A weekend ski trip with some friends in Colorado has inspired me to make a quintessentially winter dinner of Shepherd’s pie, using local Colorado lamb, ground for me at the local butcher.
I figured I’d take advantage of my temporarily snowy environs to make something rich, earthy and rib-sticking.
This dish is essentially a meat stew topped with a layer of mashed potatoes, sprinkled with seasoned toasted breadcrumbs, and baked to bubbly crispy perfection. Although this dish requires several steps to make, it’s a great dish to make for a crowd, since it can be leisurely made in steps and assembled hours ahead while everyone is relaxing in the late afternoon. (It can also be entirely assembled and refrigerated until ready to bake).
I began by making mashed potatoes. I used Idaho potatoes, since I couldn’t find my preferred yukon golds here. I peeled and diced them, placed them in salted, boiling water and simmered them until soft (about 20 minutes). I mashed them with an old-fashioned masher, while adding in butter, grated cheese (manchego) and half-and-half. Although you want these to be fairly stiff, add back some of the salty potato cooking liquid to get them to a creamy consistency. These may be made an hour or so ahead.
Then the meat and aromatics were browned in a dutch oven. Flour was added for thickening, then red wine and broth, to form a sauce. This rich meat sauce is wonderful on its own, but topped with cheesy mashed potatoes–even better!
For a first course, we began with a salad of baby arugula, diced apples and grapes (all easy to find in the winter), topped with stilton cheese, dressed with lemon juice, agave and olive oil.
Although a side dish may not me necessary with this stew, I chose to make brussels sprouts and carrots as an accompaniment, since I don’t ever like a plate containing only brown food.
These vegetables lend themselves to advance preparation, since they can be boiled (right in the potato cooking liquid) ahead of time, then sauteed in olive oil at the last moment, with a touch of chopped shallots.
This meal was, for me, the perfect dose of deep-winter, before returning to bright, sunny Florida!
Colorado Lamb Shepherds’ Pie
4 large potatoes, peeled and diced into 1″ cubes
1/2 c grated manchego cheese
4 tbls butter
1/4 c half-and-half
3 lbs ground lamb
3 medium shallots, finely diced
1 medium onion, finely diced
2 carrots, finely diced
2 ribs of celery, finely diced
3 bay leaves
sprig of fresh thyme
sprig of fresh rosemary
1 c red wine
3 c chicken or beef broth
1/3 c flour
1 10-oz. pkg frozen peas
salt and pepper to taste
1 1/2 c seasoned breadcrumbs (I used panko)
1/4 c olive oil
Begin by making the mashed potatoes. Place potatoes in cold water and add a generous amount of salt (enough to make the water taste like sea water). Bring to boil and simmer until soft. Drain and reserve cooking liquid. With a masher, add in the butter, cheese, cream and pepper. Add in some cooking liquid if the mixture is too stiff. Taste for salt–if you’ve salted your cooking liquid adequately, it might not need any. Set aside.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Heat half the oil in a dutch oven and add the lamb and 2 bay leaves. Saute until lamb loses its red color but not so long as to brown the meat.
Remove the meat and set aside. Add 2 tablespoons of fresh oil to the pan and add the carrots, celery, shallots, onion, remaining bay leaf, and sprigs of rosemary and thyme. Saute on medium heat for about 10 minutes or until vegetables become translucent.
Add in flour and saute the flour and stir and saute for about a minute. It will become very thick and pasty. Add in the red wine (it will instantly become a mass of red glue). Stir for a minute to combine and reduce the wine a bit.
Add in the broth and bring to a simmer. Add in the lamb and its juices and simmer for another 10 minutes on low heat. It should have the texture of a medium-thick stew. Remove bay leaves and herb sprigs.
Add in frozen peas and turn off heat.
Pour mixture into a casserole (or two).
Set aside to cool for a few minutes while you toast the breadcrumbs.
In a skillet, heat remaining oil briefly, then add ini the crumbs and saute on medium heat, stirring and tossing, for about 5 minutes or until they begin to take on a golden color. Remove from heat immediately.
For final assembly, spread a layer of the mashed potatoes over the meat, then top with toasted crumbs.
(This may be done up to an hour ahead of baking, or it may be done the day before and refrigerated).
Bake uncovered in 375 degree oven for approximately 40 minutes, or until golden brown on top and bubbling around the sides. Remove from oven and allow to rest for at least 15 minutes prior to serving.