I first tasted this classic New England meal, appropriately enough, in the food hall of Harrod’s in London, many years ago. It was a revelation.
It has a timeless wildness to it, that speaks of a life lived outdoors and long ago, and of the fireplace and hearth, the warmth of home in a rugged country. This is a meal created by rural working folks and those who hunted and labored in the outdoors and in the garden.
The term “shepherd’s pie” did not appear until 1877 or so, and was essentially a meat pie with potato crust. But its origins are solidly within the Leekley family’s land of origin (we arrived in New Hampshire from Northern England in the 1820’s) and it connects us to our roots in England and Scotland. It is filled with tasty treats and savory nuggets, and is a delightful feast to enjoy with friends and family. We made this one from smoked lamb sausage, smoked pork kielbasa sausage, smoked turkey chunks and smoked duck breast. It’s crazy savory and umami wonderful with it’s own light gravy made from bone broths from previous meals.
Just like making quiche and other elaborate pies, most of the work is in the preparation and planning for a Shepherd’s Pie. Most importantly is to accumulate flavorful reduced sauces and broths. We use meats from our favorite previously made meals like Duck Confit and Porcini Turkey Thighs, as well as roasted chicken and lamb. If possible, it’s important to have duck fat on hand – it’s magical – or some rich, left-over gravy. This is a wonderful meal to make in the days after a Holiday, using up all the leftovers. Also, this pie is best when using several different kinds of meat combined, like duck, turkey, fresh sausage and dark chicken thighs. Occasionally Rebekah will put a wonderful crust on top, which is also traditional, but this version has toasty buttery mashed potatoes as a topping.
2 to 3 pounds of turkey, chicken, duck, or lamb… any combination of sausages and smoked meats
3 cups rich broth (already reduced sauce) from turkey, chicken or duck bones
6 to 8 carrots, depending on size, peeled and cut to 3/4 inch slices
6 celery stalks, in an amount equal to the carrots
2 pounds of cremini brown mushrooms (or even better use fresh porcini, or porcini powder sprinkled on the cremini)
1 tablespoon dried and powdered porcini (wonderful, and you can now buy online)
1 pound of pearl onions, previously peeled and frozen
1 large brown onion, chopped into chunks
1/2 pound petite peas, frozen
6 potatoes (we use Yukon Gold)
4-5 big cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
1/2 bunch of Italian parsley
1 leek, sliced into large “coins”
1 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon smoked Spanish paprika
1/4 cup of fresh sage, chopped (we grow our own, it’s called Cleveland Sage, it also grows wild in the hills of Southern and Central California)
2 tablespoons thick balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1/4 cup duck fat (I urge you to try it)
1 stick butter (4 oz, half for the brown onions, half for the mushrooms)
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup unbleached all purpose flour
salt and black pepper to taste, about 1 teaspoon each
Using a 12 to 14 inch fry or sauté pan, simmer the already thawed out pearl onions, celery, leek and carrots in the 3 cups of broth for about 12 minutes. Remove, with broth kept separate, and set aside. Using the same pan, melt half the duck fat and butter, combined with the olive oil, and gently heat the crushed garlic until aromatic. Add the brown onions and sauté until opaque, then add back the already simmered celery, carrots, leeks and pearl onions. Apply salt and black pepper, and sauté for another few minutes until they are about 2/3 cooked. Remove and put aside.
Using another sauté pan, add the rest of the duck fat/butter/or olive oil and fry the thickly cut cremini mushrooms (if you don’t have porcini) until they are browned. If you have powdered porcini, sprinkle it over the browned mushrooms. Salt and pepper, remove and set aside.
To make a light roux, which is the basis of the gravy, heat 1/4 cup olive into a small pan and slowly add small pinches of flour, whisking it smooth, until golden. (Those of you who have made the gumbo roux will love this recipe, because we are only going to make a golden colored roux… much easier!) Whisk in the cream and some broth, and let it bubble and thicken until it coats a wooden spoon.
Using a larger pan, fry the sausages, chopped meats, and the already cooked duck, turkey or lamb.
When browned, add the gravy, all broth liquids, and simmer until married. Steam the cut up potatoes and mash them with a ricer or a masher, adding milk, cream and butter. It should be rich and thick.
In one large pan or large bowl, combine all the ingredients. Sprinkle on the parsley, balsamic, Worcestershire sauce, fresh sage, and peas. (If you don’t have sage, use thyme.) Place the ingredients into two casseroles. Slather the mashed potatoes on top in a thick layer and sprinkle on the paprika. Cover and place into a preheated oven of 350 degrees. Bake for 30 minutes and then, removing the lids, bake for another 15 minutes until the potatoes are toasty and the pie is bubbling. When serving, sprinkle on some more drops of Worcestershire sauce.
If you have any British or Scottish roots, welcome home… with the ultimate comfort food from that not so distant land. This meal is how my ancestors set off umami bombs in the kitchen… and then made babies. That’s us. Umami babies!