Shepherd’s Pie is basically minced (ground) meat covered and sealed with a potato lid that keeps it hot. That’s probably why this dish is a perennial favorite in British pubs: it can be made in advance and kept warm for hours, and it’s quite cheap and easy to make. Mind you, Shepherd’s Pie in pubs is often horrid, with gummy mash and a thin undercoating of mystery meat. But don’t be put off by the bland pub version of this classic cornerstone of British nosh, or by its apparent simplicity. Properly prepared, this dish is a culinary treat, perfect for a cold winter night.
The Meat and Sauce
With due respect to Stephen Sondheim, Shepherd’s Pie contains no shepherd. Originally lamb was used. And very good it is too. But, in most US supermarkets, ground lamb is hard to find; so I use ground chuck, or even a meatloaf-type combo of beef, pork, veal, or turkey. It matters not. I use just over a pound and half of ground meat.
You need to make a Bolognese-type sauce. Here’s what I do. Chop up and sautÃ© 2 onions and carrots, then add a couple of packages of sliced mushrooms. A nice meaty shroom like Portobello would be super but good, regular button mushroom are just as good. Actually, you could make this a vegetarian dish by just using meaty mushrooms and sautÃ©ed eggplant for the filling.
Push vegetables to one side and brown the meat. Then combine and add half a cup of milk. Once the milk has been absorbed, add a can of peeled tomatoes and a couple of teaspoons of tomato puree, a teaspoon of brown sugar, and a dollop of Dijon mustard. Finish off with a few shots of Worcestershire sauce and half a cup of beef or chicken stock. (By the way, if you don’t have tomato paste, a few squirts of ketchup will do the trick.)
The key difference between this filling and a Bolognese sauce is the viscosity. You want the Shepherd’s pie filling to be nice and thick. If the sauce is too loose, you can add a dollop of cream cheese or a teaspoonful of flour, but I tend to reduce the sauce until it thickens up a treat. Cook for an hour. If a wooden spoon can stand up in the mixture, it’s ready. Add parsley or herbs to it as you wish.
Another thought: when I actually make Bolognese sauce, I often make a double amount and put half away for a Sheperd’s Pie. Then I just thicken up the sauce – et voila!
The Spuds Topping
Use whatever potatoes you normally use for mash. You’ll need about three pounds, a bit more or less won’t hurt. Start the spuds to cook in cold water. As soon as they are almost cooked, drain the water so the spuds don’t get gummy and starchy. Then mash in half a stick of butter and a little hot milk. Add a little salt and a little white pepper.
Butter a casserole or gratin-type oven dish, spread out the meat (or meatless) mixture, and cover with an even coating of the mashed potato. Using the tines of a fork, mark and swirl up the surface of the mash. Dot with a little more butter. Recently I had some left over parmesan cheese and sprinkled that on top as well, it was a nice addition but it’s not essential. Now pop your dish into a 375 oven for about 40 minutes or until the top is golden brown. If dish isn’t brown enough, just woof it up under the broiler for a couple of minutes and that will do the trick.
Lots of hearty dishes taste better the second day, and this is true for Shepherd’s Pie — if you can wait a day! Once you’ve layered on the mash just cover and put in the fridge overnight, then proceed as above. Just give the dish an hour in the oven because it has been in the fridge.
Although a simple dish, Shepherd’s Pie is wonderful comfort food. And everyone loves it: in the prodigal household everyone wants seconds. They will in your house, too!