Pub Crawl at Home: Shepherd’s Pie
It has always been my friends that are into the Irish bars. It’s not that I have some kind of aversion to them (well, not to the good ones. I really can’t take the overly faux, cookie-cutter Irish bars that pop up all over suburbia, but that goes for many things, not just fake pubs). For the most part, a bar is a bar, and if I can get a Black and Tan, it’s a bonus.
For some of my nearest and dearest, however, such pubs are a passion.
One of my very earliest memories of Future Mr. Kitchenette — before I was dating him, but he might have been dating me already — was a cool, rainy stroll from my apartment to an Irish-themed bar on 8th St. SE. It must have been Stanley Cup playoff time because it was warm enough to walk and the Capitals were on the T.V. over the bar; the conversation was easy and endless, side by side at the bar, the beer was plentiful. I got the fish and chips special (it always comes down to a tough choice between shepherd’s pie, fish and chips and bangers and mash for me). He went with the shepherd’s pie, served in a heavy one (probably more like one-and-a-half) serving gratin dish, mashed potatoes smoothed over and perfectly browned. I’ll never forget the methodical way he tackled the plate, scooping giant spoonfuls from left to right — I felt a little bad about messing up his system when he offered me a taste and I dug in from the far right side where I was sitting.
“I like this place,” he said with a satisfied smile as we walked back to my apartment after the game. The place and the pie, obviously. The dish was nearly licked clean.
The pub, Finn MacCool’s, has since been shuttered and reincarnated as Molly Malone’s — your feet don’t stick to the floor anymore and while they still serve shepherd’s pie, it’s considerably more upscale than it was that evening with the hockey and the girl at the bar who didn’t know if the boy next to her liked her or Liked her. We’ve been back, but I knew when it got all fancy in there I was going to have to figure out a homemade version of shepherd’s pie — one closer to the Finn version than the Molly’s one.
Essentially a casserole of already-cooked leftovers — lamb stew and mashed potatoes — the components can easily be made in advance and assembled an hour before you want to eat. But I also like to make it to order, especially since we are not a household that frequently permits mashed potatoes to end up left over.
Most shepherd’s pie recipes I found when beginning my search had a massive yield. Ending up with eight to 10 servings, as much as I love the stuff, can be problematic. As I devised my own version, cobbling together the things I like most from pubs around the globe, I was also looking for ways to make it smaller. And really, something made from (or even inspired by) leftovers shouldn’t feed an army.
Depending on the size and shape of your dish, you might end up with a bit of the lamb stew leftover yet again. But the key to putting this pie together is leaving enough room for the mashed potatoes, spreading them around, thin but not too thin, and sealing the lamb in by scraping the potatoes right to the edge of the dish while holding the spatula nearly perpendicular. So you’re better off having extra stew than overfilling and not having a properly sealed edge (which will result in lamb and Guinness stew all over the inside of your oven).
Future Mr. Kitchenette suggests you take what stew and mashers you may have left over and assemble a mini-pie in un petite crucible for a lunch-sized portion. It can be stashed in the ‘fridge and even go in the office toaster oven, yum!
Two Shepherds’ Pie
2 Tablespoons butter
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 large shallot, minced
1 lb. ground lamb
1/2 cup carrots, cut into rounds
1/2 cup celery
1 cup pearl onions (frozen, pre-peeled are fine)
1 pint Guinness (cans or bottles, whichever you feel like drinking with it later)
1 Tablespoon red wine vinegar
10 baby portobella mushrooms, quartered
2 sprigs thyme
1 bay leaf
1/2 cup frozen peas
1 1/2 to 2 cups mashed potatoes
Melt the butter and sauté the garlic and shallots until fragrant. Add the ground lamb (room temperature, please) and briefly brown, 8 to 10 minutes, breaking up the lamb as much as possible. Add the onions, celery and carrots, sauté another 6-8 minutes. Sprinkle the flour across the mixture and stir well to incorporate.
Pour in the beer, scraping the bits off the bottom of the pan – careful, it will froth up on you. Stir in mushrooms, salt, pepper, red wine vinegar, thyme and bay leaf. Clamp on lid, reduce heat to low and simmer, covered for 20 minutes.
Preheat oven to 375 and either mix up the boxed mashers or get the leftovers out of the ‘fridge to come up to room temperature.
Check the filling, it should leave a clear path when a spoon is drawn across the bottom of the pan; if it is too runny, let simmer a few minutes more with the lid off. When it reaches the desired consistency, remove thyme and bay leaf, stir and season to taste with salt and pepper.
Ladle the stew into a medium gratin or small, wide casserole dish leaving about a quarter of an inch clearance to the edge of the pan. Gently spread the mashed potatoes over the stew, first down the middle and then around the perimeter, taking care to scrape the potatoes all the way to the edge to keep the mixture from bubbling over (I put it on a piece of foil anyway, though).
Bake 20-30 minutes, until slightly browned on top and a little bubbly around the edges.