On a cold January day …
Shepherd’s pie is a comfort classic great for winter. It makes great use of frozen veggies at a time of year when these are a staple. It is also a great way to use up leftovers: meat, potatoes and veggies from past meals can combine for a delicious, easy, one-dish meal. Add a salad and fresh bread or rolls, and dinner is on the table.
Meat pies date back to medieval England, and are still common in all parts of the British Isles. But potatoes, the traditional topping of shepherd’s pie, were not in wide use until the 18th century. Since parsnips are common in Britain and Ireland, it is possible they were used to top the pie in earlier days.
The dish as we know it “dates to the 1870s, when mincing machines made the shredding of meat easy and popular.” (The Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson, page 717). Seeking creative ways to serve leftovers, frugal housewives in the sheep herding country of northern England and Scotland came up with the dish during the 1800s. Meat from Sunday’s lamb or mutton roast was cut in cubes. Gravy was made from the drippings from the roast. Leftover vegetables were mixed in, and leftover potatoes placed on top. Originally made with cubed lamb, it’s called cottage pie when beef is substituted. Like many dishes based on leftovers, there are no precise measurements.
With advances in technology, ground meat has replaced meat cubes, and canned gravy is often substituted for fresh. Frozen vegetables and reconstituted dehydrated potato flakes are often used when leftovers are not around. The result has little resemblance to the original – and sacrifices both flavor and nutrition for the sake of convenience.
Shepherd’s Pie isn’t a pie at all. It doesn’t use a pastry shell. Instead, modern shepherd’s pie is any combination of meat and vegetables baked in a casserole with a mashed potato topping. It often resembles meatloaf topped with mashed potatoes and cheese. Yet according to the cooks.com website, “If you see cheese anywhere near a recipe for either (cottage pie or shepherd’s pie) put it down to the USA’s obsession to add cheese to anything that moves.” Vegetarian Times has even published a recipe for a “Glorified Ratatouille Shepherd’s Pie”, which contains no meat. And in an effort to get away from starchy, high-glycemic potatoes, some cooks replace mashed potatoes with mashed parsnips or a pureed cauliflower topping.
1/2 pound ground lamb or other ground meat
1 teaspoon salt
10 ounces frozen vegetables (like green beans, peas, carrots or combination)
1/2 cup gravy (see below)
Mashed potatoes (see below)
2 Tablespoons fresh minced parsley, optional
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Peel and dice the onion. Place meat and onion in skillet; sprinkle with salt; cook five to seven minutes to brown meat and cook the onion a bit. Add the vegetables, and cook, stirring, until no longer frozen. Remove from heat and stir in about 1/2 cup of gravy. Turn into a casserole dish.
Combine mashed potatoes, parsley and egg. Spread on top of meat mixture.
Bake 35 to 45 minutes, until heated through and slightly brown on top.
3/4 cup meat drippings from a roast
3 Tablespoons flour
3/4 cup broth or milk
3 Tablespoons butter
3 Tablespoons flour
1 1/2 cups beef broth or stock
salt, pepper and herbs, to season
Whisk flour into drippings until blended. Or melt butter, and whisk in flour until blended. Add broth or milk while whisking. Season to taste with salt, pepper, and herbs like thyme, parsley or marjoram. Continue cooking on simmer and whisking until well combined and thick. Remove from heat when desired consistency is achieved.
1 or 2 potatoes
1 potato and 1 or 2 parsnips, or 1 potato and 1 cup cauliflower florets
sour cream or butter
Cook potatoes in salted water until soft (bring to a boil, then lower heat to simmer). Place in bowl. Add butter, milk and / or sour cream. Mash with potato masher or use a ricer or food mill. Add fresh parsley, if desired.
Mashed Potatoes with Parsnips
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon milk
1 Tablespoon sour cream
1 to 2 Tablespoons minced fresh parsley, optional
Bring pot of salted water to a boil, and cook potato and parsnip together at a simmer, about 20 minutes, until soft. Drain. Mash, adding a little milk and sour cream to achieve desired consistency. Add fresh parsley, if desired.
Author of the award-winning cookbook Garden Gourmet: Fresh & Fabulous Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers’ Market, Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be reached at www.wordsaremyworld.com or on Facebook as Author Yvona Fast.