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Thursday, March 17, 2011

My Little Lamby Pie

Shepherd's Pie

As a young child visiting her grandparents at their Georgia farm for the summer, my mother once asked her Irish grandmother where their family was from. The stern reply came in two sharply punctuated words: North Georgia. 

In the 1930's in the southern United States, if one wanted employment it was unwise to advertise the fact that your family was Irish and it was clear to my mother that she was never to ask about it again. Later, her mother Sadie took her aside and pointed on a map to County Limerick in Ireland. She quietly explained her family's geographical roots and then, like her mother, apparently never spoke of it again.

When I queried my own mother about her roots while reading The Oxford History of Ireland, she recounted the story and lamented that she did not know more. Her mother was 100% Irish and her father nearly so. 

Nothing beats a wind-up fire breathing Nun for entertainment


My own generation, like so many other latter generation Irish-Americans, has wholeheartedly embraced this Emerald Isle heritage, now diluted but none the worse for wear, especially once a bit of Irish Whiskey is applied. So today, we cook up the last of the potatoes from the root cellar, pour the Guinness and 'the good whiskey', toast the ancestors and celebrate our Irish-ness, real or imagined. 

While Corned Beef and Cabbage is standard fare on the 17th of March in this country, it is not often eaten in Ireland and certainly not on St. Patrick's Day. A more common (and to me much more palatable) Irish dish is Shepherd's Pie. Traditionally made with lamb, it can be made with ground beef, lamb or a combination. I have also used 'Gimme Lean' to make a vegetarian version with great success. 

Look for local producers of grass fed animals for the best flavor
Because I happened to have beautiful, local grass fed beef and lamb in my freezer, my choice was simple. Shepherd's Pie is an easy, relatively quick dish with lots of flavor. It also freezes well for future dinners. Brown the ground meat, toss in some veggies, herbs and a little stock while you are boiling the potatoes in another pan and in about an hour, you have dinner. 

Whether you are celebrating your own family heritage or the Saint Himself, pour a toast and tip one back to the Old Country: 

                                                                 “Here's to Cheating
Here's to Stealing
Here's to Fighting
Here's to Drinking

If you cheat, may you cheat death;
If you steal, may you steal a ladies heart;
If you fight, may you fight for a brother;
and if you drink, may you drink among friends.”

Shepherd's Pie
Modify this dish as you wish with what you have on hand. Ground beef instead of lamb and frozen veggies from last season's garden work just fine. This is sized for an Irish Catholic size family and may easily be halved for smaller portions.

1 Tbsp Olive Oil
1 c. Celery, chopped
1 c. Onion, chopped
1 c. Carrot, chopped
1 c. Frozen Peas
½ -1 c. Leek, Parsnip, Fennel, chopped, if desired – use what you have
1 Sweet Potato, chopped, if desired
Kosher Salt and Fresh Ground Pepper to taste
Fresh or dried Thyme
Fresh or dried Rosemary
2# ground Lamb
1 # ground Beef
1 tsp Crushed Garlic
2 Bay Leaves
2 c. Beef Stock

Mashed Red Potatoes – These should be mashed until soft with a bit of butter and milk to make them easily spreadable. Or use up leftover mashed potatoes if you like.

 Saute chopped veggies and peas in olive oil just until softened. Season with herbs, salt and pepper.
Brown meat in a separate pan. Add garlic and stock, and stir in veggies. Adjust seasonings.
Pour the mixture into a casserole dish and top with the mashed potatoes.
Bake at 350 degrees until bubbly and brown, about 30-40 minutes.

Recipe Notes:
  • Whenever using dried herbs remember 2 things; you will need less volume of dried than you would fresh, and always rub the dried herbs between your palms to release their flavor.
  • If you are making a vegetarian version with 'Gimme Lean' or a similar product, I find the sausage style has the best flavor.
  • This recipe is made to be improvised. Substitute what you have in your refrigerator or freezer. Lamb too expensive? Use Hamburger. No Sweet Potatoes? Leave them out. This is a peasant dish.
  • I leave the skins on the potatoes when I mash them as a matter of preference. Mashed red skin or Yukon Gold potatoes work best for this dish.

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