So its October. You know this, right? That wonderful month of pumpkin carving, candy stockpiling, cider sipping, apple bobbing, and costume fine-tuning. Well…..this year, somebody apparently didn’t get the memo.
When Sunday evening I saw this:
I woke up yesterday morning to see this:
Over a foot of thick, white, fluffy, frozen white stuff. Yes. SNOW! Don’t get me wrong – I am just as excited for winter and snowmen and ski season as the next…but just a minute! It’s only October! Fall has just barely hurdled into play, and we still have Halloween and Thanksgiving on deck before Winter can even think about weaseling his wily way in.
This frosty turn of events is hard to wrap my head around; just this past Sunday the little red LCD in our dash boasted ‘eighty-one’, setting the stage for a wonderful tee-shirt clad evening stroll to take in the fiery show that this years foliage was bestowing upon us. On Monday, we relaxed with the back door and windows open, and enjoyed a glass of wine as we raked up the fallen leaves. (And by ‘raking leaves’ of course I mean watching one husband furiously rake whilst I played hide & seek, knocking over all the piles, with one pug.) I’ll admit I wasn’t taken totally off guard; I did see those little white flakes creep ominously onto the screen in my Weather.com app, but foolishly I decided to turn a blind eye – how could it snow when I’m still sliding on flip-flops and leaving my jacket hung up in the closet?
Well snow it did – to the tune of about fifteen inches. “Welcome to Colorado!” is the chipper response that I’ve received from the more well-worn and weathered locals, after seeing my wrinkled nose and chattering teeth. In this state, I guess we have a sort of presto-change-o weather situation to deal with; a bit of a ‘Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde’ on our hands. Whereas one day we were debating whether or not to water the still bright green grass, the next we realized that a trip to McGuckin’s was in order for a snow-shovel and an ice-scraper. The power flickered in and out for nearly 7 hours, I’m pulling on my fur-lined snow boots each time I leave the house, and the Puglet still gives me the stink-eye when she is corkscrew deep in powder as I coo sweetly “go potty Winns!” Clearly she is in for a treat this winter.
But there has been some good to come out of this storm. I gobbled down a croissant and creamy coffee this morning without feeling a shred of guilt (you know, to keep warm), scratched the gym off my schedule (you know, because it’s totally movie watching weather), and remembered that I had a behemoth platter of shepherd’s pie ready and waiting to be heated up for dinner tonight in the fridge (a permissible bit of snow-day-stick-to-your-ribs fare, if you will). Shepherds pie is something I grew up eating quite often in the wintertime, and I am quite sure that every family who ate it has their own memories of what it entails. Some would say a traditional shepherd’s pie has ground lamb, but I grew up eating a version with ground beef, and that’s still how I love it today.
As soon as I saw the flakes I knew I wanted to make something simple, but satisfying and warm – after all, at it’s roots, shepherd’s pie is a true ‘meat and potatoes’ dish. While ‘meat and potatoes’ definitely is not a bad thing, I find that if it is too basic the final product is boring, without enough layers of flavor or types of vegetables. To dress up my pie and add a bit of refinement and interest, I added in pearl onions for a nice crunch, shiitake mushrooms for their chewy rich texture, and chopped tarragon and thyme to give a bright lift to the simple sauce. In addition to some bold red wine, a healthy glug of cream sherry* gives a sweet yet slightly acidic edge to the sauce, and works really well to give some dimension. Finally, I stirred in peas stirred to add a snappy freshness, and to top it all off, a mash of potatoes, garlic, rosemary, and leeks sauteed in butter dress up what could just be a bland mashed potato topping.
The result is something familiar – yet totally different than you remember – at the same time. It’s savory and rich from the wine, stock, sherry, and beef, but not heavy; the sauce is light, and the bright colorful veggies in each bite keep it from feeling monotone. As so many cozy fall and winter dishes lend themselves to quite nicely, this dish is especially wonderful for reheating as leftovers throughout the week. It tastes better – richer even – each day that it sits in waiting, and still fills your home with a cozy and delicious smell each time you reheat it. I made enough for six people, and we enjoyed trudging home in the snow each night knowing that we already had something delicious waiting for supper. This version of shepherd’s pie is recognizable, yet still fancy and delicious enough to serve to company. It’s not quite as ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” as the weather here has been, but it’s definitely a close second.
*Cream sherry is something I have started to always have on hand. It sounds fussy to go out and buy a bottle of it for one recipe, but keep one in your cabinet and add it to cream sauces, use it to deglaze after sauteing meat or mushrooms, or stir a bit into a vegetable soup just before you add in the broth – it’s very versatile and adds so much with so little.
Shepherd’s Pie with Pearl Onions, Shiitake Mushrooms, and an Herbed Potato Mash
Adapted from the Illustrated Kitchen Bible, by Victoria Blashford-Snell
Serves 6, or 2 with leftovers for days
I used Victoria’s recipe as an outline; refer to the link for the original. Some of the changes I made: I added in pearled onions, peas, shiitake mushrooms, tarragon, thyme, and cream sherry. I upped the garlic, and added garlic and the rosemary called for in the filling instead to the potatoes. I omitted the parsley from the filling, and also doubled the Worcestershire. I also found that I needed more beef stock – I ended up using 1 ½ to get the consistency I wanted.
I find it’s hard to tell how much milk you need for mashed potatoes until you start mashing them; each potato contains different amounts of starch, so start with about ⅓ cup and scale up from there, adding milk as you need to, until the mash is a nice, spreadable consistency that still has good body to it.
for the mashed topping:
2 lb baking potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks (I used Yukon Golds)
2 large leeks, white and pale green parts only, split lengthwise, sliced
1/3 cup whole milk (plus additional as needed)
4 tbsp butter + 1 Tbsp for the leeks
1 tbsp chopped rosemary
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
for the filling:
1½ lb ground beef (I used 90% lean)
2 tbsp olive oil + additional as needed
7 oz (half of a bag) of frozen pearl onions
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 carrots, sliced
⅓ cup hearty red wine
⅓ cup cream sherry
2 tbsp all-purpose flour
1 ½ cups beef stock
2 tbsp chopped fresh tarragon (a small handful, chopped)
2 tbsp fresh thyme (the leaves of approx 10 sprigs)
2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
generous salt & pepper to taste.
tools – 1 13 x 10” baking dish, or one of comparable size
To start, begin to prepare the potato topping (you can start to make the filling while you prepare the topping). Boil the potatoes in a large saucepan of salted water until almost tender, about 15 minutes. While the potatoes cook, heat 1 Tbsp of butter and a drizzle of olive oil over medium high heat in a small skillet. Saute the leeks until they are tender and just translucent, about 5 minutes. When the potatoes are cooked (a knife should pierce them easily), drain them, and return them to the pan you cooked them in, off the heat.
Mash the potatoes with a hand masher, and add in the butter, whole milk, rosemary, and salt and pepper. When the texture of the potatoes is smooth with just a few chunks (it can be rustic, but you want a generally smooth mash), taste for seasoning and adjust the salt and pepper. Stir in the sauteed leeks. Reserve the mashed potato-leek topping to the side.
Preheat the oven to 400°F. Heat a large frying pan over medium high heat, and saute the ground beef with a bit of olive oil until it is lightly browned and just cooked through, about 7 minutes. While it cooks, season it well with salt and pepper. When it is just cooked through, use a slotted spoon to transfer the beef to a medium bowl, and pour off any fat in the frying pan.
Heat approx 2 Tbsp olive oil in the same frying pan you cooked the beef in over medium heat, add the carrots and frozen pearl onions, and cook for about 5 minutes, until the carrots are softened and the onions are no longer frozen through. Add the ground beef back to the frying pan and add in the minced garlic. Stir constantly until the garlic is fragrant and translucent, about 2 minutes (take care not to let the garlic burn).
Add in the wine and cream sherry, and increase the heat to high. Cook for about 3 minutes, or until the wine and sherry has evaporated. Sprinkle the flour over the beef mixture, and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Then, stir in the stock, tarragon, thyme, and Worcestershire sauce. Stir well until the mixture is thickened and bubbling, about 2 minutes; the addition of the flour will help to thicken the sauce, and you should notice that the mixture is thicker with an almost creamy sauce binding it together. Finally, reduce the heat to low, and let simmer for 5 minutes. Taste the mixture, and season well with salt and pepper. Make sure the filling is well seasoned, as this is the last opportunity you will have.
Spread the filling in the bottom of a 13 x 10” baking dish (or similar size), and, using a spatula, spread the mashed potato topping over the top, making sure to spread it all the way to touch all of the sides of the pan. Bake in the oven for 30 minutes; the top should be slightly golden brown. If you would like, when it has finished cooking you can turn on the broiler to high and broil for a few minutes to achieve a golden brown crust – just take great care not to walk away or forget about it and burn it (this will happen very quickly on the broil setting).
Let the pie stand 5 minutes, then serve straight from the dish.