Shepherd’s Pie seems to be a polarizing dish, this side of the pond anyway, which surprised me. A lot. In discussing this blog topic with friends, an equal number turned up their noses at the idea of the dish in comparison to the number that asked when they could come by for dinner. Which has left me thinking that about half the people making Shepherd’s Pie must be making it wrong. It should easily be in the all-time top 5 comfort food dishes.
I went super simple on this recipe, and stuck to my “go-to” instant potatoes for the topping. I have always really liked Shepherd’s Pie…and I’ve screwed it up a couple times in the learning process…which generally happened because I over complicated it with too many ingredients or got too frisky with the black pepper…over time, I’ve completely omitted black pepper from the dish, except as a garnish.
Let’s talk about what Shepherd’s Pie is for just a bit. Shepherd’s Pie is a very simple dish. It originates from the British Isles and is traditionally made of minced (ground) lamb, some finely chopped vegetables – carrots, onions and garlic are mainstays. For seasoning thyme, rosemary and salt, a bit of chicken stock and tomato paste. This “mince” is the heart of Shepherd’s Pie, and what will make it or break it. This filling is generally placed in a ramekin or similar pot, but a casserole dish may also be used for larger groups. On the top, mashed potatoes, which are then garnished with a bit of cheese, and maybe a bay leaf or two. The dish is then baked until golden brown. It’s intended to be simple food. In my time in and around London, I’ve eaten Shepherd’s Pie in a number of pubs and restaurants and it is delightfully simple, but always sticks to the ribs. To make a great Shepherd’s Pie…just keep it simple and don’t try to reinvent the wheel.
Shepherd’s Pie is also a great way to use up remaining bits of vegetables and or left over mashed potatoes. If one is in a hurry, instant potatoes work just fine. When I’m hungry for a single serving of Shepherd’s Pie, I will usually just go with instant potatoes, while they may not have the same pedigree as a riced Yukon Gold…they make up for it in pragmatism – they work fine, and save time.
- 8 oz Nebraska Star® Beef Premium Ground Beef
- 1 tbsp butter (AA Unsalted)
- 1/4 cup minced onion
- 5 cloves minced garlic
- 1/4 cup minced green pepper
- 1/4 cup minced zucchini
- 1 tsp minced thyme
- 1 tsp minced rosemary
- 1/3 cup tomato sauce (or 3 tbsp tomato paste)
- 1/3 cup beef bullion
- dash of Worcestershire sauce
- dash (or two) red wine
For a more traditional Shepherd’s Pie, substitute the green peppers and zucchini for carrots and extra onions. I also LOVE minced mushrooms in this dish, just add them toward the end of the cooking process so they maintain a bit more integrity. Mushrooms cook quickly.
There are a number of ways to arrive at good mashed potatoes, one can peel and boil potatoes then rice and mash them with a bit of salt, butter and milk or cream. Or, simply use instant potatoes, which work just fine and save a pile of time. (Just follow the instructions on the box for “2 servings”.)
Start by making the mashed potato topping. Again, there are a number of ways to end up with perfectly serviceable mashed potatoes, but the quickest way is to use instant potatoes. If you prefer to make traditional mashed potatoes, that works great too. To tailor the mashed potatoes for the Shepherd’s Pie topping, I like to add extra butter (or cream) and cheese. Make sure the consistency is “spreadable, but not runny” Parmesan cheese works great, but most any will work. Use a cheese flavor that you like, but keep in mind that a firmer variety of cheese, grated finely is probably best. Set the mashed potato topping to the side. Prep time can range from an hour or more for traditional mashed potatoes, to just a couple minutes if you choose the instant route. This is 100% why I prefer instant. Life is short enough already.
Preheat 12” pan. Add butter, let it melt and begin to brown, and add all minced vegetables and herbs. Cook them until they begin to soften, this will only take a minute or two. Add ground (minced) beef and brown with the vegetables while stirring to prevent it from clumping. When the mixture has cooked most of the way through, add tomato sauce or paste and bullion and continue to reduce. Once reduced, add a dash or two of Red Wine (cheap stuff is fine for cooking) and reduce again. Finally, add a dash of Worcestershire sauce and a couple pinches of salt, then reduce to desired final consistency. I prefer a firmer consistency than I would use for sloppy joe’s, as this tends to amplify the flavor and keeps it from turning to a sloppy mush during the final cooking phase. The potato topping will seal in all the moisture that is left in the filling, so prepare the filling exactly the way you want it before you bake it.
Spoon filing into the bottom of a 6” ramekin while still piping hot. Make sure there is at least an inch of depth in the ramekin for the topping. Spoon in the mashed potato topping and spread it flush with the top of the ramekin. Sprinkle some additional cheese on top of the potato topping, and garnish with a by leaf or two if desired.
NOTES: I am a big fan of black pepper, but I generally avoid using too much of it in my Shepherd’s Pie. Sticking to the robust flavors created by the vegetables, thyme, rosemary, garlic, red wine and Worcestershire sauce is what makes this dish great. Cranking up the black pepper can take a way from the great flavors that are built into this recipe.
Making a great filling is key. It can be modified many, many different ways to suit individual taste, but the key is keeping things chopped very finely or grated. This allows the filling to be a filling and not a lumpy-clumpy hodgepodge….nor a soupy stew. It should be somewhere in between. The texture of the proper filling, mixed with the rich, creamy mashed potatoes, just does something magical.