When we get to the time of year when it's Cold With A Capital C (and we're there in case you haven't stepped outside recently), I crave simple, comforting, stick-to-your-ribs food.
Every winter I make Shepherd's Pie at least a couple of times. Being a single guy, I can freeze the leftovers and make several meals out of one dish. But of course, it is best fresh out of the oven.
Well, not too fresh out of the oven. You want to let it cool a little unless you don't like having skin on the roof of your mouth.
The great thing about a Shepherd's Pie is that there is no real definition of what has to be in the filling. Just some meat and vegetables in a gravy with mashed potatoes slapped on top. So it's a great way to use up any vegetables you have sitting around about to go bad.
In the recipe here, I've used a spare carrot and the stem from a head of broccoli, but use whatever veggies you want as long as it is in roughly the same proportion. Including the chopped onion, you want about 2 cups of fresh vegetables. I have previously used turnip, radish, leek, rutabaga, parsnip and even an extra potato in this dish.
Other variations abound. Don't want beef? Use ground chicken, pork or lamb (the latter is more traditional in Shepherd's Pie). Or skip the meat all together and add another 1/2 cup of fresh vegetables or cooked lentils.
The stouter the beer used, the deeper the flavor of the gravy. But if beer isn't your thing at all, it can be replaced with more stock.
Though Shepherd's Pie is a utilitarian dish that was originally created as a way to use up leftovers from a Sunday roast, there's no reason it can't take a star turn. If you're up to it, get out some cake or cookie decorating tools and create a design on the top of the dish with extra whipped potatoes.
The potatoes – especially any elevated bits – are going to get brown and crispy, adding delicious texture to the final product.
I specify whipped potatoes if you are doing a special design because if you are going to try and push the potatoes through a decorating tip, you want them as lump-free as possible. So use a hand mixer instead of a wire masher.
If you want to slip your fancy pants on for company, consider assembling the dish in individual ramekins for each person at the table.
I like to serve Shepherd's Pie with crusty bread to swipe up any extra gravy.
21/2 pounds potatoes
2 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons sour cream
1/3 cup milk
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
Salt to taste
1/2 pound ground beef
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup carrots, chopped
1/2 cup, broccoli stalk, peeled and chopped
1 cup white onion, chopped
2 tablespoons flour
11/2 teaspoons dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon dried parsley
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
Fresh ground black pepper to taste
3/4 cup vegetable stock
3/4 cup beer
3/4 cup frozen peas and carrots mix (or just peas)
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Make potatoes: Peel potatoes and chop into roughly 1-inch cubes. Place in a pot with enough salted water to cover the chunks. Boil 5 to 10 minutes or until the potatoes are fork tender.
Remove from heat and drain. Add remaining ingredients to pot with potatoes and whip using a hand mixer until smooth. Cover and set aside to cool.
Make filling: Coat a 21/2-quart baking dish with cooking spray and set aside.
In a Dutch oven or large skillet, brown the ground beef. Pour the cooked beef into a bowl lined with paper towels to drain the beef, and set the meat aside.
Return the Dutch oven to the stove over medium heat. Add the butter to melt, then sauté the fresh vegetables 5 to 8 minutes or until softened.
Add flour and stir for 1 minute. Add spices and give the pot a quick stir so the spices are evenly mixed. Add stock and beer and stir to get all the browned bits off the bottom of the pot. Bring to a boil and let simmer until it thickens to a gravy consistency. Return beef to the pot and add frozen vegetables. Simmer 1 minute then remove from heat. You can add a bit more stock if the mixture gets too thick.
Pour the beef mixture into the prepared baking dish and spread evenly.
Give the potatoes a stir to make sure they are still smooth. You can add a dash of milk or stock if they need to be loosened. If you are going to pipe a pattern on top, reserve 1 cup of the potatoes at this point.
Spread 2 to 3 cups of whipped potatoes on top of the beef mixture. An offset spatula comes in handy for this task if you have one. They aren't just for decorating cakes!
Speaking of decorating cakes: To pipe potatoes on top of the shepherd's pie, dig out your cake decorating tools, if you have them. Insert a large-gauge piping tip in the corner of a piping bag or zip-top bag, add reserved potatoes to bag and create a design as if you were decorating a cake with icing.
If you don't have a piping tip, you can use a zip-top bag with the corner cut off. The design won't be as elegant, but you can still create lots of nice peaks to be browned. If piping still isn't your thing, simply use the spatula or a fork to sort of “rough up” the top of the potatoes you spread on top of the beef, creating a spackled sort of look.
Place the baking dish in the oven, uncovered, for 20 to 25 minutes or until the gravy has started to bubble up the sides and the top is slightly browned and crusty. Remove from the oven and allow to cool 5 to 10 minutes before serving.
You can place the dish under a broiler or use a torch to enhance the browned peaks on top, if you wish.
Note: After the shepherd's pie is assembled, you can cover the dish and refrigerate overnight. If you take this step, you will want to add to your baking time until the top is browned and inside is warmed through.
Recipe Swap is published monthly in The Journal Gazette. Corey McMaken is a home cook, not a food expert. To share a comment or favorite recipe for possible inclusion, email firstname.lastname@example.org or write to Corey McMaken, c/o The Journal Gazette, 600 W. Main St., Fort Wayne, IN 46802; include recipe, cooking tips, full name, city of residence and a phone number so we can contact you.