COMFORT FOOD: Shepherd's Pie

My first sleep-away camp was held at a former all-girls Catholic boarding school. The camp was just as quirky as you might imagine a summer camp run by nuns to be. 

Dinner was often a great, grey mystery. We were never entirely sure what was on the plate. I realize now, that the disgust surrounding the food was primarily exaggeration and dramatics on the part of us campers. It definitely added to the bonding to squeal about how awful the various concoctions were. 

It was under these conditions that I had my first-ever Shepherd's Pie. The rumor was that one camper witnessed our habit-clad chef tasting the dish and promptly spitting it out in disgust. I don't really recall what it tasted like. Because of that experience, I was prepared to spend my life avoiding Shepherd’s Pie.

Fortune had other plans... I ended up marrying a Brit. His family has a love story with the braised meat and potato-topped dish. My mother-in-law made hers for us. One bite of her soothing, perfectly seasoned version, and I was hooked. I'm a proud Shepherd’s Pie devotee now. I find more simple pies are the most satisfying. While plenty of versions are layered with peas and carrots, we prefer the vegetables on the side. Here's how I make ours...

Feeds 6

3 teaspoons olive oil
2 lbs grass fed ground beef (or ground lamb)
1 small yellow onion, finely diced
2 garlic cloves, finely diced
2 teaspoons HP Sauce (or 1 teaspoon worcestershire sauce)
1/2 teaspoon mustard seeds
1/2 teaspoon celery seeds
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/2 cup beef stock (ok to use chicken, lamb or vegetable stock)
2 lbs mashing potatoes, such as Russet or Yukon Gold -- peeled and cut into quarters
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup milk
2 tablespoons grated cheddar cheese
Sea salt and Pepper

Preheat oven to 350F. With one teaspoon of oil, lightly grease a 9x13 casserole dish. 

For potatoes
Fill a pot with water, salt well and add peeled and cut potatoes. Bring to a boil and then reduce temperature so that potatoes are simmering until cooked (knife passes easily through). Drain potatoes well, return them to the pan and give the potatoes a good shake. Then set pan over a low flame for 5 minutes to dry out any extra moisture. This step results in fluffiest mash. Mash potatoes with ricer or potato masher. Add butter and milk and stir well. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper as needed. 

For meat 
Add two teaspoons of oil to a skillet on medium temperature. Add the onion, season with salt and pepper and sauté for 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for additional minute. Remove onion and garlic from pan and set aside. Bring the pan back up to temperature, add the ground meat and brown thoroughly. Add the mustard seeds, celery seeds, thyme and salt and pepper and cook for one minute. Add the tomato paste, HP Sauce and the reserved onion and garlic. Add the broth and allow to simmer on low for 15 minutes, or until broth is reduced by half.

Tip the meat mixture into prepared casserole dish. Spoon potatoes in various areas and then smooth out so that meat is completely covered. Using a fork, make crisscross marks all over the surface of the mash -- this will create a nicely browned top. Scatter the cheese over the potatoes.

Set in the oven to cook, uncovered for 30 minutes. Then, turn on the broiler and place the dish directly under the heat until well browned, 1-2 minutes -- keep an eye on it!

Serve beside steamed vegetables such as broccoli or with a simple salad. 


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