shepherd's pie

not too long ago, in a resonant london pub somewhere in marylebone, jim, our friend mike, and i sat at a community table soaking in each other's company before heading back to mike's place for dinner. i was laughing at the two of them, their frick-and-frakishness becoming more and more animated as the pints went by.
     at the next table, a congregation of students were trying to squeeze everyone onto too few chairs. one of them, a floppy haired young man, tapped me to ask could he please swap his chair for the short bench that i occupied alone. when i stood and spoke to oblige, he realized i am american, and engaged me in a curious round of questions about the states. as we ended this exchange, since i was still standing, i went ahead to find the loo. when i came back to sit down, the young man interrupted the three of us to ask if he could recite a poem to me, because i was an american visitor to his country, his town, his pub. he then looked directly into my eyes and gave us a beautiful, if a bit altruistic, gift of his own words, about friendship and kindness being the answer to everything. it was the kind of touching thing that made my eyes water, and the three of us (even my poached pals) were all reached by his open tenderness.
     it's what can happen in a british pub . . . you might hear a heated political exchange, join into an impromptu sing-a-long, or receive a poetic gift from a youthful stranger. it must be because of the beer which is at the center of pub life, and not what you can pour from a mass produced bottle that you conveniently open with a twist. it's the atmosphere i was hoping for when i planned english-pub-food night at our table . . . it was a happy success, with the authentic flair of british style craft beers paired by my friend, david, who is a local brewmaster. this shepherd's pie recipe is from chef tom aikens, and was featured last winter, on the cover of food and wine.
     this is one of the king-of-comfort foods and warms the house, the guests, and the heart. i served the appetizers in the kitchen so everyone would be drawn in by the individual bubbling porcelain dishes being browned under the broiler. the evening gave me the same kind of feeling that i had in the pub that night . . . it must have been the pints.
for the original post on food and wine's site follow this link:
lamb filling
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 3 pounds ground lamb
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 large onion, cut into 1/3-inch dice
  • 2 medium turnips, peeled and cut into 1/3-inch dice
  • 2 large carrots, cut into 1/3-inch dice
  • 2 large celery ribs, cut into 1/3-inch dice
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tablespoon thyme leaves
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
  • 1 quart beef stock
potato topping

  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • one 3-inch rosemary sprig
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 thyme sprigs
  • freshly grated nutmeg
  • 2 1/2 pounds baking potatoes, peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks
  • 3 large garlic cloves, halved
  • salt and freshly ground pepper


  1. make the filling: set a colander over a bowl. In a large stainless steel skillet, heat the oil until shimmering. add the lamb, season with salt and pepper and brown over high heat, stirring occasionally, 8 minutes. transfer the lamb to the colander; wipe out the skillet.
  2. melt the butter in the skillet. add the onion, turnips, carrots, celery, garlic, thyme and water and season with salt and pepper. cover and cook over moderately low heat, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are just tender, about 15 minutes.
  3. return the lamb to the skillet with the vegetables. stir in the tomato paste and cook for 1 minute. sprinkle with the flour and cook for 1 minute. pour in the stock and bring to a boil. simmer over low heat, stirring, until the sauce has thickened, 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. transfer the lamb to eight 1 1/2-cup ramekins or gratin dishes. let cool.
  4. MAKE THE TOPPING: in a medium saucepan, combine the milk, cream, butter, oil, rosemary, bay leaf, thyme and a pinch of nutmeg and bring to a boil. remove from the heat and let stand for 20 minutes.
  5. meanwhile, preheat the oven to 400°. in a large saucepan, cover the potatoes with water. add the garlic and a large pinch of salt and bring to a boil. cook over moderately high heat until the potatoes are tender, 12 minutes; drain. return the potatoes and garlic to the saucepan and shake over high heat until dry. pass the potatoes and garlic through a ricer into a large bowl. strain the milk mixture over the potatoes and stir it in. season with salt and pepper.
  6. spread the mashed potatoes over the lamb. bake in the upper third of the oven for 20 minutes, until the filling is bubbling. then, set the oven to broil and check every minute or so until the potatoes are browned. let the gratin dishes rest about 10 minutes. set them on a folded napkin on a dinner plate, and serve.

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