Gently Spicy Shepherd’s Pie
It’s easy to underestimate the appeal of dishes like shepherd’s pie, especially when so much food these days is beguilingly beautiful and full of exotic spicing and ingredients,. Yet I’ve served this to so many friends (often followed by a classic golden syrup steamed pudding), and I think they’ve loved it more, and mentioned it more often, than anything far fancier.
- 1.2 kg medium-sized potatoes, peeled and quartered
- 30 g unsalted butter
- Sea salt, to taste
- 3/4 cup (180 ml) hot milk
- 50 ml olive oil
- 2 large onions, finely chopped
- 2 nice fat cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh ginger
- 1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon dried chilli flakes, depending on how much heat you like
- 2 teaspoons ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon ground coriander
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 350 g carrots, finely diced
- 1 kg minced lamb
- 1 1/2 tablespoons plain flour
- 1 x 400g can crushed tomatoes
- 1/2 cup (125 ml) tomato passata or tomato pasta sauce
- Good slurp of Worcestershire sauce (about 2 teaspoons)
- 3 teaspoons sea salt
- A really good grinding of freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 1/2 cup finely sliced mint leaves
- 1/3 cup chopped parsley
- 2 tablespoons parmesan cheese, for sprinkling
- A few herb sprigs, to garnish
To make the potato topping, boil or steam the potatoes for about 20 minutes, until they’re tender when pierced with a fine skewer. Drain them, reserving about 1 1/2 cups (375 ml) of the cooking water, and return them to the pan. Leave them to steam dry for a minute or so, then start mashing them with the butter and salt. Gradually incorporate the hot milk as you go, and add a splash of the potato water if necessary so they’re a little softer than usual. Cover the pan, and set it aside in a warm spot.
Preheat your oven to 190C. Lightly butter a large ovenproof dish (the one in the photo is 24cm square and 7cm deep) and set it aside.
Heat the olive oil in really large frying pan over low to medium heat. Add the onion, garlic, ginger, and chilli, and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until they’re pale golden. Tip in the cumin, coriander and cinnamon, and cook, stirring constantly for 1 minute or so, to release their fragrance. Add the carrot, swizzle it around in the spicy mixture, and cook for another 5 minutes, stirring from time to time.
Increase the heat under the frying pan, and add the lamb. Use a wooden spoon or spatula to break it up and stop clumps forming (initially the mince sticks together, but you’ll find as it cooks it becomes more crumbly). Cook the lamb until it’s coloured and starting to brown a little, then sprinkle the flour over it and continue cooking, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes. Now add the crushed tomatoes, passata, Worcestershire sauce, and salt and pepper. Reduce the heat to low, and let the mixture bubble gently for 10 minutes, stirring it regularly as it can stick on the bottom of the pan. If it starts to look a bit dry, moisten it by adding a little of the reserved cooking water. Finally, turn off the heat and stir in the mint and parsley. I usually scoop out a small spoonful, blow on it like crazy to cool it down, then taste it to check if it needs a little more salt or pepper.
Scrape the mince mixture into the prepared dish, spreading it out evenly. Now dollop the mashed potato over the top, and spread it out, taking it right to the edges of the dish. At this stage, like mum used to do, I always run a fork through the potatoes to create a ripple pattern. Sprinkle the parmesan evenly over the top, then pop the dish in the oven and bake the pie for about 35-40 minutes until the top is flecked with brown crispy bits. If, after this time, the top isn’t quite as brown as you would like, you can briefly flash it under a hot overhead grill to colour it a little more (just watch out that it doesn’t catch and burn).
To serve the pie, sprinkle some herb sprigs over the top and whisk the dish to the table. If I’m feeling particularly nostalgic, I serve it with a bowl of peas (a mixture of snow peas, sugar snaps and regular peas is really lovely) but it goes equally well with most lightly cooked greens, or even a crisp green salad.