Our weather has been so cold and raw here lately, with day after day of what our local meteorologists call a “wintry mix” falling from the sky, that only the heartiest of meals will do. This delicious shepard’s pie made with ground lamb, and topped with a mix of mashed potatoes, caramelized onions, and cheddar cheese, is a textbook example of the kind of comfort food that is a perfect foil for this kind of weather. In case you’ve been wondering, your childhood lunch-line memories of a dish like this made with ground beef is properly called a “cottage pie”, only a true shepard’s pie is made with lamb…….there, now you know.
Brought to us by my friend Melissa Pasanen, and her one-time collaborator Chef Rick Gencarelli, this is a dish we’ve made many times from their terrific cookbook, Cooking with Shelburne Farms: Food and Stories from Vermont (Shelburne Farms Books). Shelburne Farms is a membership-supported, nonprofit environmental education center, 1,400-acre working farm, and National Historic Landmark on the shores of Lake Champlain in Shelburne, Vermont. Originally created as a model agricultural estate in 1886 by William Seward and Lila Vanderbilt Webb. In 1972, it became an educational nonprofit, and the Webb’s home was opened as a lovely three season Inn. A few years ago, Melissa, an accomplished food-writer and Rick, then chef at the Inn’s restaurant, joined forces to write the cookbook, filled with the best seasonal and locally sourced cooking Vermont has to offer.
At the Inn, this dish is made with lamb that was raised on the property, and topped with potatoes, onions and cheese that were grown or made there too. It’s not a difficult meal to make (especially if you don’t have to source your own lamb), though the component parts do take a little time to craft. Good new is, pretty much all of it can be made in advance, then layered into a casserole and baked at the last minute. It’ll serve a good sized crowd, and reheats easily in the microwave for a satisfying left-over lunch. Enjoy this dish with a simple green salad and a hot loaf of crusty bread slathered with salted butter, and I don’t care how cold it is outside, inside you’ll be toasty warm and oh so happy.
Cheers – S
For the caramelized onions:
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 pounds (about 6 medium) onions, thinly sliced crosswise into rounds
- 1 1/2 teaspoons minced fresh thyme leaves
For the potato smash:
- 3 pounds all-purpose potatoes, such as Yukon gold, scrubbed, but not peeled, and cut into 2-inch chunks
- 4 garlic cloves, smashed with the flat side of a knife
- 1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt, plus more to taste
For the filling and to finish the pie:
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 3 medium (about 1 1/2 cups) carrots, scrubbed, trimmed, and finely diced
- 2 pounds ground lamb
- 1 1/2 teaspoons minced fresh thyme leaves
- 1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste (ketchup will do in a pinch)
- 2 cups chicken stock, preferably low sodium
- 1 cup (about 3 1/2 ounces) grated cheddar
Make the caramelized onions:
- 1. These can be made up to a week ahead. In a large, heavy- bottomed saute pan or skillet set over medium heat, heat the olive oil until hot. Add the onions to the pan and turn the heat down to medium-low.
- 2. Sprinkle the onions with the salt and cook, stirring frequently to make sure they brown evenly, for about 30 to 40 minutes, or until they are completely golden brown and soft. You should have about 1 1/2 to 2 cups of onions. Set aside.
Make the smashed potatoes:
- 1. These can be made up to 24 hours ahead. Select a large pot that can accommodate a steamer insert or heatproof colander large enough to hold your potatoes. Fill it with water up to the bottom of the steamer insert, add the potatoes and garlic cloves, and sprinkle them with the salt. Cover the pot, set it over high heat, and bring the water to a boil.
- 2. Reduce the heat to maintain an active simmer and steam the potatoes for 25 to 30 minutes, until they break apart easily when poked with a fork.
- 3. Remove the potatoes and garlic from the steamer, pour off the hot water, and return the potatoes and garlic to the pot. Cover the potatoes with a clean dish towel and let them dry out for about 5 minutes. (Do not allow the potatoes to cool before mashing or they will get disastrously gummy.) Add the butter to the pot and use a potato masher to smash the potatoes and garlic until blended but not completely smooth. Adjust seasoning to taste. Set aside.
Make the filling and assemble the pie:
- 1. Preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C). In a large saute pan or skillet set over medium-high heat, heat the olive oil until hot. Add the diced carrots and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 to 7 minutes, until softened.
- 2. Add the lamb, thyme, and salt, and cook, stirring occasionally, for 8 to 10 minutes until the meat is no longer pink. Carefully pour off all the fat and discard.
- 3. Sprinkle the flour over the lamb and cook for 1 minute, stirring. Then stir in the tomato paste and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes longer. Pour in the stock, along with 1 cup of the caramelized onions. Increase the heat slightly and simmer, 2 to 3 minutes, until the gravy thickens slightly.
- 4. Spread the lamb into a shallow round or oval 3-quart casserole or a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Spread the potatoes on top. Distribute the remaining caramelized onions over the mashed potatoes, and then sprinkle the cheddar evenly on top. Bake until the top is golden and crusty, about 20 minutes.