When my brother-in-law and sister-in-law are in town, my husband and I like to go out to dinner with them. We decided to go to a local golf club for comfort food night. My sister-in-law ordered Shepherds Pie, an historic dish made with lamb, vegetables, and mashed potatoes.
But this main course did not resemble the historic recipe; it had been Americanized. “What does it taste like?” I asked.
“It’s meat loaf with mashed potatoes on top,” my sister-in-law replied. “This is good, but it’s not Shepherds Pie.” Her comment made me curious about the history of the meal. I knew that Shepherds Pie is not a pie at all, but a meat casserole, or hot dish, as we say in my home state of Minnesota.
According to the Cooks.Com website, Shepherds Pie is a British dish made with lamb. Its cousin, Cottage Pie, is made with beef. Contrary to what some believe, neither one contains cheese. “If you see cheese anywhere near a recipe for either,” the website says, “put it down to the USA’s obsession to add cheese to anything that moves… “
Mark R. Vogel gives a brief history of the dish in his Food Reference website article, “The Good Shepherd.” Vogel says the recipe originated in the “heart of the Scottish countryside,” which is lamb country, and is a traditional way to use up leftovers. He thinks the recipe goes back to the 1870s. Though vegetables are added today, the original dish was meat, gravy, and potatoes.
Vogel uses ground lamb for his recipe and adds onions, carrots, and celery. He tells how to make homemade gravy with beef broth and mashed potatoes with heavy cream. Now that’s comfort food!
Paul Merrett’s recipe for the classic dish is posted on the BBC website. His recipe calls for garlic, fresh rosemary, parsnips, peas and chopped tomatoes, and is more of a modern pot pie. Some websites say the recipe is British and others say it is Scottish. In my search for information about the historic dish I came across a recipe for Ratatouille Shepherds Pie, which is about as far from a meat pie as you can get.
I make Shepherds Pie the old fashioned way. My rendition is based on a recipe in “The Fannie Farmer Cookbook: A Heritage of Good Cooking for a New Generation of Cooks.” Like so many dishes that are based on leftovers, there are no precise measurements. To start with, I have about three cups of cubed lamb. If I am short on gravy, I saute some meat in a cast iron skillet, remove them, and make more gravy from the juices and meat bits in the pan.
I put the gravy, meat and a box of defrosted carrots and peas into a casserole dish and top the mixture with mashed potatoes. You may make mashed potatoes from scratch or use dehydrated ones. Bake the casserole in a 375 degree oven for 35-40 minutes. Shepherds Pie — comfort food at its best — has withstood the test of time and new versions will certainly appear.
Copyright 2010 by Harriet Hodgson.