Tracing its 18th century origins to the British Isles, Shepherd’s Pie is a humble dish, born of frugality.
Early on it was called Cottage Pie, consisting of stewed ground meat (usually left over roast), potatoes, carrots, and peas combined in a rich gravy, topped with a thick layer of mashed potatoes, then put in a hot oven to warm the contents and brown the potato topping.
About 1870, the name Shepherd’s Pie was coined, though there weren’t any real differences in ingredients or method of preparation. At that time, one variation was to use the mashed potatoes to line the pan before filling it with meat and vegetables. Today, they are most often a topping only.
The biggest debate is whether to use ground beef or ground lamb. Some argue that lamb is the more appropriate ingredient, given that shepherds tend flocks of sheep, not herds of beef cattle.
And although beef was original to Cottage Pie, either is acceptable nowadays for Shepherd’s Pie. In fact, the essential recipe works well with just about any type of ground meat or poultry—even ham or sausage.
An Artful Touch
In addition to its bone-warming qualities, Shepherd’s Pie can take on a special visual appeal, depending on how artfully the mashed potatoes are applied. From rustic dollops similar to a dropped-dumpling topping to elaborate designs piped on with a pastry bag, the mashed potatoes are the crowning touch to mouth-watering anticipation.
When adding the potato topping, smooth first with a spatula and then rake a fork across the surface or use a star tip on a pastry bag to create peaks and ridges on the surface that will brown deeply in the oven, adding a bit of crunch and nutty flavor.
Throughout Europe, Asia, and the Americas, meat and potato pies exist with varying names and ingredients. In Europe, St. Stephen’s Pie is made with ham or turkey, Cumberland Pie adds a breadcrumb layer on top, and Fish Pie—as the name suggests—substitutes minced fish for ground meat.
In a Finnish version, the ground meat is mixed with the potatoes. In the Caribbean, South America, and Eastern Europe, variations include alternating layers of potato, meat, and vegetables in a lasagna-like construction.
What’s your favorite variation of or custom ingredient in Shepherd’s Pie? Do you get fancy with the potatoes or keep it simple? What’s in your pie: beef, lamb, or something else?