Mrs Bailey’s Shepherd’s Pie

“Shepherd’s pie peppered with actual shepherd on top…”

Photo by Mat Reding on Unsplash

For the avoidance of doubt: if it’s made with minced/ground lamb, it’s a shepherd’s pie. If with beef, it’s a cottage pie. If with a mix of both, I guess it’s a shepherd’s cottage pie, or something. If you make it with fish in a white sauce, that would be a fish pie. If you make it with whole fish, their heads & tails poking out of a pastry crust, then that would be a star-gazey pie, and what are you doing here, reading this?

Ahem. Moving on:

Mrs Bailey is fond of this dish, for it’s easy enough that she can leave the senior kitchenmaid to oversee its making, quite unsupervised, while she does other necessary work. It’s also easy to scale up for a whole schoolful, or down for an intimate dinner [NB, this is as usual the down version I reproduce here, plenty for two and simple to multiply]. Either way, it tends to get devoured, and there’s little she likes better than clean dishes and girlish voices clamouring for more.

500g ground lamb, beef or a mixture

One onion, sliced

Two sticks celery, sliced

A couple of carrots, sliced

Garlic, lots

One 400g tin of fire-roasted crushed tomatoes, or nearest equivalent

Herbs, spices and flavourings

Heat your favourite large saucepan or skillet, add a splash of olive oil, and then the ground meat. Brown it thoroughly, breaking up lumps as you go. Be patient, and take your time: the darker you sear it now, the more flavour there will be in the finished dish.

Once you’re satisfied with the colour and aroma, take the meat out, add another glug of oil and sizzle the onion, celery and carrot until the onion softens and starts to brown. While that’s going on, crush more garlic than you imagine you’ll want, and then just add it all. You can include mushrooms too at this point, if you have ’em, if you like ’em. Now return the meat to the pan. If you have some wine open, add a glug of that, then the can of tomatoes. Stir everything together and bring to a simmer.

Now: make those flavours sing! You’re looking for strong, dark, savoury umami: so beef stock, in whatever form you have it (or lamb stock, if you have that, if you’re using lamb); chicken stock if not. Salt and pepper of course, and plenty of it (particularly the pepper). From the herb garden: thyme and bay, certainly. Rosemary, maybe? Parsley, sure. You get the idea. From the larder: Worcestershire sauce is always good; so is soy sauce. Here’s a heretical hint: Vietnamese fish sauce. Just a teaspoon or two. Or a couple of anchovies, broken up. Neither of those will offer any hint of fishiness, just depth of flavour. Try some smoked paprika, perhaps. If I’m making this for myself, I’d probably add cayenne; for my wife, I probably wouldn’t. This is that kind of recipe: just think about what you have and what you like, and head in that direction. Mix and match.

Once you’re content (for now; you can always taste and revisit as the day goes along) set the pan at the back of the stove on a low heat, and cook it all afternoon, stirring occasionally and, as I say, tasting as you go. Adjusting. It’s an absolute rule with ground meat, that the longer you cook it the better it gets. Only part of that is science. The rest is art, because you’re constantly improving it.

An hour before dinner, peel a couple of large baking potatoes, cut ’em into chunks and boil ’em till they’re tender. Then mash them by your preferred method (I use a ricer, always; I used to keep two on separate continents, just to be sure), and mix in salt and pepper and lots of butter and whatever else you like in your mash: milk or cream or buttermilk (me, me!) or cheese, whatever.

Preheat the broiler in your oven. While that’s going on, put the meat mixture into an ovenproof dish, lay the mash on top, smooth it with a spoon and then rough it with a fork, and lay more butter atop.

Put the dish under the broiler. After a minute or so, once the butter’s melted, use the fork to mix it into the top of the mash; then broil until the top is dark and crispy and almost but not quite burned.

Eat with the green vegetable of your choice, and enjoy.

You can find more of Mrs Bailey’s recipes here:

I write. That’s what I do. Forty-two years a pro (and counting), and never a day job. Betweentimes I cook, and garden, and am very married.

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