Thursday, January 30, 2014

Cold weather calls for comfort food!

It’s been a damned miserable, unending winter, hasn’t it? Two days ago, I spent a joyful (not) hour out in the snow shoveling our sidewalks and driveway. After finishing the job, I went back inside, poured a cup of coffee and watched the wind and snow that had started up again (it was supposed to be done according to the weather idiots) completely undo all of my efforts. By the time I went outside to try my luck again, the temperature had dropped by 5° celsius! By the middle of the night, it was −22°C. Living in Canada, you can’t expect balmy weather in January (unless you live in Victoria, BC), so it’s not unexpected, but January 2014 had been ridiculous!

I find one of the best ways to overcome the blues when the weather’s bad outside is to cook one of your favourite comfort foods. On the comfort food front last year, I presented my recipe for roasted chicken, my favorite comfort food. We’ve refined that recipe a bit and this refinement will be dealt with very soon in a post. Promise!

Today, though I’d like to tell you about my close second favorite comfort food: Shepherd’s Pie.

I’m talking about the real thing, made with ground lamb. I’ve never understood how people can call this dish Shepherd’s Pie when it’s been made with beef. Are they suggesting that the shepherds rustled their neighbors cattle? Making it with beef just seems wrong to me – but then, I really like lamb. In England, from where this simple dish hails, cottage pie is what they call ground beef cooked with a topping of mashed potatoes. Somehow when Shepherd’s Pie migrated to North America, that simple fact was forgotten – or was ignored in order to allow cheaper beef to be substituted for lamb.

A good Shepherd’s Pie can be a simple affair made with onions, ground lamb, a bit of gravy and mashed potatoes piled on top. We make it with a few additional things, but it’s still a pretty basic recipe. It can be made quickly, and when served piping hot with some sort of vegetable on the side (I prefer Brussels sprouts or lightly steamed broccoli), the howling wind outside, the driving snow, and the biting cold seem somehow diminished.

What do we add beyond the bare bones ingredients? Since we adore mushrooms, you’ll find lots of sliced ones in our pie. The flavor and texture of the gravy is critical, too, so much attention is focused on making that particularly toothsome. The texture of the mashed potatoes is also important, especially if you’re hoping there will be leftovers – and there damned well better be!

So if it’s cold and damp and miserable where you are, head down to the market, buy the ingredients and make this simple, hearty, and sustaining dish. For winter fare, it doesn’t get much better than this.

Shepherd’s Pie
Serves 4 (but this can be easily doubled or tripled)


  • 1 medium onion
  • 2-3 garlic cloves
  • 1 Tbs bacon fat (or whatever oil you wish to use)
  • 1 lb lean ground lamb
  • 1 lb cremini mushrooms, sliced
  • 4 Tbs flour
  • 2 Tsp paprika (Spanish or Hungarian – your choice)
  • 1 tsp smoked paprika (ditto)
  • 1 Tbs Worchestershire sauce
  • 2 Tbs minced fresh parsley (Use flat-leaf. It has more flavor.)
  • 1 Tbs dried rosemary
  • 1/2 tsp dried mustard
  • 2 cups stock (lamb is best, but chicken also works)
  • 4-5 large mashing potatoes
  • 4-5 Tbs butter
  • 1/2 cup whole milk
  • a grating of nutmeg
  • salt and freshly ground pepper to taste for both the meat and mushroom mixture and the mashed potatoes (more on this later)


  1. Preheat your oven to 350°. Get the stock heating.
  2. Slice the onion thinly. You don’t want big long pieces, though, so quarter the onion lengthwise, then slice. Using an ovenproof skillet or frying pan, sauté the onions over medium heat in the bacon fat or oil until they’re translucent.
  3. Now smash the garlic with the side of a knife so it starts to fall apart and stir into the cooked onions. Cook for another two minutes so the garlic doesn’t have a chance to burn. 
  4. Now add the lamb and mushrooms and cook everything together until the lamb is pretty well cooked through. If your lamb is fatty, pour off the fat. Hopefully it isn’t because you’ll also be pouring off juices.
  5. Sprinkle the flour over the meat mixture and stir it in, cooking for an additional 3 minutes.
  6. Add the paprikas, Worchestershire sauce, parsley, rosemary, and mustard and stir them in.
  7. Pour the hot stock over the meat mixture and cook until it’s bubbling and starting to thicken. Next, add salt and black pepper to taste. I generally add about a teaspoon and a half of salt, and a very healthy grinding of black pepper. Set the pan to simmer very gently while you prepare the mashed potatoes.
  8. We pressure cook potatoes because it’s quicker. If you boil them, fine. In any event, cook your potatoes until they’re just done. After draining, throw them back in the cooking pot and over medium heat, dry them until their surface is dry and flaky. Add the butter and when it’s melted, turn down the heat and mash the potatoes. Do yourself a favor and use a potato masher. This will give you lovely fluffy results. Using a mixer is not a great idea because your potatoes will come out with a gluey consistency.
  9. When the potatoes are mashed to your liking, add the milk, a good grating of nutmeg, and season with salt and white pepper. (White pepper is much better with mashed potatoes than black, in my opinion.) If the potatoes seem a bit too dense, add a little more milk. You want the consistency to be somewhat creamy.
  10. When you’re happy with the texture and seasoning of your mashed potatoes (I sometimes add a bit of garlic powder, or throw a half dozen garlic cloves into the pressure cooker with the cut up potatoes – if I remember!), spoon them on top of the meat mixture (they look nicer with a few artistic swirls), and pop the pan in the oven for 20-30 minutes. If you want, right at the end, put a bit of grated cheddar (this is an British dish, after all) on top of the potatoes and melt the cheese/brown the top of your pie under the broiler.
  11. Now, spoon some onto a heated plate or into a bowl and warm your insides!

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