When I lived in England, my American friends often inquired about our home across the pond. My response was that “I live in the Shire” – J.R.R. Tolkien’s magical green land, bordered by rivers and fertile valleys. The statement, inspired by my mental image of the land of the Hobbits, was in fact remarkably close to the truth. I later discovered that Tolkien modeled his Shire after rural Worcestershire, where he spent his childhood and where I lived more than a century later.
Mr. Tolkien, you were so right – it was and still is a lovely green land.
On a recent visit to my old Worcestershire neighborhood, I was tooling down a country lane on a gloriously crisp English morning — off to meet my golfing friends. After rounding one of many blind corners on the route, there it was – a hunt, straight ahead and coming my way! It was a vivid reminder of the timeless and charming character of rural England. Delete my car (the only modern element) from the scene, and here was Tolkien’s Shire.
I pulled over and scrambled for my camera, but, at the time, it seemed more important to adhere to etiquette (not spook the horses) than to take photos. So, I sat quietly in my car as the horses trotted past and each rider thanked me for stopping. I did manage to get two photos just as the last rider went by:
This quintessentially English scene was just the beginning of a week of rural England at its best – lovely English friends, golf in the Vale of Evesham, a ramble through the Malvern Hills, a bit of English Arts and Crafts and great English food.
Blimey, a perfect week in The Shire!!
The great English food? Well, in a too-short week, I managed to feed my face with a long list of favorites: Cornish Yarg, back bacon, local bangers, broad-bean salad, black pudding, toast with Marmite (not for everyone), sticky toffee pudding, steamed vegetables, and, last but not least, a home-cooked Shepherd’s Pie.
Shepherds’ Pie is a glorious winter dish and an excellent choice for a crowd. Steer clear of the Americanized versions advocating hamburger and frozen vegetables. Easier, perhaps, but it simply won’t cut it. First, make your Shepherd’s Pie with LAMB, not beef, which would be Cottage Pie. Second, cut the lamb in very small pieces or use a coarse grind. Third, brown the lamb in batches to bring out the full flavor. Finally, for a bit of extra pizazz, try my friend Sandy’s delicious leek and cheese topping.
Recipe By: A Global Garnish, LLC
Serving Size: 4
2 1/2 pounds potatoes, maris piper or russets
4 tablespoons butter
2 ounces milk
1 tablespoon oil, canola
1 1/2 pounds lamb, coarse ground
3 medium onions
3 sticks celery
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon thyme, fresh, chopped leaves
1/2 teaspoon rosemary, fresh, chopped leaves
2 tablespoons flour, all purpose
1 cup stock, chicken
1 cup wine, red
5 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
1 1/2 tablespoons ketchup
2 teaspoons tomato paste
LEEK AND CHEESE TOPPING (OPTIONAL)
2 tablespoon butter
3 ounces cheddar, English, grated
1. Peel the potatoes, cut them into pieces and place in a stockpot covered with cold water. Salt the water (about one heaping tablespoon for a large pot). Bring to a boil and cook until tender – about 25 minutes.
Drain and return potatoes to the stockpot. Heat over very low heat for a few minutes to steam out excess moisture. Turn off heat and add butter. Mash with a potato ricer (not a potato masher). Add a bit of milk, 1-2 ounces, just enough to get a workable consistency while potatoes are warm. If potatoes are too thin, they will cook into the lamb mixture. Taste for salt. Set potatoes aside.
2. Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C) if you are planning to cook the pie immediately after assembly.
3. Heat olive oil in a wide stockpot at medium-high heat. Add coarsely chopped/ground lamb without crowding – in batches if needed. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Once lamb begins to brown on the bottom, stir and chop to cook fully. A bit of browning will add flavor to the final dish. Remove meat from pan and set aside. Remove pan from heat but do not wash.
4. Chop onions, peeled carrots and celery into small dice. I prefer about 1/4 inch dice, but larger sizes are suitable.
5. Return stockpot to medium heat and add butter. Add vegetables to pot and sweat. While vegetables are cooking, add salt, pepper, cinnamon, thyme and rosemary.
Sprinkle 2 T flour into vegetables and stir until flour cooks slightly. Add chicken stock and bring to a simmer. The roux (butter and flour) will thicken the sauce.
Add red wine and cook about 20 minutes until flavors blend, wine evaporates and sauce is thick.
Add Worcestershire Sauce, ketchup and tomato paste. Taste for seasoning – adding more salt, pepper or Worcestershire if needed.
6. At this point, the sauce should be thick, not watery. If it is too thin, cook further to reduce liquid. If it is too thick, add a bit more stock or water. The sauce should have sufficient consistency to support the potato layer.
Place lamb mixture in an oven-proof casserole dish.
7. For the topping, clean leeks and cut into slices. Sweat leeks in a bit of butter in a small sauté or sauce pan. Set aside.
Reheat potato mash (microwave or stovetop) to achieve a soft consistency that will be easy to handle. Carefully place spoonfuls of potato on top of the lamb mixture. Smooth pototo into a thick, even layer.
Sprinkle leeks on top of potatoes. Top all with grated cheddar.
If you do not use the leek/cheese topping, cut swirls into the top of the potatoes with a large fork, providing extra browning surfaces and a pretty finish.
8. Bake Shepherd’s Pie 375 deg F until topping is lightly browned, edges are bubbling and the center is heated through (to 165 F).
9. DO-AHEAD DIRECTIONS: Prepare lamb base through Step 6, cover tightly and freeze. The day before serving, remove from the freezer and thaw overnight in refrigerator.
Prior to baking, prepare potato mash and topping. Top thawed lamb base with potatoes and topping (Step 7) and bake as directed.
You can also prepare Shepherd’s Pie through Step 7 (with topping) and freeze. However, mashed potatoes do not fully retain their texture if frozen. So, if I have the time, I prefer to make and add the topping the day that I bake the Shepherd’s Pie.