I’ve said many times that I am not a food purist: I like shortcuts and variations, I have a massive soft spot for oven pizzas, and no time at all for those who are sniffy about prepared food or ingredients. I don’t think there’s anything to be gained by being categorical or dictatorial about food – what is the point in me insisting you cook your thick steak rare if you can’t bear to eat it that way? Eating and cooking should be about enjoyment, and I don’t get to decide what you do or do not enjoy, what is to your taste. So I try my very best to be flexible, to offer up alternatives, and not to make pronouncements from on high.
However, I draw the line at shepherd’s pie. I am given to understand (or rather, there are countless sources to this fact, I just don’t want to believe it), that the terms cottage pie and shepherd’s pie can be used interchangeably to mean any red meat braised dish with mashed potato on top. But, frankly, shepherd’s pie being made with lamb mince is a hill I’m willing to die on. I simply don’t accept that, where a simple delineation between the two is possible (shepherds look after sheep, sheep become lamb, this shouldn’t be complicated), we wouldn’t embrace that. So as far as I’m concerned, shepherd’s pie is lamb-based, and I will not countenance counter-arguments.
Unsurprisingly for a one-pot dish that is designed to feed a family and make meat go a little further, shepherd’s pie would originally have been made with the leftovers from a leg of mutton or lamb. Today, we tend to make it with lamb mince, rather than shredded, roast lamb. The idea is to eke out meat with veg and sauce and potatoes, and create something hot and comforting and deeply savoury.
I believe strongly in the power of shepherd’s pie. It was something my mother made regularly when I was younger, and often as a kind of culinary medicine. I have spent most of my adult life trying to get mine quite as good as hers: I never feel I get the mash quite as smooth as my mother did, or the ridges left by the fork quite as crisp, but I do my best. But my mother did have one peculiarity with her shepherd’s pie, and it is one I have adopted wholesale: baked beans. I know, it feels weird. But the rich, sweetness of the tomato sauce, and the beans themselves work brilliantly with the other ingredients. If their inclusion are stopping you making the pie, leave them out, but if you’re on the fence, please trust me, and give it a try.
I’d eat shepherd’s pie all year round, but it’s particularly good for cold nights at this time of year. To my mind, shepherd’s pie only improves on reheating, so as a household of two, I will always make a ‘full-size’ shepherd’s pie following the recipe below – which says it will feed four, but if you are less greedy than my family, would easily serve six. There are few nicer feelings than knowing you have leftover shepherd’s pie waiting for you in the fridge – all it needs is some braised, butter cabbage, generously peppered, and a heavy-handed serving of brown sauce. The brown sauce is non-negotiable; I’ll even let you call it cottage pie, as long as you serve it with brown sauce.
Makes: Enough for 4
Takes: 25 minutes
Bakes: 1½ hours
For the filling
2 tablespoons olive oil
400g lamb mince
2 medium carrots, diced
2 ribs of celery, diced
2 small onions, diced
400g tin of baked beans
2 tablespoons tomato purée
½ tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
200ml lamb stock
Salt and pepper
For the topping
1kg potatoes, peeled and chopped roughly
1. Heat a large casserole dish over a high heat on the hob: add a tablespoon of olive oil and the mince, and cook until browned. Set the mince to one side, and pour off any liquid that’s been produced.
2. Heat a second tablespoon of oil in the dish and reduce the heat to low; add the diced vegetables and cook gently, until soft but not coloured.
3. Return the mince to the pan and add the baked beans, tomato purée, Worcestershire sauce, lamb stock, and a generous sprinkling of salt. Bring to a simmer, then cover and cook over a very low heat for an hour. After an hour, check on the mixture: if it is still quite liquid, remove the lid, turn the heat up a little, and cook for another 20 minutes until it is thick and casserole-like.
4. Place the potatoes in boiling water and cook until tender, about 15 minutes. Drain and leave to steam for 5 minutes. Mash the potatoes, or push them through a ricer, until very smooth; beat the butter into the mash.
5. Preheat the oven to 200°C. Spoon the mash on top of the filling, and flatten with the back of a spoon. Drag the back of a fork in concentric circles around the mash to create little ridges. Cook for 25 minutes, until the top is golden, and starting to crisp at the edges.