I grew up eating Shepherd’s Pie without understanding much about its history. It turns out that what many people call Shepherd’s Pie is actually Cottage Pie – a dish from 19th century England. Typically made of seasoned, minced beef mixed with vegetables and topped with a potato crust, Cottage Pie is a close cousin to Ireland’s Shepherd’s Pie which is traditionally made with minced lamb or mutton; both are said to be the brainchildren of frugal housewives looking for a way to serve up leftover bits of previous meals. There’s also an interesting North American angle to this dish – you may hear it referred to as Chinese Pie or Pâté chinois. The true origins of this version are disputed by food historians but many suggest that it became a part of our culinary lore thanks to Chinese cooks who served it up as an inexpensive way to feed workers during the building of the North American railroads in the late 19th century. Whatever its origins, Cottage Pie is a family favourite in my house although I’ve adapted it from the version I remember eating as a kid, choosing lighter ground chicken or turkey instead of beef. It’s really quite a flexible dish – you can add whatever seasonings you prefer; make it ahead and freeze it; or prepare it in any sized vessel you like, from petite appetizer-sized ramekins to family-portion casserole dishes.
For the meat
- 1 tablespoon (15 mL) olive oil
- 1 medium onion, chopped fine
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1.5 pounds (675 grams) ground chicken, turkey or beef
- ½ teaspoon (2 grams) each salt and pepper
- 1 tablespoon (6 grams) fresh thyme leaves or 1.5 teaspoons (3 grams) dried
- ¼ cup (60 grams) tomato paste
- 1 – 2 teaspoons (5 – 10 mL) Worcestershire sauce (to taste)
- ¼ cup (65 mL) water
- 1 cup (135 grams) frozen corn niblets
For the potatoes
- 4 medium potatoes
- 3 tablespoons (42 grams) butter
- ½ cup (125 ml) milk
- 1/8 teaspoon (.5 gram) grated nutmeg
- ¼ cup (25 grams) grated Parmesan
- Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onions and sauté, stirring often, until onions are tender.
- Add garlic and sauté, stirring constantly, for two minutes longer.
- Add ground meat and stir to break up into small pieces.
- Stir often as meat is browning, using the back of a spoon to keep breaking it up as needed.
- When the meat is almost completely browned, add salt, pepper, thyme leaves, tomato paste, Worcestershire sauce, water and corn. Stir, then cover pot with a lid and cook over low heat, stirring once or twice, for 15 -20 minutes so flavours can blend.
- While meat and seasonings are simmering, peel potatoes.
- Cook potatoes in a large pot of boiling, salted water until just tender.
- Drain and mash potatoes; add butter, milk and nutmeg as you mash them.
- Using large or small casserole dishes, put a layer of meat about ½ inch (1.25 cm) to ¾ inch (2 cm) thick in the bottom of the oven-safe dish.
- Add a layer of mashed potatoes on top; sprinkle parmesan cheese over the potatoes.
- At this point the casserole dish(es) can be refrigerated or frozen. To reheat from frozen, defrost first to thaw.
- When ready to serve, heat in a 350F oven until filling is bubbling and the potato topping is just beginning to brown.
Serves 4 (or more if making very small ramekin sized portions).