NOTE: An updated version of this recipe appears in my cookbook, The Ancestral Table.
Although meat pies have been eaten in the British Isles since the Middle Ages (14th Century, last I heard), Shepherd’s Pie as we know it today coincided with the arrival of the potato in Europe. The Spanish brought potatoes to Europe in 1520, but they didn’t catch on until the 18th Century in Great Britain. Shepherd’s Pie appeared shortly thereafter – although under its original name, Cottage Pie, and made mostly with beef. The term Shepherd’s Pie followed about a hundred years later, along with the idea that it should be made with mutton. Today, Shepherd’s Pie can be made with beef or lamb, or sometimes both, while Cottage Pie usually refers only to the beef version of the dish.
Another interesting thing about this dish is the fact that it’s prevalent in many other cultures, with some pretty amusing names, like Pâté Chinois (“Chinese Pie”, French Canada), Картофельная Запеканка (“Potato Baked Pudding”, Russia), and Escondidinho (“Hidden”, Brazil).
1.5 lbs ground beef, ground lamb, or a mixture of the two
3 medium russet potatoes, peeled and sliced
1 small white onion, blended in a processor or blender
1 medium carrot, diced
1 celery root, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tbsp tomato paste
1/2 cup chicken broth
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1/2 tsp each fresh thyme and rosemary, chopped (dried okay, but halve the amount)
1/2 cup frozen peas
1 tsp salt
2 tsp black pepper
3 tbsp butter
1/2 cup heavy cream
The first step is to prep your ingredients and have them handy; this dish doesn’t take long to make, and it comes together much more smoothly if everything is ready to go beforehand.
Peel and slice your potatoes, then put them in a pot and fill with cold water, until the potatoes are covered by an inch of water. Bring to boil then simmer for about 10-12 minutes, until the potatoes are easily pierced with a fork.
Drain and return the potatoes to the pot. Add 1/2 tsp salt, 1 tsp black pepper, and the remaining 2 tbsp butter. Then mash the potatoes and stir in the 1/2 cup cream until they look nice and creamy. Adjust the amount of cream as needed. Cover and set aside; if you’re up to it, you can actually be cooking those potatoes as you’re making your beef mixture, since they take about the same amount of time to cook.
On medium heat, brown the ground meat until most of the pink is gone. Drain and set aside the rendered fat, then set aside the cooked meat.
Return 2 tbsp of the rendered fat to the pan, as well as 1 tbsp butter, and warm it on medium heat.
Add the onion, celery root (or parsnip), and carrot, and sauté until softened, about 8 minutes.
Add the tomato paste and garlic, sautéing for another 2 minutes.
Add the chicken broth, herbs, Worcestershire sauce, 1/2 tsp salt, and 1 tsp black pepper. Simmer for 3 minutes, until the sauce thickens slightly.
Remove the pan from heat and stir in the ground beef and frozen peas. This is also a good time to start pre-heating your oven to 450 degrees.
Spread the meat mixture evenly into a 8×8 baking dish (or something similar in size).
Add the mashed potatoes onto the meat mixture (it works best if you add it in small globs, as opposed to plopping it all on the top at once), then spread everything out with a spatula to make it look pretty.
Bake in the middle rack on 450 degrees for 30 minutes, or until the potatoes look nice and browned.
That’s it! Let the dish rest for five minutes before tearing into it.