The shepherd’s cottage pie
Updated: Jan 14
I figured I’d go ahead and try to kick the hornet’s nest and call this a recipe “The shepherd’s cottage pie.” (Another title that very briefly crossed my mind was, ‘The shepherd’s cow pie’. For self-evident reasons, I passed on that one.) You see, folks who are undoubtedly super fun at parties rejoice in pointing out that if you don’t use lamb, you cannot call your end result a shepherd’s pie. And I get it. I used to not only be a software engineer myself, but manage multiple teams of software engineers. (Some of us are higher functioning than others.) And I’ll admit that sometimes it’s fun to beat people senseless with inescapable logic and technicalities. But one truth that I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older and hopefully wiser is that the ship has sailed on certain things. If you bake some red meat (yes, lamb is red meat too) and veggies in gravy with mashed potatoes on top, you call it a shepherd’s pie. This is because everyone knows what that is and most people have better things to do than explain that a cottage pie is just a shepherd’s pie with beef instead of lamb. I feel better now that we’ve gotten that out of the way.
Honestly, this is usually a dish that I prepare when I have leftovers to contend with. Is it going to be better if you make everything fresh and then assemble it? Of course! And I’m going to walk you through that. Just keep in mind that if you have leftover mashed potatoes or veggies, you can use those. If you do it right, nobody will notice. My menu at home is typically an ongoing rotation between having leftover protein to heat up and making a side dish or two and having leftover side dishes and making a new protein. Maybe you’re familiar with this cycle. Rest assured, my leftover game is way strong and I’ll probably have a future post about how to reheat leftovers without ruining them in a microwave.
Viking’s note: Like most humble homestyle foods, this recipe is more forgiving than your mother and mostly a guideline. You can modify just about any aspect of it to suit your tastes or what you have on hand. In the immortal words of Bob Ross, “You can do anything you want to do. This is your world.”
Can you mashed potato? Can you do the twist?
2-3 lbs peeled yukon gold potatoes
1 stick unsalted butter
¼ cup sour cream
2 egg yolks
1-2 Tbsp salt
2 tsp black pepper
Fill a large pot with cold water and your potatoes. If you’re a newbie, you may think that you’re being slick by boiling the water first to cook the potatoes faster. Don’t do that. You know not what you do. You can also add a few tablespoons of salt to the water. I’m honestly not sure if this does anything (and I’m too lazy to look it up), but I got into the habit of salting water that I'm boiling stuff in from making pasta.
Crank your burner up to high and then maybe make yourself a drink or something. It might take a little while. How long? That will depend on how much water is in the pot, your current elevation above sea-level, barometric pressure, relative humidity, energy output of your stove, phase of the moon, and probably a million other factors. If you’re pressed for time and good at multitasking, you could simultaneously handle the meat...phrasing. Otherwise, just wait. Let the potatoes boil until a sharp knife can pierce all the way through a test potato with no resistance
Once the potatoes pass the knife test, it’s time to drain all the water from the pot and add in the deliciousness. Cube up the butter to help it melt easier and toss it in the pot, along with the sour cream, egg yolks, salt, and pepper.
Beat the dickens out of this with a potato masher or handheld mixer until you have a relatively smooth and consistent texture. Hopefully you know what mashed potatoes should look like. Also taste it and adjust seasoning until you’re as happy as a little tree.
If you feel like they are too thick, you can thin them out with a little bit of milk or cream. Be careful not to cross the rubicon into soupy potatoes, there’s not really any way to firm the potatoes back up. You want the potatoes to be able to hold some shape to get the really awesome crispy bits on top of the finished pie.
Nice to meat you
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 lbs ground beef or lamb
1 yellow onion
3-4 cloves garlic
2 Tbsp flour
1 ½ cups beef stock
Let’s go ahead and dice up the onion and mince the garlic. I usually like to do this before I start cooking the meat because, while my knife skills border on being a human food processor (They don’t call me a Viking for nothing.), I really don’t like the feeling of scrambling so that things don’t burn.
Add the butter to a skillet or saucepan over medium high heat. Once melted, add the ground red meat of your choosing to the pan. Let it sit still for a few minutes until that sciency sounding Maillard reaction happens to your meat. If you haven’t binged almost every season of Good Eats, this means it turns a dark brown, NOT black or gray. This will also make some crispy bits called fond that we’ll be using for the gravy.
Once you have some good brown color on the meat, start stirring and breaking up the meat into progressively smaller and smaller pieces, taking care to let them sit still some and get more crispy bits.
Once the meat is mostly cooked, add in the onion and garlic. Stir occasionally until the onions are translucent and softened and your kitchen smells amazing.
At this point, you have a decision to make. If you’re lazy like me, you can just go ahead and stir in the flour. If you’re scared of having too much flavor, you can remove all but about 2 Tbsp of the fat from the pan. Either way, keep stirring everything with the flour for a few minutes to make sure it’s cooked.
Finally we’re going to slowly add in the beef stock while continuing to stir. Make sure you scrape up any fond on the bottom of the pan. Let this come up to a simmer, stirring occasionally until you get a lovely thick meaty, oniony, shepherd’s pie filling. Oh, and don’t forget to taste for seasoning and adjust accordingly.
1 small bag frozen peas and carrots
For those playing the leftovers game, I think this is the easiest place to use your leftover veggies. If you’re making everything fresh, bring some salted water to a boil and add your frozen peas and carrots for a couple minutes to blanch them. All this means is that somewhere between frozen and cooked, remove and maybe dump them in an ice bath to stop cooking.
Keep in mind that you can use just about any type of veggies here. In the past, I’ve also used corn, mushrooms, green beans, and even pearl onions.
You’re on the home stretch! In a casserole dish, combine your meat/gravy mixture with your very well strained veggies. Spread the mashed potatoes on top, making sure to rough up the surface with a fork so that you get plenty of little brown crispy bits.
Then add your uncovered dish to a 350 degree oven for about 30 minutes or until a nice golden brown on top. Everything is already cooked, so we’re just trying to heat it through and get color on top.
Last step, let it rest loosely covered with some foil for at least 30 minutes. I know it’s hard to wait. I used to be very impatient and my food suffered for it. Resting can also be a tense and delicate timeframe with your guests. I have, at times, had to resort to reminding folks that I’m the one with the large kitchen knife and that means we’re going to wait. This generally works with unruly people at a BBQ or tailgate. Your mileage with a date or in-laws may vary.