some for on top. Over the bottom potato layer, spread the stewed veggie/lamb mixture, avoiding excess liquid, if any.
Over the top, spread out the rest of the potato mixture, covering the top completely.
Bake for 35 minutes — cover it, but if you want some crispy potato tops, remove cover halfway through the baking. Allow to rest for ten.
Feel free to change out the lamb for beef (cottage pie) or for poultry (henhouse pie, to coin a new one…), or for pork (swineherd’s pie?) if you choose. If you can find mutton — I haven’t found mutton since spending three summers in Scotland back in my high school days in the 70’s — try that! Mutton will have a stronger flavor, but I remember liking it. (Then again, I also really like haggis…)
For a vegetarian version, I’d be tempted to try tempeh pie! Crumble the tempeh before you begin. Tofu would be awfully bland and textureless.
Serve with: Well, you might want to try my St Paddy’s cabbage dish from three years ago.
Oh, and by happenstance, it looks like I’ll be posting this on Pi Day!! That would be 3(March).14(day)16(year).
(Or so I thought… I didn’t get the chance to hit the Publish button until today! Two days late, but not late for a tasty St. Patrick’s dinner.)
Serious Eats – Irish Shepherd’s Pie (one of my absolute favorite places to hunt down WHY food is best cooked a certain way, or not!). While I love America’s Test Kitchen for much of the stuff they’ve done, they really don’t have international foods down in the best way — and I consider this dish an item from international cuisine. Because, yeah… LAMB.
Jamie Oliver’s Shepherd’s Pie, Take 1. Irish infused… shoulder meat from lamb.
Jamie Oliver’s Shepherd’s Pie, Take 2. This one with the potato all the way around.
Oh. On the menu for lunch at work this week for Paddy’s Day. “Irish cottage pie (with lamb)”. GRRRR!!! I mean, what gives? Whatever, I’ll be safest bringing my own lunch in, anyway.