Saturday 30 August 2008

Shepherd’s Pie Traditions

Back when I became vegetarian so many people asked me what I could eat. But recently I have been thinking about how many of my traditional family meals I have been able to reclaim as a vegetarian. It is a comfort. I am glad to be able to draw on the memories of my mum’s good food. One such dish is Shepherd’s Pie. Mum always made it with mince meat in a dark gravy topped with crispy mashed potato and served with tomato sauce.

Once I became vegetarian I discovered there were many ways to make Shepherd’s Pie. One of my favourites is the one in Mollie Katzen’s Enchanted Broccoli Forest. Another interesting variation is Sophie’s Spring Cottage Pie that I saw on Mostly Eating some months ago.

Sophie also brought up something that has been a mystery to me. She says that Shepherd’s Pie refers to one made with lamb, and Cottage Pie refers to one made with beef. When I checked Wikipedia and Food Timeline this seemed to be generally agreed, although there was some talk of the terms being used interchangeably.

Shepherd’s Pie seems to have originated in the North of England and Scotland where there were a lot of sheep. There is a suggestion by John Ayto that the name Cottage Pie came from the ‘pleasantly bucolic associations’ when lamb and mutton disappeared from such pies. Neither pie came into common use til potatoes were acceptable as food in the UK in the Eighteenth Century. It seems that the term Shepherd’s Pie only dates back to the 1870s.

Interestingly Shepherd’s Pie seems to have traditionally been a way of using up leftover roast meat. Which makes sense to me as I remember my mum with a hand mincer that she had attached to the edge of the table with a vice – it always was quite fascinating to watch as a child. But that was before I knew that we were eating our pet lambs!

These days I use neither beef nor lamb so I feel maybe a new name would be appropriate. I’d quite fancy Market Gardener’s Pie or even Vegie Patch Pie. But I can’t help using the name I grew up with - Shepherd’s Pie. Even if it is very different to that which I ate as a child.

Unlike Mollie and Sophie who made their pies with no tomato sauce, I stuck to the vegetarian tradition (if I can claim such a thing) of a tomato sauce filled with legumes and vegetables. I wanted a hearty rich dish hearty to stick to our insides in the dark days of winter.

I have written out how I made mine recently. I didn’t follow any particular recipe but would not claim my recipe is definitive as I would make it differently each time. We had leftovers the next night and I thought the mashed potato was not nearly as soft and fluffy as the first night we made it. I often put cheese on my Shepherd’s Pie but decided to put some pesto in the mash instead which worked a treat. I put 2 tsp of tamari in the mixture and found it too salty but found this was fixed by adding lemon juice.

I was late making it so E was too hungry for me to wait long for it to crisp up much on top but we did get a little crisping and a little bubbling. It feels like real comfort food to me when it is golden crisp with edges browning and the filling bubbling up the sides. Then there is the marvellous moment that the serving spoon cracks through the crispy potato into the oozing steaming sauce. Like putting on a comfy old sweater. But delicious!

Shepherd’s Pie with Pesto

Filling (serves 4-6):
2 tsp olive oil
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 stalks of celery, diced
1 carrot, diced
1 x 400g tin of crushed tomatoes
Slurp of red wine (about ¼ cup)
2 tbsp tomato paste
1 tbsp tahini
2 tsp tamari (or less – mine was a little salty)
Juice of ½ lemon
3 bay leaves
½ glass of water
100g button mushrooms, roughly sliced
500g pumpkin, cut in chunks
2 medium zucchini, cut in chunks
4g dried porcini mushrooms, broken up
1 x 400g tin brown lentils, rinsed and drained
Generous grinding of black pepper

Topping (serves 4):
4 medium potatoes, roughly chopped (I don’t peel)
2 slurps of milk (about 2-3 tbsp)
1 knob butter or margarine
2 generous tsp pesto

Heat oil in a stockpot over low heat. Add onion, garlic, carrot and celery and fry for about 5-7 minutes, stirring frequently. If bottom of stockpot is getting too brown, add half a glass of water.

Add tomatoes, wine, tomato paste tahini, tamari, lemon juice, bayleaves and water. Bring to the boil and stir 1-2 minutes. Add button mushrooms, pumpkin, zucchini and porcini. Bring to the boil, cover and simmer for about 15 minutes, or til pumpkin and zucchini is just soft. Stir in lentils and black pepper. Check seasoning. Remove bay leaves. Set aside til potatoes are ready.

While the vegetables are simmering, place the potato in a medium saucepan with some water. Bring to the boil, cover and simmer about 15-20 minutes until potatoes are soft when a knife or fork is pushed in. When potatoes are cooked, drain and add butter and milk. Mash with a masher and then use a spoon to stir some air in and smooth out most of the lumps. Then stir in pesto til combined.

Put about 2/3 of the filling in a 23cm square ovenproof dish. This left me with the vegetable sauce to use elsewhere. You could use it all in a bigger container if you choose to have either a thinner covering of potato or even cook more potato. But unless you are cooking for a big group, I would advise putting some of the vegetable sauce aside in the fridge or freezer and mashing fresh potato another night because it is so much better when the potato is fresh.

Spread mash on top of vegetable mixture. Rough up the mash with a fork or back of a spoon so it has lots of texture to get crispy in the oven. Bake in the oven at 200 C for about 30 minutes or until mash is crisping up.

On the stereo:
Washing Machine: Sonic Youth


  1. "...the serving spoon cracks through the crispy potato into the oozing steaming sauce. Like putting on a comfy old sweater. But delicious!" That is just perfect food and fun!
    Really enjoyed the info on the pie. I've made is with all veggies and loved it to.

  2. My understanding is that indeed shepherd's pie refers to a lamb based recipe while cottage pie call for leftover beef (source = a former English boyfriend).
    The French term of "Hachis parmentier" is more flexible and allows you to make use of any leftover stew - a little ratatouille or curried vegetables would not go amiss - layered with mashed potatoes.

  3. My mum had one of those mincing things too! I never remember seeing her using it though (the idea seems pretty ick to me now anyway). I like the idea of putting pesto in the mash. We sometimes add mustard but I've never tried that. Another lovely insight into people's tried and tested favourites anyway. I'm sure I'll be following suit once the weather gets chilly here :)

  4. Thanks Johanna, I've been looking for a veggie pie version ready for winter! I really like your idea of small lentils rather than big beans (more of proper Shepherd's pie texture) and bit of pumpkin for sweetness.

    Interested to hear that your Mum actually made the mince herself from leftover roast meat. I had read that Shepherd's pie was for using up leftovers from the roast but it's always good to hear of somebody actually making it that way. Can't believe everything you read on the internet :-)

  5. That does sound comforting! I've never had much success w/ shepherd's pie--always seems to fall apart--but am willing to try again with a tomato base. My mum also had one of those handheld meat grinders, which I've inherited and have yet to use--maybe with nuts! But it IS very pretty. :)

  6. Hi, the reason that lamb is substituted for beef now in Shepherd's Pie is because beef is cheaper. The supermarkets caught onto the fact that unlike a regional speciality that people are willing to fight over the name of (see legal battles over Feta or Melton Mowbray pork pies) they could change lamb to beef to increase profit margins without anyone objecting. If you go into any supermarket in the UK you will find that 99% of all Shepherd's Pies sold now contains quite a bit of cheap, dodgy-provenance, generic beef in gravy and very small amounts of veg, it's supposed to be about 70% veg to 30% leftover roast meat in the sauce.

  7. You know, I've never had shepherd's (or cottage) pie before since it always scared me a little bit (images of films of oil on the bottom...) but now that I've seen yours, I'm going to give it a shot when the winter comes!

    I've also tagged you with a meme, take a look.


  8. I vote for Market Gardener's Pie. It fits the bill nicely.

    I made one not so long ago with lentils and while it was nice, it needed way more vegetable goodness.

    Love that first photo.

  9. thanks Tanna - there is nothing like a shepherd's pie stuffed with vegies

    thanks Nathalie - I think I never thought of the lamb/beef issue as mince meat always tasted the same to me - I was never a meat connoisseur before going vego - like the french name - hachis parmentier - will have to remember that

    thanks Lysy - mustard is something I am all in favour of for a shepherd's pie - always goes well in a tomato sauce but haven't tried it in a mash - must try!

    thanks Sophie - yes I like the texture of lentils - although other days I might use kidney beans too - but I had a tin of lentils hanging around for ages that I really wanted to use up

    thanks Ricki - I don't think shepherd's pie looks very photogenic when served (hence no photos of mine) but like lots of stews it still tastes great - I quite like the potato and stew getting a bit mushed up together. Yes the grinders are lovely objects to look at (unless you are a poor wee lamb)

    thanks Ms Alex - intereting info - I don't eat mince meat but I do see it as akin to sausages - mush it all up to hide the nasty cheapness - but maybe that is just the sort I bought as a student before going vego - I never thought of a meat shepherd's pie as lots of veg - I thought my mum's was mostly meat with the potatoes on top but it is quite a while since I had one

    thanks Tinker - it is one of those dishes that you can add as much or as little oil and butter as you want - lots of herbs and flavours will mean you don't miss the oil at all. Will get onto the tag some time - thanks!

    thanks Lucy - I like Market Gardener's Pie but it just doesn't roll off the tongue like Shepherd's Pie - I thought I could almost do with more lentils in this one - but as I said I think they are different every time which is the beauty of such casual recipes!

  10. I made the mistake of reading your blog when I was hungry. I want a shepherd's pie and I don't want to wait until it's ready - darn! Peanut butter toast will have to do.... (-:

    With all the lovely garden veggies available right now, a shep. pie would most certainly be delicious - I'll have to add it to my recipe qeue.

  11. Reminds me of my student days, when I used brown lentils in pretty much everything! I think puy lentils would work well, too. Liking the idea of the pesto addition...

  12. we have tons of homegrown potatoes. thanks for this fantastic recipe to use them.

  13. Johanna, I love your version of sherpherd's pie! I have also heard it called sherperdless pie, but we tend to use the same old title for it. We know it is veggie, so that is all that matters. Graham loves sheperds pie and this sounds so yummy!

  14. thanks Monika - I like the idea of a recipe queue - but peanut butter on toast is such a great stand-by for when shepherd's pie isn't available right now :-)

    thanks A Forkful - yes this is a standard from my student days - I know what you mean about lentils!

    thanks Vegan Cowgirl

    thanks Bee - lucky you with lots of homegrown potatoes (esp your purple ones which I would love to try in the mash on top)

    thanks Holler - I like the name Shepherdless Pie but I agree that it is yummy whatever it is called

  15. Johanna, I'm trying to figure out the lentils. Do I need to cook those first? I can't figure out where the lentils get the liquid. Thanks.

  16. Hi Scott - I take the easy route and buy a tin of cooked lentils and rinse and drain them. If you wanted to use dried brown or green lentils, you could just cook them til tender and then add to mixture. Hope that helps


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