Many years ago, when I was ridiculously young, I managed to get a job in London. It’s a long story. I wasn’t even out of college. It was the first time I’d ever been outside of New York and everything about those months in England was magical and memorable…including my upstairs neighbor, Lillian, but that’s another story.
Now this was in the Swinging Sixties and, you know, the Brits were not known for their cuisine then. It was like they were still on a wartime footing. Choices were limited and vegetables were cooked until they were grey and very dead. If you wanted a good meal in those days, you went to an Indian restaurant.
But at noon, all the chaps (and ladies) where I worked went to the local pub for a couple of pints and lunch. It was very convivial and chummy, crowding in around the bar and the cases with cooked food options. And that’s when I fell in love with Shepherd’s Pie.
Now, to be honest it was Cottage Pie, not true Shepherd’s Pie. Shepherds apparently being hard to round up in central London, not to mention their sheep, pub cooks turned to minced beef instead of lamb. I didn’t know any better. What I did know was that I had just stumbled upon the most savory and satisfying meal of my life.
It’s not very complicated (see “wartime shortages” above), but there are a couple of secrets to making the kind of winter dinner that no one can stop eating until the baking dish is scraped clean. As for wine pairings, I would suggest a velvety red or, better yet, a pint of English ale (NOT American beer!).
Here it is:
Start with a diced large onion. Sauté in a splash of olive oil and a knob or so of butter and add small diced carrots, say half a cup or more. Cook on medium heat until the onions and carrots begin to soften and take on color. Then, add a teaspoon or two of crushed diced garlic. Mix together and make sure not to brown the garlic, which ruins everything.
Now, mix in a pound and a half or so of minced lamb (or beef) and cook until barely brown. Add a good sprinkle of flour and then a half cup of chicken broth and a couple of tablespoons of tomato paste and mix in, along with several dashes of Worcestershire sauce (that’s the secret ingredient). Now it is time to add thyme and rosemary to taste and salt and pepper. Simmer for ten minutes or so.
Meanwhile, you have a pot of cubed Russet potatoes on the boil (only Russets). That’s for the topping. When they are starting to soften (but are not yet mushy!), drain and start mashing. Add milk (and/or half and half if you wish), salt and pepper, and an egg yolk. Whisk (or whip) briskly until fluffy.
Spoon the meat and vegetable mixture into an oiled baking dish or casserole and mix in some frozen green peas (they will cook). I also add some chopped parsley, but you needn’t. Now smooth the mashed potatoes atop the meat mixture to every edge of dish. I like to lightly score the top of the potatoes diagonally in both directions with the tines of a fork and brush on a whisked egg yolk (it helps with browning) before I slip the whole thing into a 400 degree oven for at least 20 minutes or until the topping begins to brown and the meat is bubbling.
Time to serve at last. But look out, your family will keep spooning it out! It’s irresistible. The ultimate comfort food, at least in my book.
And now, for fun, take a look at this “Sweeney Todd” version: https://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/alton-brown/shepherds-pie-recipe2-1942900.
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