The time of year for comfort food has arrived. The days have suddenly become shorter, there is the distinct smell of fall leaves, and that familiar chill in the air. This is the time of year to cozy up to the table and enjoy some nice warm and soothing comfort food. Something filling, warming and simple. Something that takes you back to your childhood and makes all the bad things of the world go away for a while. What better dish to provide this cocoon of warmth and comfort then Shepherd’s Pie?
Shepherd’s Pie originates from the British Isles. There are various versions of this dish from England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland. Anywhere that had sheep and potatoes. The original name for Shepherd’s Pie was Cottage pie, which came about in the 1790’s as the potato was growing in importance in the British Isles. The potato itself originates from Peru and Bolivia in South America and was brought to Europe by the Spanish around 1570. This foreign starch made its way to Britain somewhere between the 1580’s and 1590’s. It was quickly beloved by the peasants as it was a crop that was rarely plundered by others, had low spoilage, easily satisfied hunger and was cheap and easy to grow. By 1845 one third of Ireland’s arable land was growing potatoes. The term “Cottage Pie” was thought to come from the fact that this was an affordable vegetable for the poor who lived in modest cottages. In the late 1870’s the term Shepherd’s Pie began to appear, probably because the Shepherd’s Pie was usually made with lamb/mutton which were tended to by shepherds.Originally, and probably to this day, this meat pie was a means to use up leftover meat of any kind. A pie dish would be lined with mashed potatoes filled with meat and vegetables and topped with more mashed potatoes and baked. Today, a true traditional Shepherd’s Pie would include ground or cubed lamb, onions, turnips, and carrots. If you are a traditionalist and would prefer to try the “real deal” you can find a traditional, yet American version here at Chowning’sTavern’s . Their version is here.
I still use this dish as a way to use up leftover meat and veggies, but I first discovered this dish from a cookbook while I was still finding my way in the kitchen. Before I had the knowledge or ability to venture beyond a recipe. The recipe that first introduced me to this warm cozy blanket of a meal, came from Farmhouse Cookbook by Susan Herrmann Luis. Susan is originally from Seattle Washington, but moved to France in 1980 to study cooking. I imagine she has a pretty good grasp on good down to earth, comforting farmhouse foods. Her Farmhouse Cookbook certainly demonstrates that.
I no longer pull out the Farmhouse Cookbook to follow the recipe. I pretty much have it memorized and have added a tweak or two of my own here and there. Here is my adaptation of the Farmhouse’s Shepherd’s Pie:
1 lb hamburger
Fresh ground pepper
¼ tsp allspice
2 medium sized onions sliced
¼ cup water or white wine
2lbs russet potatoes peeled and cut into chunks
2 tbs butter
2/3 cup milk
¼ cup heavy cream
2 cups of frozen mixed vegetables of your choice, or frozen corn, or peas, or green beans (what ever floats your boat.)
½ cup cheddar cheese, or any other cheese that sounds good to you. I’ve tried everything from cheddar to blue cheese.
Boil the potatoes until they are soft. While the potatoes are boiling season the hamburger (or ground lamb – or whatever meat you would like to use) with salt pepper and allspice. Fry until done but still a bit pink. Place into a pie plate or 8 X 8 baking dish.
Add sliced onions to the fat and fry, stirring frequently, for about 10 minutes until a dark brown and caramelized. Add the water or wine and deglaze the brown bits off of the bottom of the pan and add this to the hamburger. Season to taste. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Mash the potatoes with the butter, milk and cream until smooth. Season to taste.
Add the 2 cups of frozen vegetables.
Press the meat and vegetable mixture into the bottom of the pie dish, or 8 X 8 baking dish and spoon the mashed potatoes over the top, be sure to spread evenly over the meat mixture to the edges of the dish.
Sprinkle the top with the shredded cheese.
Bake until heated through. Approximately 30 minutes.
At this time you can choose to broil the shepherd’s pie for 3 or 4 minutes to brown the top. (2 inches from the broiler) Depending on the kind of cheese I use I may or may not do this. The cheese often creates a nice crispy crust on top without broiling, and also easily burns under the broiler. Some cheeses fair better than others under the broiler. If you choose not to use cheese, then I recommend broiling the pie until the top is browned.
Here is what it looks like before going in the oven:
Here is what it looked like (YUM!) right out of the oven. (I chose not to broil it this time – I pre-made everything the Sunday night before so it made for a super easy dinner Monday night. I cooked all the different ingredients, assembled them and put the meat pie in the refrigerator. My husband got home the following night, preheated the oven and put it in for about 40 to 45 minutes. It had been in the refrigerator for almost 24 hours and had chilled requiring some extra cook time. Normally you would cook for about 30 minutes if cooked the day it is assembled. It turned out to be an incredibly easy dinner done before 7 o’clock. )
Not only was it an easy week night dinner, I had some awesome leftovers for lunch the next day.
Here's to a comforting Fall!