Shepherd’s Pie-It May Be Ugly, But it Tastes Good

Sometimes when the chill November winds blow, and the sky is a granite grey, the soul simply cries out for the warmth of a classic casserole.

This is especially true when I have a whole bunch of hungry teens in the house who may or may not have patience for my usual offerings of authentic Chinese, Thai or Indian dishes complete with fermented black beans, fiery chiles or bitter melon.

Having Morganna’s friends to visit gives me an excuse to whip up something simple from fairly familiar ingredients in a form which is different than the usual.

Shepherd’s pie fits the bill fantastically.

A traditional British dish of either minced lamb or shredded leftover roast in gravy, and topped with mashed potatoes that is then baked in the oven, shepherd’s pie is among the plainest of plain foods.

However, at my house, “plain” and “simple” does not mean “bland” and “boring.” Other cooks may content themselves with just throwing together some ground meat and making a gravy, then topping it with barely seasoned mashed potatoes and baking it, but I am constitutionally incapable of following such a course. It is not in my nature to take perfectly lovely ingredients such as ground lamb and red potatoes and then toss them into an unseasoned glop and set it before family and friends. I might as well throw it down the drain, or to the dogs, though my dogs, if presented by unseasoned food, would probably turn up their noses and look at me as if I had betrayed them hideously.

There is no reason shepherd’s pie cannot be a well-seasoned, delicious dish, and in fact, considering what it ends up looking like–as Morganna so baldly, yet eloquently puts it–“it looks like cat barf”–it absolutely must taste wonderful. (Though when Morganna made her habitual comment about the ugliness of shepherd’s pie, one of her friends noted quite sensibly, “It has meat, potatoes and corn. How can it be bad?” He gets invited back to dinner often.)

So, my recipe contains all sorts of things that one will not often find in any traditional recipe. A great number of leeks or onions, and garlic season the meat along with an array of herbs, chipotle chiles and smoked paprika. I boil garlic cloves in with the potatoes, and then mash the two together along with sour cream and butter, then season the mash further with chives and other herbs. Finally, I add vegetables into the minced meat mixture that taste good in a lamb stew–carrots, mushrooms and corn most often, though I have also added kale, parsnips and turnips fairly often to good effect.

The result is a one-dish meal that only requires a salad and beverage to be complete. It is infinately variable–you can put whatever vegetables you like in it, and instead of ground lamb, you can use ground beef (though I am told by my British friends that such a dish is known as “cotter’s pie”) or even leftover pot roast or braised lamb for the meat filling. You can season it as much or as little as you like; some days when it is cold and snowy, I like to put a lot of chipotle en adobo in the filling, and make it almost like a chili dish.

The one thing I will insist upon, though, is the garlic cloves boiled and mashed with the potatoes. That is necessary, at least at my house. Whether or not you peel your potatoes, or use milk and butter or cream or sour cream or yogurt in the mashing is up to you–but do please try the garlic. Boiling the garlic softens the flavor and makes the garlic cloves very creamy and the flavor of the potatoes is very warm and comforting with the garlic.

Shepherd’s Pie


3-4 pounds red potatoes, scrubbed
1 head garlic, peeled
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, peeled and thinly sliced
6 fresh mushrooms, cleaned and thinly sliced
4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 chipotle en adobo, minced
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon dried powdered rosemary
1/2 teaspoon smoked Spanish paprika
1/4 teaspoon celery seed, lightly crushed
1/4 cup dry red wine
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 pound ground lamb
1 cup milk
1/2 quart chicken broth or stock
flour or roux as needed to thicken gravy
3 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup sour cream
fresh chives
fresh or dried chervil or thyme
salt and pepper to taste


Peel potatoes or not as you wish–if you do not, scrub them extra carefully. Cut them into cubes and boil in pot with the one head of peeled whole garlic cloves and the teaspoon salt. Boil until tender.

Heat olive oil in a heavy frying pan and saute onions until they are golden brown. Add mushrooms, and cook until tender. Add garlic and all seasonings, and stir until quite fragrant. Add wine, boil off alcohol. Add lamb, and milk, and break up lamb. Cook, stirring, until lamb is browned and most of the milk has boiled away. (This is a trick I learned from an Italian chef–you get a very tender, smooth minced meat sauce this way–something about the proteins in the milk combining with the meat helps it break apart very finely.)

When the milk is boiled away, add the chicken broth or stock, and bring to a simmer. (At this point, you can add carrot slices, finely diced turnips and/or frozen corn kernels–cook until the vegetables are as tender as you like them, then go on to the next step.)

Thicken with flour or roux to a nice thick, bubbling gravy. Taste and correct seasoning as needed with salt and pepper. Heat oven to 375 degrees F.

Oil a casserole dish lightly, and pour the thickened meat filling into the bottom of the dish.

Drain the potatoes, and mash with the butter and sour cream. Salt and pepper to taste, then add chives and herbs.

Spoon potatoes over the meat and spread them evenly to the edge of the casserole dish. You can try to make decorative peaks and valleys or something, but really–it is no big deal. (I do know that one can use a piping bag to pipe rosette designs in the mashed potatoes, but I think that is silly. This is a homey dish–we are not cooking for the Queen of England here.)

Put in the oven, uncovered and bake for 20-30 minutes, until the meat filling is bubbly and the potatoes are starting to brown on top. (If you want your potatoes really browned, you can brush them with a bit of egg wash and put under the broiler, but again, that is gilding the lily.)


You can make this ahead and cover it and freeze it or put it in the fridge. If you freeze it, do not thaw–just bake for 45-50 minutes, or until done.

Do play with the seasonings. You can add vegetables or not as you see fit. You could do a vegetarian version of this with mixed wild and domestic mushrooms as the main attraction of the filling–portabellos, shiitake, oyster, field mushrooms and dried porcini cooked with leeks, garlic, wine and some nice root vegetables like carrots and parsnips would be lovely. You can make this with ground beef or veal as well. It is an infinately malleable basic recipe.

This reheats fine in either the microwave or the oven.


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  1. Barbara – Shepherd’s Pie never looks “ugly” to me…of course it never is around long enough for me to admire it……

    Comment by Kirk — November 15, 2005 #

  2. “Cat barf” LOL! Sadly I think I made some similar assertion when I was a child, though admittedly it was a favorite dish and still is comfort food to me. We used to have it every Tuesday – two days after the Sunday roast. Monday was cold cuts. Our version was strictly English but I like your idea of chiles and paprika – I’ll have to remember that one. 🙂

    Comment by Christina — November 15, 2005 #

  3. For some reason, Mom never made shepherd’s pie; I can only guess that Pop demanded his mashed potatos unadulterated by “foreign” items. I learned to make it as an adult–it is one of Frank’s favorites.

    Comment by yourauntjudy — November 15, 2005 #

  4. Hey, Kirk! Good to see you here again.

    It is funny–I don’t generally think of it as ugly, either, but Morganna really notices the look of food. I was the same way as a kid, but I never had to be coaxed to try most foods. I usually ate everything, which is probably why I am not skinny now, and all of my picky cousins are. 😉

    Christina–like you, Morganna, while she desparages the look of it, adores the dish. It is one of her favorites, and she will request it when she is finally tired of Chinese, Thai or other Asian foods. (It takes a while to tire her palate, but eventually, I think she longs for plain old American food.)

    Aunt Judy–I find it even more odd that Mom’s mother, Grandma, never made it for Grandpa–she made all those other British dishes for him, because his parents were immigrants from the UK. So I neither learned it from her or from my Mom.

    I actually started making it just a few years ago, after tasting a frozen version of it from Trader Joe’s. Zak’s first wife had made a tolerable version of it, and so he saw it in the frozen food aisle, and had a craving, so we bought it. It thought it was pretty good, but I knew I could make it even better, so I did.

    I have made it for Mom and Dad and Anna Marie, Aunt Sis, Uncle Jerry and the cousins a couple of times, and that recipe has since travelled to all of them–backwards. Though, I don’t know if Mom or Dad have made it yet–like my jambalaya, which they love and I have given the recipe for, I am not sure if they have tried to duplicate it yet or not.

    I do have in mind a couple of variants I want to try–stay tuned and we will see what happens, and how far I can stretch the idea of “Shepherd’s Pie” into the realms of other flavors and still have it come out fairly recognizable.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — November 15, 2005 #

  5. That look nothing like cat barf, IMHO. 😉 It looks delicious!

    Comment by Court — November 15, 2005 #

  6. It only looks like cat barf when you moosh it all together, which is the best way to eat it.


    Comment by Anonymous — November 15, 2005 #

  7. Yes, well. That is why I don’t mush mine all together–I eat it as it comes out of the pan and on the plate, in fairly coherent sliced pieces.

    Because I don’t like to think about cat barf when I am eating. 😉

    Silly kid.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — November 15, 2005 #

  8. I made this last night and it was delicious. My man loved it too. Thank you so much!

    Comment by Jacqueline — April 4, 2006 #

  9. Jacqueline–that is is great–I love to hear when folks try my recipes and like them!

    Shepherd’s pie is perfect comfort food, as far as I am concerned.

    Comment by Barbara — April 5, 2006 #

  10. Really really great site. Very informative and inspirational, but less of the this-is-how-WE-do-it-anyhow business would make for a much more enjoyable read as well as conveying a less haughty blog-writer. “…at least not in MY house”… “other cooks would content themselves….”…”though MY dogs would probably turn up their noses…” blahblahblah. Get off your high horse already! Also, perhaps you meant cottage pie as I have never heard of cotter’s pie over here.

    Comment by Fiona — May 27, 2007 #

  11. My mother always made Sheperds Pie with mashed tates….Cottage Pie with thinly sliced potatoes on top. Both incredibly wonderful. I haven’t found any receipe that calls for thinly sliced potatoes. Would it depend on what part of England you are from as to how Cottage Pie is made? Have any of you heard of it being made with sliced instead of mashed?

    Comment by Cherry — February 24, 2008 #

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