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In the Kitchen With Ricky: Shepherd’s pie is a comforting and hearty meal

By Ricky Webster For The Spokesman-Review

Since we’ve been on an Irish kick the past few weeks, I wanted to celebrate one more dish. Shepherd’s pie is a perfect hearty and comforting meal, especially around this time of year. Shepherd’s pie is traditionally minced or ground lamb that is cooked in a sauce or gravy mixture with carrots and onions.

Then the meaty gravy is topped or placed in the center of a mashed potato crust. This dish is best served family-style with a small salad and crusty bread. Bringing the piping-hot casserole to the table with the golden nooks of buttery mashed potatoes, only to reveal a flavorful and meaty gravy mixture hidden underneath, can be quite the showstopper.

In my version of the recipe, I have chosen to add frozen peas, and our “gravy” is tomato-based. In including these components, it lightens the meal a tad, and it cuts through the richness of the buttery mash and flavorful lamb. I also really love the flavor combinations of lamb and mint – and mint and peas – so this is a fun way to bring the three together.

Feel free to substitute any other ground meat for the lamb. In England, this would have been done with beef. I also love making shepherd’s pie by removing the meat altogether and using a combination of hearty mushrooms and lentils for the “meaty” base. Note: If you use anything other than lamb, it goes from being a shepherd’s pie to a cottage pie.

Cottage pie is in fact a precursor to shepherd’s pie, originating in the 18th century to help minimize waste. During the week, a cottage pie would’ve been made with the leftover meat from a Sunday roast and topped with mashers (mashed potatoes).

The name suggests that it pertains to those who lived in cottages, or the lower class in England and Ireland. Some of the best foods we love and still celebrate originate from traditional frugal – or “poor folks’ food,” as my mother-in-law would say.

Shepherd’s Pie

2 tablespoons bacon grease or vegetable oil

1 large onion, finely chopped

1 leek, cleaned, halved and thinly sliced (optional)

12 ounces ground lamb

1 large carrot, peeled and diced

2 teaspoons dried rosemary

1 tablespoon plain flour

2 bay leaves

1 14-ounce can diced tomatoes

2 cups stock (I used beef)

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

1 cup frozen peas

2 tablespoons fresh mint, chopped

2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

For the mashed potatoes:

2 pounds medium russet potatoes, peeled and cut into quarters

¼ cup whole milk

1 stick (4 ounces) butter

1 egg yolk

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

For the garnish:

Chopped parsley, mint or chives (optional)

In a large pot, bring heavily salted water to a boil.

In a large saucepan, while you’re waiting for the water to boil, heat the oil or drippings over medium heat.

Add the chopped onion and leeks, then cook until lightly browned.

Add the ground lamb, carrots and dried rosemary and stir into the browned onions while breaking up the meat.

After the meat is fully cooked and has rendered some grease, add the flour (this thickens the gravy), bay leaves, salt and black pepper.

Cook until thickened.

Add the chopped tomatoes, stock and Worcestershire sauce, scraping off any bits left in the pan.

Bring the mixture to a boil, and tasting for seasoning, add salt and pepper as needed.

Reduce the heat, and let it simmer for about 40 minutes, stirring regularly.

Preheat an oven to 400 degrees.

When the pot of water comes to a boil, boil the potatoes until fork tender.

Drain and add the milk, butter, salt and pepper and mash until smooth.

Cool the mashed potatoes until warm.

Add the egg yolk and stir until combined.

Pour the cooked meat into an ovenproof dish and spread the potatoes on top, smoothing to distribute.

Put the dish into the oven and cook until the surface is golden brown, about 15 minutes.

Remove and top with chopped parsley or chives.

Serve family-style with a side salad and crusty bread.

Yield: 4 servings

Local award-winning chef and Rind and Wheat owner Ricky Webster can be reached at Follow Webster on Instagram @rickycaker.