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Shepherd's Pie

Ok so you've had a leg of lamb for Sunday lunch - what to do with the leftovers? Yes - Shepherds' Pie is the answer. Found as a favourite dish throughout the country, to simply describe it as lamb mince with a potato topping doesn't do it justice. The history is fascinating - the varieties available amazing. The first mention of shepherds' pie as a named meal in its own right was in 1885 (as cited by Jane Grigson) but undoubtedly the dish had been around long before. Probably historically, any dish with a potato topping was referred to as a cottage pie and today in the UK (I'll come to overseas later) the differentiation still stands: Shepherds' Pie should be made with lamb or mutton and cottage pie preferably with beef (but also historically with the scraps of pretty much any animal that might have been roaming about outside the cottage walls.)

The basic recipe is as follows: Peel about 3/4 - 1 1/2 pounds (350-700gms)of old (rather than new) potatoes, cut them in half or quarter depending on size and boil for about twenty minutes Whilst they are boiling, take about a pound ( 450gms) of precooked- minced lamb and place in large, preferably heavy bottomed, frying pan (oops - not so straightforward, some recipes start with raw meat : In which case: fry one large or two small onions in a little oil until the onions turn golden .add lamb and cook gently until meat is cooked through. Add half a pint of stock and simmer for about thirty minutes then allow to stand and skim off as much fat from the surface as possible.) If you are using the cooked meat then still fry the onion, stir in the mince and rather less stock (you want the meat to be moist rather than swimming.) Add salt and pepper to taste then turn out into an ovenproof pie or casserole dish and set aside to cool and you'll find a slight skin forms on the top - don't get rid of this - it's what lets the potato rest tidily on the top. Mash the potatoes with some milk and butter. (Some people like to mix some grated cheese into the potato at this stage others like to spread it on top of the potato layer. Anyway, spread the potato on top of the meat/onion/ stock mixture - make it about an inch thick and you can make lines or peaks on top with a fork so it makes the brown /golden patterning more interesting. Put in the oven on 180c 350f Gas mark 4 for about 30 minutes and that's the basic Shepherds' Pie done. Serve with a green vegetable.

However, if this doesn't sound exciting enough, you can get creative! Remember, this is a dish to use up leftovers so if you have some carrot, swede or other veggies they can go in the mix as well. As to seasoning - obviously a bit of pepper and salt if you like it. If you look in a propriety seasoning mix, you'll usually see listed garlic and paprika - try adding a little to your family's tastes. If you go north of the border the Scottish variant suggests adding bay leaves and, for a slightly Moroccan theme, try adding a couple pinches of cinnamon at the fry pan stage. I have seen variants substituting mushroom soup for stock and adding bell peppers in the mix so don't be afraid to experiment. Do be warned though that in the U.S.A most recipes are heavy on Tabasco and also creamed corn figures a great deal. Strangely enough the one herb not mentioned is mint - traditional accompaniment to both lamb and potatoes. Maybe you'll try it and let us know how it turns out?

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