Cowboy’s Pie–A Tex-Mex Take on a British Classic

I made an offhanded comment in my last post about how the chipotle-chevre mashed potatoes would make an excellent topping for a Tex-Mex version of the British standard casserole Shepherd’s Pie. The more I thought about it, the better of an idea it became. And I did have a goodly bit of mashed potatoes left over which I absolutely did not want to waste.

So when Zak asked me what I was going to make for dinner, I said, “Well, I was thinking…” and then pitched the idea of a Tex-Mex version of Shepherd’s Pie, with a beef, corn, black bean and kale filling flavored with beer, salsa, cumin, coriander, cilantro, onions and garlic, then topped with the chipotle-chevre mashed potatoes, which would then be sprinkled with sharp cheddar cheese and baked.

He nodded and said, “That sounds really good…you are going to make it now that you have told me about it, right?”

This made me happy, because when I first came up with the idea for the Anglo-Indian Shepherd’s Pie, he wasn’t too positive about it. That is, until he tasted it–once he had a bite, he became a believer, but until then, he was quite agnostic on the entire idea.

So, I set myself to work making the filling and boiling up an extra couple of potatoes to add to the leftovers, in order to ensure I had enough to cover the filling generously.

I wanted to get lots of caramelized flavors out of the vegetables, so I started by sauteeing the onions in a heavy bottomed skillet, cooking them until they were a medium golden brown. Then, I added the sweet bell pepper and the corn, and I kept cooking and stirring. Then, I added the black beans and the garlic and kept stirring. At this point, I added the spices, and noted that I had a nice layer of browned vegetable sugars on the bottom of the pot, so I deglazed the pan with about a cup of beer, then added the beef. (If you want to make a vegetarian version of this dish–leave out the step with the beef.
I just kept stirring and stirring until the beef was fully browned, then, I added the kale, which had been cut into a rough mince. More seasonings went in, about a cup of medium-hot salsa went in along with a bit of broth and some salt and pepper to taste.

At that point, all I had to do was simmer the filling mixture until the juices reduced and thickened slightly.

Once the mashed potatoes were done, Cowboy’s Pie was a cinch to put together: all you have to do is lightly oil a casserole dish or pie pan–I used one of each–and carefully pour the filling into the prepared pans. I usually tamp the filling down a bit with the back of a ladle, before I spread the warm mashed potatoes over the filling. Then, I topped the potatoes off with a thin layer of shredded cheese (I used aged sharp cheddar and a little bit of smoked cheddar–I liked the way that it echoed the inherent smoky flavor of the chipotle in the potatoes) and a sprinkling of chopped cilantro before popping it into the oven.

Then into the oven the pie goes for a short baking period, and voila–out comes Cowboy’s Pie. (Morganna says I should call it Torta del Vaquero–which is Spanish for :”Cowboy Pie,” but since I am not certain of the proper construction of the name, we will have to hold off on that. I never took Spanish–so, translation can be a total pain.)

I also realized as I was cooking it that it would be simple to make a vegetarian version of this–substitute TVP, GimmeLean or another pound of cooked black beans for the meat. It would be quite tasty, I am certain–I know, because I tasted the filling in various stages of its completion.

My tasting panel of two teenagers (Morganna and James), a hungry husband (Zak–duh) and a starving one yar old, were blown away by the dish.

So, without further ado–here it is.

Torta del Vaquero, or Cowboy’s Pie.


2 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 cups thinly sliced onions (1 large onion)
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup sweet red bell pepper, diced finely
1/2 cup poblano chile, diced finely
1 head garlic, minced
1 bottle beer, divided
1 1/2 cups corn kernels, either fresh or frozen
1 1/2 cups cooked black beans (you can use canned–just drain and rinse them well) drained well
2 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons ancho chile powder
1 1/2 teaspoons smoked Spanish paprika
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 pound very lean ground beef (grassfed has a great flavor for this–or you can use bison, or chorizo sausage)
1 cup tomato-based salsa of your choice
1/2 cup roughly chopped fresh cilantro leaves
1 cup finely chopped fresh kale (make sure and remove any large veins before chopping)
salt and pepper to taste
5 cups chipotle-chevre mashed potatoes
1 tablespoon smoked Spanish paprika
3/4 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese
1/4 cup shredded smoked cheddar cheese
small handful roughly chopped cilantro leaves as garnish


Heat oil on medium heat in a heavy bottomed skillet that will hold all the filling ingredients. Add onion, and sprinkle with a teaspoon of salt. Stir and cook until onion is a light gold color. Add peppers and garlic, and cook, stirring, until the onions are medium brown, and everything is fragrant. At this point, there should be some brown-colored juices stuck to the bottom of the pan. Deglaze these by pouring a scant 1/4 bottle of the beer into the pan, and stirring, scraping the bottom as you go.

After the alcohol and most of the beer has boiled away, add the corn kernels and the beans. Cook, stirring, until the corn kernels turn a darker brownish yellow with a few obviously browned spots. At this point there should be a great deal of browned matter on the bottom of the pan…add the spices and continue cooking for another minute. Add meat, and spread it through the vegetable mixture, then add the remaining beer to the pan, and scrape up all the browned stuff off the bottom and sides of the pan. Work hard–the starches and sugars from the vegetables have browned and stuck there and will make a lot of good flavors if you can get them mixed in with everything else.

The meat will brown in the beer–just keep stirring and cooking. When it is brown, stir in the salsa, cilantro and kale, and cook down until a fairly damp, but not liquid-laden filling is made. (If it dries out too much, add some chicken, beef or vegetable broth or stock–or some more salsa or beer.) Taste and adjust seasoning, adding more spices if you think it needs it, and adding salt and pepper to taste.

Now you are ready to assemble the pies.

Take two deep dish 9″ pie pans or two 9″ square pans, or some combination thereof and lightly coat the interiors with olive oil.

Spread half the filling in one pan, and half in the other, packing it down firmly as you go.

Mix the second measure of Spanish paprika into the potatoes, and spread half of them on one pie, and half on the other. You can make decorative swoops and swirls with the potatoes as you see fit.

Sprinkle a sparing amount of sharp cheddar cheese on each pie, then follow with a similar amount of smoked cheddar. Then, sprinkle with cilantro.

Bake in a 375 degrees F oven for about twenty minutes, or until the filling is bubbly (if you use glass pans, this is easy to see), and the cheese is melted and browned in places.


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  1. I wish this was a veggie version!! can’t take my eyes off it!!…looks freat, and I can sure make a tex-mex veggie shepard’s pie by updating your recipe:)!

    Comment by Mansi — October 10, 2007 #

  2. That is wonderful 🙂

    Comment by Steph in the UK — October 10, 2007 #

  3. Thanks Barbara! This looks just as good as I thought it would.

    Comment by Deborah — October 10, 2007 #

  4. It should be Tarta de Vaquero, as far as I’m aware. In South America (and Mexico, altho I can’t speak to the rest of Central America), a torta is a sweet pie (typically a cake or a tart, actually) while a tarta is a savory pie which sometimes looks like a quiche, but often doesn’t (i.e. contains no eggs). Tarta really implies a pastry/butter type crust (less buttery than an actual quiche crust and more like an apple pie crust). Tartas from resturants usually had extremely high sides (like chicago deep-dish pizza, but made out of apple pie crust) but the homemade ones I had usually had short sides that were straight (like a quiche rather than a pie tin) but flat (like a pie tin, not fluted like a quiche).

    And yes. I know. a tart is a torta and a tarta is savory. Don’t ask me. I kept getting them confused for months myself. And explaining this in English is very inadequate to what a tarta actually looks and tastes like.

    I don’t know if it should really be Tarta de Vaquera or not. Intuitively, Vaquera looks more correct to me, but I was never really clear about gender agreement of nouns when the ending would change the actual meaning of the word. Assuming that Spanish even has a comprehensible word, vaquera, for a cowgirl.

    Comment by Elisa — October 10, 2007 #

  5. Aha, my far more proficient Spanish speaking friend says it’s Tarta de Vaquero because the de keeps the original gender of the word that follows it.

    Comment by Elisa — October 10, 2007 #

  6. I give instructions for a veggie version–I may make a veggie version later this month, and if I do, I will write up the recipe.

    Elisa–THANK YOU! I am so crap at Spanish.

    Every time I try to speak it, I end up mixing it with French. It is sad. Kind of like when I was learning Russian and kept mixing it up with German and spoke it with a German accent and it was just sad until I got better at it.

    But Spanish–ugh. I am bad at it. Just bad.

    Deborah–I am here to serve!

    Comment by Barbara — October 10, 2007 #

  7. Tarta or Torta, in mexico its just a sandwich, more to the south is has the meanings elisa just said, maybe you could just call it “pastel del vaquero” since pastel is more akin to pie, and torta is more like a cake. Here in Venezuela we have meat pies “pastel de carne” and tuna and potato pies “pastel de atun” the tuna pie is served cold and is very much like the sheperds pie only in a rolled up version instead of making it into a baking dish

    Lets see if this weekend i can try the texmex concoction of a cow driving man 😀

    Comment by Alexis Delgado — October 11, 2007 #

  8. My husband will love this!

    He’s already good with change-up since I generally make shepherds pie with turkey in cream sauce and turnip topping.

    Comment by wwjudith — October 11, 2007 #

  9. Augh, I meant to leave this comment HERE, it may appear on the previous entry too…

    See, improvisation like this is what spawned this post. I don’t get how you guys think up amazing dishes on the fly…but I’m glad you do!

    Comment by Jim — October 11, 2007 #

  10. Mansi, I’ve heard vegetarian chorizo is quite good, but I haven’t tried it myself.

    Comment by Neohippie — October 12, 2007 #

  11. I made this with Trader Joe’s Soy Chorizo, and 3 minced chiptole peppers in place of the powder. Amazing.

    Comment by Chris Marasti-Georg — January 13, 2010 #

  12. great pies

    Comment by Woodfire — January 28, 2010 #

  13. […] parmentier), Spanish and Latin American (pastel de papas and pastelón de papas), North American (cowboy pie and pâté chinois) and Middle Eastern (siniyet batata) cuisines, and the political correctness of […]

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  14. […] parmentier), Spanish and Latin American (pastel de papas and pastelón de papas), North American (cowboy pie and pâté chinois) and Middle Eastern (siniyet batata) cuisines, and the political correctness of […]

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