Saturday, February 15, 2014

Shepherd's Pie ~ Updated Technique Provides Superior Flavor

My friend Diane, who now lives in Scotland, tells me that a meat pie with a mashed potato crust is really a 'cottage pie' unless you make it with mutton or lamb. So I thought I better do some research to make sure I had the title correct as I make mine with ground beef, as is now common in much of Europe, Canada and the USA.

Julian's Shepherd's Pie
As it turns out, the term cottage pie is known to have been in use in 1791 when the potato was being introduced as an affordable crop for the poor and a "cottage" meant a modest dwelling for rural workers. In early cook books, the dish was a means of using leftover roasted meat of any kind where the pie dish was lined with mashed potato as well as having a mashed potato crust on top. The term "shepherd's pie" does not seem to appear until 1877 and since then it has been used synonymously with "cottage pie", regardless of whether the principal meat was beef, mutton or lamb. So I'll continue to call this dish 'shepherd's pie' even though I'll be using ground beef.

Thick rich sauce with peas and carrots.
I had my first shepherd's pie at the Elephant & Castle in Toronto some 20 years ago where they use a combination of ground lamb and ground beef. Since then have been making my own version. In fact, each winter I make some type of pot pie, be it creamy chicken and biscuits or even rich crab pot pies with puff pastry.  These are satisfying hearty one-dish meals that only need a salad or dessert to complete the dinner. However, upon reading the November 2012 issue of Cook's Illustrated, I decided to try their new technique to deepen the flavors of this favorite comfort food, as I use ground beef instead of cut pieces of meat that brown nicely and provide a deeper flavor (but requires 3-4 hours to prepare.) Seems as though the chefs at Cook's Illustrated had the same issues and worked to solve the problem. Kevin, never really a fan of my prior versions, found this one to be quite flavorful and an improvement, so I'm sharing it with you only slightly modified based no my own experience and tastes.

Note that I used large individual ramekins for this dish as I typically do with pot pies.  You may also use a large pie plate or finish the dish in the skillet, provided these are broiler safe.

Ingredients (serves 4 to 6 adults)

Read Up on Perfect Mashed Potatoes
1 1/2 pounds ground beef no less than 93% lean
2 tablespoons  plus 2 tsp water
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 1/2 pounds red-skinned potatoes, cut into 1-inch pieces
4 tablespoons melted butter
1/2 cup milk
1 large egg yolk
8 scallions tops (green only), chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
6 ounces mushrooms, chopped
Click to Enlarge
1 medium Spanish onion, chopped
8 scallions white parts, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/2 cup Marsala wine or ruby port
2 tablespoons flour
1 1/2 cups low-sodium beef broth
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoons dried thyme (2 sprigs fresh)
2 carrots, chopped
3/4 cup frozen peas (optional)
2 teaspoons cornstarch
2 teaspoons water
paprika for garnish

1) Toss the ground beef with 2 tablespoons of the water, 1 teaspoon of salt, 1/4 teaspoon of pepper, and the baking soda in a bowl. Let it all sit for 20 minutes.

Julian's Red-skinned Mashed Potatoes with Scallions
2) In a saucepan, add the potatoes, cover with water, add 1 tablespoon of salt and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and for 8 to 10 minutes, until potatoes are tender. Drain the potatoes and return them to the pan. Toss over low heat until the moisture has evaporated, approximately one minute. Remove the pan from the heat, mash the potatoes with a potato masher or beaters. Stir in the melted butter. Using a fork, whisk together the milk and egg yolk then add the mixture to the potatoes. Using an electric mixer, blend together until smooth but not pasty.  Stir in the scallion tops and add salt and pepper to taste. Cover and set aside.

Peas Added and Ready for Toppin
3) Heat the oil in a 10-inch skillet (not a non-stick skillet) until hot (shimmering) but not smoking. Add the onions and mushrooms with a pinch of salt and pepper. Cook 4 to 6 minutes, stirring occasionally. The vegetables should begin to soften, and there should be brown bits on the bottom of the pan. Don't be concerned about sticking as browning on the pan will help to develop flavor. Add the tomato paste and the garlic and cook for 2 minutes more. Add the wine and continue to cook, scraping up the dark brown bits from the pan. Continue to cook for about three minutes, until the wine has evaporated. Add the flour and cook for about a minute, stirring. Add the broth, Worcestershire sauce, thyme sprigs, bay leaf, and the carrots. Bring the mixture to a boil and scrape up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Reduce the heat to medium low and add the beef in about 2 inch chunks and bring the mixture to a simmer. Cover and cook for 10 to 12 minutes, breaking up the meat chunks halfway through. Add the optional frozen peas and cook until just heated through, about 3 minutes. Mix the cornstarch with 2 teaspoons water in a small bowl and add it to the mixture and simmer for 30 seconds to thicken the sauce. Remove from heat. Remove the thyme if you used fresh and the bay leaf, then add salt and pepper to taste.

4) Place an oven rack 6-7 inches from the broiler and heat the oven on broil. Place the mashed potatoes in a large plastic bag and cut one corner to create a one inch hole, or use a large icing bag with large tip. Transfer the meat mixture into to ramekins or baking dish. Pipe the potatoes on top of the filling to completely cover the mixture. Make ridges on the surface with a fork if you didn't use a decorator tip. Sprinkle with paprika. Put the skillet on a rimmed baking sheet and broil for about 15 minutes. The potatoes should develop a slightly browned crust and the filling should be bubbling. Allow to cool slightly before serving.

Julian's Individual Shepherd's Pies Ready to Serve

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