Happy October! My favorite month is here, and I've got the perfect seasonal dish packed with satisfying textures and a hint of warm spice for a chilly night. Shepherd's pie is a classic-- a perfect example of homey, hearty food that imbues basic, often leftover, ingredients with more flavor than anyone expects.
It's also the perfect dish to play around with. As long as you have the key components--spiced meat and veggies topped with mashed potatoes baked to browned, crusty perfection--you can put your personal stamp on it, and make use of ingredients you have on hand or that suit your personal taste.
I'm not sure that anyone's agreed on one traditional version of Shepherd's pie, but leftover minced lamb is often considered the classic choice of protein. I haven't cooked a massive leg of lamb to give me the necessary leftovers in years, so I take the liberty of using fresh ground beef. To recreate the rich gravy, I use all the tricks in chefs' flavor-building books:
- Browning vegetables, like onions, carrots and mushrooms
- Packing on the aromatic spices, like cinnamon (absolutely vital to this dish!), cloves and chile powder
- Adding a dollop of tomato paste for a hit of umami
- Pouring in a glug of red wine and reducing it for an extra layer of complexity
It may have been invented to use up bits of food on hand, but I think Shepherd's pie is worth making for its own merits. This recipe also makes it simple enough to do whenever you have the craving!
Loosely based on this recipe by Michael Chiarello for Food Network
Some improvisations for this recipe: switch up the veggies-- a can of diced fire-roasted tomatoes would be good, as would frozen peas or even less obvious choices, like diced zucchini and parsnips. Use ground lamb or turkey. Gussy up the mashed potatoes any way you want--garlic, butter, sour cream, Gruyere or Manchego cheese.
Serves 4 to 6
1 1/2 lb. ground beef
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 small onions, chopped
1 1/2 cups choppted carrots
8 oz. sliced mushrooms
3/4 tsp. dried thyme
1/2 tsp. dried rosemary
1 Tbs. all-purpose flour
1 Tbs. tomato paste
1 cup low-sodium beef broth
1/2 cup red wine
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. chile powder
fat pinch of ground cloves
pinch of cayenne pepper, or to taste
2 lb. white or yukon gold potatoes
Buttermilk or regular milk
4 scallions, finely chopped
1 cup grated sharp cheddar cheese
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Heat a large skillet to medium-high, add beef and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring often, until no longer pink. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate, cover with more paper towel and press gently to soak up fat.
Return skillet to heat and add onion and carrots. Season and cook until lightly browned. Transfer to a bowl. Return skillet to heat and coat lightly with cooking spray or oil. Add mushrooms, season and cook until liquid is released. Turn heat to medium-high and cook until liquid evaporates and mushrooms are lightly browned. Turn heat down to medium-low and add the thyme, rosemary and flour. Stir quickly to coat mushrooms with flour. Add tomato paste and beef broth. Bring to a simmer. Add wine and bring to a simmer. Return onion and carrot to skillet and simmer until liquid thickens and reduces, about 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in beef and remove from heat. Mixture should be moist but not watery.
Meanwhile, chop the potatoes (you can leave the skins on if you like) and boil in a large pot of water until fork tender. Remove pot from heat, drain in a colander and return potatoes to the pot. Add 2 tablespoons buttermilk or milk and mash. Add more liquid as needed to make soft, yet slightly chunky mashed potatoes. Add scallions and season with salt and pepper.
Transfer beef mixture to a 1 1/2 to 2 quart baking dish. Top with mashed potatoes and sprinkle cheese on top. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until cheese is melted. Switch on broiler and continue cooking just until top of pie turns golden and slightly crisp, 2 to 3 minutes. Rest pie for 10 minutes and serve.