Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging. …
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
to scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.
excerpt from ‘Digging’ by Seamus Heaney
On the eve of St. Patrick’s Day, we seek out the corned beef and cabbage dinners at home and around town. But in Ireland, this dish was rarely served until it was popularized in America, especially in New York. Back home, shepherd’s pie and Irish lamb stew more accurately reflect the traditions of the Irish.
The potato has played an enormous cultural role in Ireland, in both good and bad ways. In the late 18th century, Ireland adopted the potato (which originated in Peru) for its nutritional value and its ability to feed many people cheaply. But when the great famine struck Ireland in 1845, it was largely due to potato blight and the dependence of the population on the potato. The result was starvation for some and emigration for others.
The original meat pie with a potato crust was called “cottage pie” and was made with any leftover meat. The term “shepherd’s pie” came to mean a meat pie made with mutton or lamb. In modern Ireland, shepherd’s pie is commonly made with ground beef, vegetables and potatoes. Here are some examples of this delicious Irish dish:
Shepherd’s Pie with Lamb
Remove the meat from the bones of 4 shoulder lamb chops (about 2 1/2 pounds) and cut away most of the fat and gristle. Cut the remaining meat into half-inch pieces. Combine 1/4 cup flour with 1 teaspoon allspice, 1 teaspoon coarse salt and 1 teaspoon pepper. Toss this mixture in a bowl with the meat until it is evenly coated.
Heat a Dutch oven and add 2 tablespoons canola oil. Add the lamb pieces, making sure they are separated and not too crowded. Brown the lamb at high heat and remove.
Lower the heat and add 1/2 cup chopped shallots and 2 tablespoons minced garlic to the pan. Quarter 1 package of cremini mushrooms and add them to the pan, adding a little more oil if necessary. When the mushrooms are brown and have released their liquid, stir in 1 cup diced carrots and 1/2 cup diced parsnip. Add the meat back to the pan along with 1 tablespoon tomato paste and 1 1/2 cups beef broth. Season with 2 bay leaves and 2 sprigs of thyme and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes, or until lamb is tender.
While the lamb is cooking, peel 1 1/2 pounds of Yukon gold potatoes and cut into large chunks. Peel 1 small celery root and cut into small chunks. Combine the potato and celery root in a saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil and simmer until tender, about 20 minutes. Drain and mash, adding 1 tablespoon butter and 1/4 cup milk. Season with 1 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper and 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg. Finely mince 3 scallions and add them to the potato mixture.
Check the lamb mixture for seasoning and place it in a casserole. Spoon the mashed potato mixture over the top and place in a 400-degree oven for 20 minutes.
Note: This recipe was adapted from a recipe in the Williams-Sonoma book “Potato.”
Shepherd’s Pie with Ground Beef
Heat a Dutch oven on the stove and add 1 tablespoon canola oil. Add 2 cups diced onion, 2 cups diced carrots and 1 cup diced parsnip. Cook at medium heat for 5 minutes and add 1 pound lean ground sirloin. Season with 1 teaspoon coarse salt, 1 teaspoon pepper and 1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme.
Raise the heat and cook the ground beef until brown, breaking up chunks of meat with a wooden spoon. Add 1 tablespoon butter and 2 tablespoons flour, stirring to incorporate the flour. Add 2 tablespoons tomato paste, 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce and 1 cup red wine. Continue to cook, stirring, until sauce becomes thick and add 1 cup chicken stock. Cook for another 15 minutes and add 1 small package of frozen peas. When the peas are soft and tender, check for seasoning and transfer to a casserole.
Prepare mashed potatoes by placing 6 unpeeled Yukon gold potatoes in a saucepan. Cover with water and bring to a boil. Simmer about 25 minutes, or until completely cooked. Remove, drain and cool slightly. Peel the potatoes and squeeze them through a potato ricer. Stir in 2 tablespoons butter, 2 teaspoons salt, 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg and 1 teaspoon pepper. Moisten with 1/4 cup warm milk (or heavy cream) and check for seasoning.
Spoon the potatoes onto the shepherd’s pie in the casserole and brush with 1 beaten egg. Sprinkle with grated Parmesan cheese if desired and place in a 400-degree oven for 20 minutes.
Note: This recipe was adapted from a recipe on Food.com.
Vegetarian Shepherd’s Pie
Simmer 1 cup black beluga lentils in 4 cups water until tender, about 20 minutes. Drain and set aside. Blanch 12 white onions in boiling water for 2 minutes and drain. Cut off the stem ends and slip the skins off the onions and set aside.
Heat a Dutch oven and add 2 tablespoons olive oil. Stir in 2 cups chopped leeks (white part only) and 2 tablespoons minced garlic. Quarter 12 ounces of cremini mushrooms and remove the stems from 6 ounces of shiitake mushrooms. Add the mushrooms to the leek mixture and cook at medium heat until lightly browned. Add 2 cups diced carrots and 1 cup each diced parsnips and turnips. Add the blanched white onions and season with 1 tablespoon fresh rosemary and 2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves.
Cover the pot and simmer until vegetables are tender, about 15 minutes. Stir in the cooked lentils along with 2 tablespoons butter. When the butter is melted in the stew, add 2 tablespoons flour and stir. Add 2 cups red wine and bring to a boil. When thickened, stir in 2 cups vegetable broth and 1/2 cup chopped parsley. Season with 1 tablespoon coarse salt and 1 teaspoon pepper. Continue to simmer, uncovered, for another 15 minutes and transfer to a casserole.
Peel and cut into large chunks 1 1/2 pounds of Yukon gold potatoes and 1 small celery root. Place these in a saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil and simmer until tender, about 20 minutes. Drain and mash, adding 1 tablespoon butter and 1/4 cup milk. Season with 1 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper and 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg. Spoon the mashed potato mixture over the shepherd’s pie and place in a 400-degree oven for 20 minutes.
John Ross, a chef and author, has been an active part of the North Fork food and wine community for more than 35 years. Email: [email protected]