In the past few months, shepherd’s pie (also known as cottage pie for you old-school types) has started the process of becoming a perennial favorite in our dining room. I think this is a very good thing indeed. My mother would sometimes make her version (and there seem to be a kazillion different adaptations of this recipe out there) of this dish in my childhood, and it’s one of those meals that resonates with warmth and nostalgia – right up there with chicken a la king and pineapple upside-down cake. It’s comprised of a few ingredients, but they are all pretty pure and…well, elemental is the word that comes to mind. The recipe is almost infinitely adaptable with room for an array of spicing and ingredient adjustments; you can make a vegetarian version (often called a “shepherdless pie,” chuckle, chuckle), or a super-meaty-tyrannosaurus-rex-interpretation. And then there are the mashed potatoes. Those lovely, creamy, cheesy mashed potatoes.
My take on shepherd’s pie is somewhere in between these two. The ingredients tend to be fairly imprecise as to amount, but I think that’s okay – the more flexibility, the better. I use a pound or so of ground pork (you could use ground beef, turkey or chicken, tofu, lentils, beans, whatever your protein fix demands), five or six carrots (or a double handful of baby carrots), a large onion, three or four cloves of garlic, two cups of frozen peas (I just can’t bring myself to eat canned peas, but if you can get fresh, do so), a can of creamed corn, five or six medium-sized potatoes, some Worcestershire sauce, some grated cheese (I love cheddar for this application, plus some parmesan for potato seasoning), breadcrumbs, and some bacon pieces if you’re feeling naughty. You’ll need some milk and butter for the potatoes as well, plus the ubiquitous salt and pepper.
The background music is a nod to my ancestry, since this meal always makes me feel so Celtic; the latest edition of Marc Gunn’s excellent Irish and Celtic Music Podcast. Marc somehow manages to compile a bevy of incredible songs from talented independent musicians every month into his show, and always makes me a little wistful, hoping that I can one day go and finally visit the roots of my heritage in the Isles. Oh, well. This dish will make me feel better. Mise-en-place managed? Let’s cook.
The pie has two basic layers: the veggie/meat layer (henceforth referred to as Layer One)and the potato/cheese layer (Layer Two). I usually start with the former by prepping my proteins: in this case, browning the ground pork on medium heat. While this is going on, I grab my knife…sorry. I carefully pick up my honed and ever-so-sharp knife, dice my onions and carrots and mince my garlic. I’ll also make sure my peas are cooked and ready to go, usually by tossing them in the microwave with a half-cup of water for four or five minutes. Right before the pork is completely browned, I toss my diced veggies (but not the peas – not yet, anyway) into the same pan and start to sweat them. Toss some salt and pepper in there, turn the heat to medium low and turn your attention to Layer Two.
Your potatoes will make or break this dish, so give them some time and consideration. I like to leave the skins on, especially if I have red potatoes in the house. Give them a quick scrub and cut them into, oh, one inch chunks or so. I drop them into a pot of water, cold at this point, as soon as I cut each potato – prevents discoloration, dontcha know. Put the pot of water on the stove at high heat and boil the spuds until they’re, as they say, fork tender. While they’re cooking, let’s check back on Layer One.
Make sure the meat is cooked through and that the veggies have softened. Yes? Good? All right, then go ahead and add your cooked peas (which you should drain first) and the can of creamed corn. Why creamed and not whole kernel corn, you ask? Very astute question. I’ll sacrifice the whole corn texture for the moisture that the creamed corn brings to the soiree. We’ll have plenty of chewability from the rest of the veggies, and this way we don’t need to add any broth, an unnecessary staple of many shepherd’s pie recipes out there. Mix everything together, and add a few splashes of Worcestershire sauce as to your taste. Let it sit on medium low for a little while – it’ll only get better as it simmers (like the tomato sauce from my last blog post – you read it, right?) Feel free to go all Remy and get fancy with the spices at this point – some garlic or onion powder, cayenne, herbs, whatever you think will add to your pie. You might have to add some extra liquid as it cooks – a bit of water here and there does the trick. Oh, and you might want to set your oven to 400 degrees at this point.
Now, back to the potatoes and Layer Two. When they’ve cooked and are fork tender, drain the liquid and put them back into the cooking pot. Time to mash. I use a standard, run-of-the-mill potato masher for this, and everything is done right in the already-warm pot. My personal potato procedure is simple – add a few pats of butter, some milk (enough to get the potatoes to the desired texture but not so much as to make them runny – just add a little at a time), some grated parmesan, salt and pepper, and maybe some chopped rosemary if you have it on hand. Then lay on the masher. The nice thing about making mashed potatoes is that you can taste and adjust on the fly as you pulverize your tubers.
Our layer fodder is complete, and now we assemble. I like to use a round, covered ceramic casserole for this; it really holds in the heat after the cooking in case dinner runs a bit late. Pour in the Layer One first. Hey, I saw you sprinkle some cheese in there! You just watch yourself, pal. Now grab a spatula and plop the potatoes on top of the meat and veggies. Don’t stir them together – you want two distinct layers here, kind of like a culinary Black and Tan. Spread the potatoes on top, almost like icing a beefy, savory, sloppy cake. Make the potato mixture thick as you like, and cover Layer One completely.
Now we toss the casserole, uncovered, in the oven for half an hour or so. Clean up as you let the pie warm through and get all tasty. Peek every now and them. What should happen is that you’ll get a bit of browning on the potato peaks and maybe some spots where Layer One burbles up through Layer Two. Time for the last step. Sprinkle (or entirely cover – your call) your cheese on top, along a handful or two of your breadcrumbs. Add those bacon pieces if you have them, and then back into the oven for a bit – just until the cheese melts and browns. You’ll know when it’s ready.
Now, this is the true beauty of the dish. Shepherd’s pie is almost like a lasagna in a way – it needs to sit and sort of coalesce for a bit. I usually cover the casserole and rest it for half an hour or so. Don’t worry, it should be plenty hot when the time for dinner comes around. You can top it with some chopped scallions if you like, or you can just grab a big spoon. I actually add some hot sauce onto my portion before eating – a good chipotle one which adds flavor as well as heat.
Okay, time to eat, so I’ll shut up now. As always, let me know if you have any tidbits, comments, additions, or questions. By the way, this makes great leftovers. One final thought for the day: cooking is never a waste of time. Feed ’em and free ’em!