Shepherd's Pie: Meaty Perfection in a Pan, or, Proof that the English Really Can Cook

Categories: Food News
shepherds pie2.jpg
Photo by Flickr user mitchenall

For a time, when I was a lad growing up in New York, I went to an obnoxiously upscale grade school called St. Bernard's (pronounced with Connecticut lockjaw of course, as in BERnerd's, not BerNARD'S). I still have a copy of the school's Christmas card from when I was in first grade and I was selected to be the cover boy, wearing a jaunty cap and posed with a giant (you guessed right) St. Bernard. I had Angus Young shorts on and everything.

I didn't much care for St. Bernard's, though my second grade teacher, Mrs. Goldsmith, was quite the looker. Lunch was served in a room in, as I recall, the basement; long tables lined with boys that looked and dressed alike. If you've seen any film that takes place at an English boys' preparatory school, you'll have a pretty good idea of what it was like (including the casual cruelty, but that's another story entirely).

I have two vivid memories from my meals at St. Bernard's. First is the time I mistook a bowl of beets for a bowl of sliced cranberry jelly and jammed an over-sized forkful into my mouth, causing instantaneous gakking and a commitment (one I've kept for decades now) to never eat another beet.

And then there's the shepherd's pie, which was, to me, perfection piled in a steam pan, served by the slotted spoonful. Two contradictory and defining moments in

my culinary life from one single kitchen. My food yin and yang, matter and anti-matter, heaven and hell. Offer me a good shepherd's pie and I'll love you forever. Feed me beets and I'll stab you in your left calf with a pencil. Your choice.

For those of you that are unfamiliar with it, shepherd's pie does not, except in certain remote portions of Wales, refer to a sheep's mysterious honey pot. No, it's better (lonely shepherds' opinions notwithstanding). Originally conceived as a way to use leftovers, it is, at its most basic, a casserole made with minced lamb mixed with spices, gravy, and various veggies, topped with a layer of mashed potatoes, then browned in the oven or under a broiler. Unlike spotted dick (not as gross as it sounds) and blood pudding (every bit as gross as it sounds), a good shepherd's pie is, for me, the pinnacle of traditional English dishes. And by the way, traditional English cuisine isn't nearly as bad as its reputation. Let's face it: any country that's obsessed with bangers, minced meat pies, and fine ales has a lot to offer (remember: Haggis is Scottish, not English).

shepherds pie.jpg
Photo by Flickr user zobeiry

But back to the shepherd's pie. Lamb, veg, gravy, potatoes. Could any casserole-style anything be better than that? Is it even necessary to go on? I think not, and yet, I will. Because there are many, many variations of shepherd's pie. For example, in the States, shepherd's pie is often made with ground beef, not lamb. And I just found a recipe for something called tater tot casserole that claims to be shepherd's pie "Southern cousin." If so, it's the cousin that bites his toenails at the dinner table and wears his underwear outside of his pants.

So this week I'm going to pass along a recipe for a basic, traditional Shepherd's Pie. But as with any recipe, I suggest you make it your own: try some cheese in the potatoes on top, add a layer of corn between the meat and potatoes Quebecois-style, try other spices and seasonings, make it with ground beef instead of lamb (some people call that cottage pie). One thing to keep in mind here, and it's one of the reasons I so love shepherd's pie, is that this dish is packed with unfettered meaty goodness, so don't mask it by adding any tomatoes or tomato sauces.

Keep the basics in mind, use your head and a little creativity, and you'll be in great shape. The holy trinity of meat, onions, and mashed potatoes has tremendous power and is tough to damage. And it's always worth dressing up like an English schoolboy for.

Shepherd's Pie

1 1/2 lbs lamb (or beef)
2 - 2 1/2 lbs potatoes
1 large sweet onions
1 cup beef stock
1-2 peeled carrots
1-2 celery stalks
1 tbs flour
1 1/2 tsp dried rosemary (double it if it's fresh)
1/2 - 3/4 tsp dried thyme (double it if it's fresh)
Salt and Pepper

Peel, quarter and boil the potatoes. When they're ready, pour off almost all of the water (you can keep 1/4 - 1/2 cup in if you want) and mash. Add three or four tablespoons of butter and a bit of milk. Whip until fluffy.

While the potatoes are boiling:

Preheat oven to 400. Finely chop the carrot, celery, and onion. Melt three to four tablespoons of butter in a pan, and add your vegetable medley, cooking over medium-low heat until softened, 15 minutes or so. Add your lamb or beef, breaking it up as it browns

Once the meat is no longer pink and fully broken up:

Sprinkle in the flour and stir for a minute or so. You can also add a few other veg here if you want: peas, etc. Pour in the cup of beef stock. Add the rosemary and thyme, and salt and pepper to taste. Reduce to a simmer and let it cook for 10-15 minutes, letting it thicken. Pour the meat mixture into a nine-by-12 baking dish and let it sit for a couple of minutes to firm up. Spread your whipped mashed potatoes over the top of the meat. Put a few thin bonus slices of butter on top. Drop in oven for about 30 minutes or until lightly browned. Remove and let sit for 5 minutes, then serve right from baking dish.

Bradford Schmidt is The Meatist. He's also author of the blog Bone in the Fan. He lives in northern Palm Beach County and believes that true happiness can be found in a meat-filled casserole.

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