January 26, 2011

Shepherd’s Pie with Caramelized Onions and Cheddar Mash

Because it is snowing––again––today seems like a perfect day to tell you about this shepherd’s pie. But first, I think, I should tell you about the cookbook I made it from.

Cooking with Shelburne Farms is one of those cookbooks that fully transports you to a place. In this case, by cracking the spine we travel to a large old farm in Vermont. We meet foragers who know how to find the best wild mushrooms, we see “caramel-colored cows with soft, patient dark eyes” milked by schoolchildren on a school trip. Flipping the pages, you can practically feel a plaid blanket over your lap and a crackling fire at your side. For a girl in a one-bedroom apartment in a gray urban landscape, this is bucolic catnip like none other. The recipes offer up page after page of lamb and rabbit, maple syrup in granola, on scallops, honeyed apple tea bread and fine aged Vermont cheddar. Pretty much the cookbook embodiment of a warm heart and a thermos full of hot apple cider, it is the coziest cookbook I own.

I’ve had my eye on this shepherd’s pie recipe for years, but I finally had the opportunity to make it one cold Friday night last month. We were having date night at home, and I had plenty of time to go about the separate components of the recipe–brown the lamb, mash the cheddar potatoes, caramelize a pile of onions–while drinking a glass of red wine and listening to Nina Simone.

When I cook something that I’d potentially like to feature on the blog, Sebastian and I have a unofficial judgment process. We each get situated with napkins, salt, and forks. We take a couple bites. If he turns to me first, this is a good sign. This means he approves heartily. But if I have to turn to him and ask what he thinks, it usually means it’s something I like more than he does. Put another way, it’s healthy and he can tell. If I don’t turn to him, and he doesn’t turn to me, and we just eat in silence watching C.J. rule the press room and Sam bumble around, the recipe silently falls to the cutting room floor, never to be seen again.

Sebastian turned to me immediately when I served him this shepherd’s pie and said it was one of the best things I’ve ever made, right up there with that tart from this fall and those scallops from last spring. One for the annals! The multi-step process makes this weekend fare for blustery cold nights and fierce, post-snowshoeing appetites. But the richly delicious results make it well worth the effort. I’d venture to say that this recipe, if you’re looking for a reason to keep slogging through the snow and slush, is a reason to love winter. Would be brilliant with a toasty English ale.

Shepherd’s Pie with Caramelized Onions and Cheddar Mash
adapted ever so slightly from Cooking with Shelburne Farms
Serves 4

for the caramelized onions
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound onions (about 3 medium), thinly sliced crosswise into rounds
1 teaspoon kosher salt

for the cheddar mash
1 1/2 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 kosher salt plus more to taste
2 tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces

for the lamb filling and to finish pie
1 teaspoon olive oil
3 medium carrots scrubbed trimmed and finely diced
1 pound ground lamb
3/4 teaspoon minced fresh thyme
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons tomato paste
1 cup chicken stock
1/2 cup grated cheddar

Make the caramelized onions: (This can be done 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 and turn the heat down to medium-low.

Sprinkle the onions with the salt and cook, stirring frequently to make sure they brown evenly, for about 30-40 minutes or until they are completely golden brown and soft. You should have about 1 cup of onions. Set aside.

Make the mashed potatoes: (This can be done up to 24 hours ahead.) In a large pot over high heat, cover potatoes and garlic with water. Bring water to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook potatoes 25-30 minutes until very soft when poked with a fork.

Drain potatoes and return 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,” warns the cookbook, “or they will get disasterously gummy.”) Add the butter to the pot and mash until blended but not completely smooth. Adjust seasoning to taste. Set aside.

Make the meat filling and finish the pie: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. In a large skillet set over medium-high heat, heat the olive oil until hot. Add the diced carrots and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5-7 minutes until softened.

Add the lamb, thyme, and salt, and cook, stirring occasionally, for 8-10 minutes until the meat is no longer pink. Carefully pour off all the fat and discard.

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 half of the caramelized onions. Increase the heat slightly and simmer 2-3 minutes until the gravy thickens.

Spread the lamb into a 3-quart casserole or a 9″x13″ 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.

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  • Katie @ cakes, tea and dreams: Ohhh, this sounds AMAZING. Except I want the plaid blanket and apple cider, too.4 years ago

  • Amy: I love shepherd’s pie – I’ll definitely have to try this recipe! (I usually do a turkey sausage base w/ mashed sweet potatoes for the top, but am willing to try anything that involves caramelized onions.)4 years ago

  • Julie: I made a version of this for the first time on Sunday (“Hachis Parmentier,” according to my new pal Dorie G.), but instead of lamb, I used that super strange looking, cheap beef that has those grid mark type things on it — do you know what I mean? It was so good! I was always afraid of that stuff, but highly recommended for a slightly thriftier alternative :) Still the same (very long) amount of time involved though!4 years ago

  • Katie, Me too! And I want an old-school plaid thermos, too.

    Amy, Wow. Turkey sausage with sweet potatoes sounds amazing, too.

    Julie, I am fascinated by this grid-mark beef! I don’t know what you’re talking about, but it sounds dangerous. 😉4 years ago

  • Kanesha: I’m adding this to my recipe list, Sarah! Yum-oh.

    I’m planning our annual Pi Day party.

    My daughter wants to make hachis Parmentier – she loves most things French.

    http://www.itsafullnest.com/2010/06/10/summer-summer-summertime-time-to-sit-back-and-unwind/4 years ago

  • fanny | live happy: This one stopped me in my tracks. Thank you for bringing it to my attention. Really, thank you.4 years ago

  • g.: Oh my gosh, this sounds SO good. I love shepherd’s pie in any form.

    Question: The cheddar mash doesn’t list cheddar as an ingredient. Is it just called that because of the cheddar sprinkled on top of the potatoes at the end, or should there be some in the potatoes too? Not that you could really go wrong either way, presumably… :)4 years ago

  • J: I laughed out loud when I read how you can tell when Sebastian knows a recipe is healthy. My BF claims to abhor cauliflower while of course I love it. A few weeks back I made shepherd’s pie, only I used cauliflower for the cheddar mash. It was a good disguise: he still doesn’t know I used cauliflower and he’s asked for it again. 😉 Next time I’ll add on the carmelized onions – looks fab!4 years ago

  • ruth@gracelaced: Oh had I see this post before making two huge pans of shepherd’s pie this afternoon. You had me at carmelized onions. Don’t know if you saw the series I’m doing on The Frugal Table, but I included (technically) cottage pie on the meal plan…this one sounds so much more enticing, though perhaps a little more luxurious on the pocketbook!4 years ago

  • JenCal: You had me at Cheddar Mash…. Def. going to be trying this out4 years ago

  • Kanesha, Is pi day as mathy as it sounds?

    fanny, You will love it!

    g, Yes, it’s just called cheddar mash cause you sprinkle it on top. But why not put some in the potatoes, too? 😉

    J, I read Sebastian that part when he got home and he thought it was pretty funny. But that is PURE GENIUS about the cauliflower/potato switcheroo!

    Ruth, I will go look that up! Ground lamb is actually really inexpensive at my store, and onions and potatoes as we know are cheap, cheap, cheap. I used a little bit of this heavenly cheddar cheese called Prairie Breeze, which was a little more expensive than your garden variety cheddar.4 years ago

  • Kanesha: Yes, Pi Day, super mathy.

    I live with a scientist.4 years ago

  • Brie.: you have just solved my saturday night dinner dilemma – this will be perfect in chilly and always-slightly-damp london!4 years ago

  • Emily: You have no idea how much I needed this today.4 years ago

  • Caitlin: Looks great! I’m from Vermont and have been to Shelburne Farms several times. It’s such a beautiful place. Thank you for this reminder of home :-). I also laughed out loud when I read about your dinner judgment process, because we do the same thing!4 years ago

  • Faith: Thanks for this recipe. I couldn’t wait to try it and since I was having a relaxing weekend with my boyfriend at my godmother’s house out in beautiful Hunterdon County (housesitting) it seemed like a great time to make it. I had two old friends over and the 4 of us polished off almost every last bite in one sitting. Probably not the best thing for our respective waistlines, but it was good we couldn’t not eat it all up. I will be making this again and again!

    (For dessert I made Eton Mess – courtesy of Ina Garten’s new How Easy Is That which was also a huge mess and which I would definitely recommend – made for a very Anglophile meal from start to finish.)4 years ago

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Only the pure of heart can make good soup.
- Beethoven