When school started back in the middle of August (!), I waited to feel the change in the air. In Utah, you can definitely feel a change in the air as the season change. A morning might be cool in the summer, but you know it’s still going to be blazing hot in a few hours. But I’ve felt the change to fall over the last few days. It’s nice and crisp in the morning–still warm in the afternoon, but definitely crisp. Fall has arrived whether the calendar says so or not.
I’m not ready to completely let go of summer foods yet, but I can’t help but get excited to start making hearty soups and stews, and even a few casseroles. (Hold the cream of whatever soup, please.)
My family really loves Shepherd’s Pie. And surprisingly, I’ve never posted the recipe I make. I’m guessing it’s because the light changes and by the time I get dinner on the table (late, of course) the sun has already set. I beat the sun this time though. I had to share this with you and snap a few shots before it was devoured by hungry little mouths.
Let’s talk about what makes Shepherd’s Pie so great, or rather how you can make your Shepherd’s Pie great. While I have always enjoyed Shepherd’s Pie in any way, shape, or form, some people do not. And for good reason. Some pies are not as good as others.
First, let’s talk about the meat. We usually use beef because we have a hard time finding minced lamb. (Not anymore. Caputo’s carries locally raised minced lamb. Hooray!) You want meat with good flavor and some fat. SP was traditionally made with leftover roasted meat, and you can do that too. I like to simmer the ground meat in broth and wine along with lots of onions, carrots, garlic and herbs. I let it simmer for quite awhile, even 45 minutes. The lamb makes the pie extra special and it’s worth the splurge for a special occasion, so try it if you can.
Some people add peas or green beans to the meat. That’s totally fine. I prefer to eat veggies (other than the finely chopped carrots) on the side of my Shepherd’s Pie. If you like them mixed in, by all means add them in.
Second, the mashed potatoes matter. We like lumpy mash on top. I cook mine unpeeled and whole in boiling water and then mash them. You don’t want water-logged potatoes for this. You also don’t want to use waxy potatoes, so use an all-purpose like Yukon Golds, or floury potato like russets. You can also use my favorite recipe for the Best Mashed Potatoes ever. Just be careful not to add too much liquid to the mash. You don’t want them too wet or they won’t stand up to the gravy and you’ll have a stew instead of a casserole.
Third, you want to use really good extra sharp cheddar for the top. We really like Tillamook Special Reserve Extra Sharp Cheddar. It melts well, has great flavor, and browns up nice and crisp on the top. Don’t you just want to reach into that picture and pick off that cheese for a little snack? (My son does.)
The Best Shepherd’s Pie
1 to 1 1/2 lb. ground lamb (I got mine at Caputo’s)
1 large onion, diced
2 carrots, peeled and finely minced
2 large cloves garlic, minced
2 cups beef broth
1 cup red wine
1 Tbsp. tomato paste
2 sprigs fresh thyme (or 1/4 tsp.)
1 small sprig fresh rosemary, leaves only, finely minced (or 1/2 tsp. dried)
1/4 tsp. black pepper
salt, if needed
For mashed potatoes:
2 lbs. russet potatoes, unpeeled and left whole
2-4 Tbsp. butter
1 1/2 cups extra sharp cheddar (we like Tillamook Special Reserve)
Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the ground lamb, onion, carrots, and garlic. Lower heat as necessary and cook until lamb cooks through. Add the beef broth, wine, tomato paste, thyme and rosemary. Lower to a simmer and cook until the liquid is reduced quite a bit, as long as 30-45 minutes. Season with black pepper, to taste, and add any salt, if needed. Remove the thyme stem.
While lamb is cooking, prepare the mashed potatoes. When the lamb is finished cooking, transfer to a deep-sided casserole. (I used a 3 quart enameled cast iron casserole pan.)
For mashed potatoes:
Place the potatoes on a large pot and cover with water by a few inches. Bring to a boil and lower heat to a simmer. Cook until potatoes are very tender. Drain the water and carefully peel using a sharp paring knife. (Note: you can do this ahead of time and allow the potatoes to cool a bit before handling and peeling.)
Mash the potatoes with a masher and add the butter and enough milk for a good consistency. You don’t want these to be too wet, so go easy on the milk. Add salt and taste.
Spoon mashed potatoes over the lamb and spread to the sides of the pan. Top with the cheddar and bake at 400 degrees until bubbling all over and the cheese has browned.
Serve hot. Makes enough for 8.
Note: The meat and mashed potatoes can be made ahead of time and assembled without the cheese. Just add extra baking time.