What many people beyond the shores of the British Isles may not know, is that the humble shepherd’s and cottage pies are directly linked to the British Sunday roast — roast lamb and roast beef respectively. For generations going back into the hazy past, Monday night evening meals (suppers, dinners, teas – depending upon what part of Britain one inhabited, geographically and / or socially) were typically made up of the scraps from the previous day’s lunch and more often than not the main constituent would be the leftover meat. And if this meat happened to be lamb or beef then normally it would be minced or finely chopped, mixed with cooked vegetables, roofed with a thick layer of mashed potato and ultimately emerge from the oven as either of the aforementioned pies.
Simple to make, thrifty on the wallet and tasty enough for even the fussiest eaters, shepherd’s pie has joined the “English breakfast”, fish and chips and bangers and mash as one of the few British dishes to gain global popularity. Over the past few decades it’s become a staple of the comfort food menu and an international culinary superstar.
But, at the risk of sounding like Sheldon Cooper pointing out what makes — and what doesn’t make — a true Texas Chilli (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=42NYgA85Wck), there’s a problem; a problem of misrepresentation:
I’ve eaten concoctions of meat and mashed potato, purporting to be shepherd’s pie everywhere from Perth in Australia, to Seattle in the USA, and at all stops in between, including places as diverse as Chennai, Stockholm and Tel Aviv. And, while several of these alleged shepherd’s pies have been very agreeable plates of food, they’ve no more been shepherd’s pie than a vegetarian sausage is an actual sausage or Greek chickpea puree is humus.
The first and most serious error that the cooks of all these dishes make is basing their recipes on raw beef mince and the second is to call the dish after the keeper of sheep. Shepherd’s pie (yes, the clue is in the name) is always made with lamb or mutton – leftover roast lamb or mutton if possible, but lamb mince at the very least. There’s nothing wrong with a minced beef and mashed potato pie, but compared to a true cottage pie (for it is in in fact cottage pie that these ingenuous cooks are making) — made with leftover roast beef — it’s a sad imitation at best. Perhaps if we renamed Cottage Pie, Cowherd Pie (or Cowboy Pie in the States and Gaucho Pie in Argentina) it would clear up some of the apparent confusion. In fact, here in Spain when I’m lucky enough to have roast kid scraps I call the resulting dish Goatherd Pie – and very delicious it is to.
Unfortunately, the error has been exacerbated by a plethora of British cookbooks, often penned by famous British chefs, who for reasons to do with things like “convenience” and the pace of “modern life” disseminate shepherd’s pie recipes based upon raw beef mince.
The point is, as I hope the recipe below for Cottage Pie will demonstrate, the superiority in flavour, texture and sheer pleasure of eating a meat and mashed potato pie made from roast meat scraps, over one made from raw mince is worth the extra 10 minutes it takes to prepare.
(Serves 2 as a single dish meal or 4 as part of a three course dinner / Preparation time: 1 hour 45 minutes / Cooking time 30 minutes)
Ingredients for mash
- 1½ lbs floury potatoes – peeled and cut up into medium dice for boiling
- 2 oz unsalted butter
- 5 fl oz single cream or full fat milk
- freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tbsp coarsely grated cheddar cheese
Ingredients for pie
- 2 tbsp cooking oil (rapeseed, corn or nut but not olive or sunflower)
- 12 – 14 oz of roast beef meat – finely chopped (not minced or blitzed!!)
- 1 large carrot – finely chopped
- 1 stick of celery – finely chopped
- 1 brown onion – finely chopped
- 1 tbsp plain flour
- 12 fl oz beef gravy or rich stock (a stock made from a cube will do)
- 1 tbsp brown sauce (HP, OK or similar)
- ½ tbsp Worcester Sauce
- salt and ground white pepper
- Preheat oven to 190° c (170° c fan)
- Make the mash potato, being sure to end up with a light and creamy texture – season to taste. Leave to cool.
- Heat the oil in a large skillet or frying pan over a medium/high heat.
- Sauté the vegetables until beginning to brown – about 10 minutes.
- Add the meat to the pan, mix thoroughly with the veg and cook for about 2 minutes.
- Add the flour and mix well, cooking for a further 2 minutes.
- Add the stock, brown sauce, Worcester Sauce and season well.
- Cook on a high heat until until the stock has reduced somewhat and the pan contents resemble a ragout.
- Check the seasoning and pour ingredients from the pan into a well buttered 2 pint oven dish.
- Leave to cool for about an hour, until a skin has formed on the surface of the ragout.
- Carefully spoon the mash onto the ragout – be careful not to push the potato into the ragout – then spread out with the back of a fork until the potato is level and neatly ridged.
- Sprinkle the grated cheese over the top.
- Place in the centre of the oven for 25 – 30 minutes until the pie is bubbling.
- Serve with a heap of fresh or frozen peas and wash down with a mug of strong English tea, a glass of good ale or a spicy Côtes du Rhône…
(For shepherd’s pie simply substitute the beef for lamb or mutton, use a lamb gravy or rich lamb stock, or a rich chicken stock, and omit the cheese topping.)