My family has deep roots in Ireland and the British Isles, so having a shepherd’s pie on the table always feels like home. It’s true comfort in a one-dish meal, with savory meat and vegetables on the bottom and a crusty crown of mashed potatoes on top.
It’s also a dish that’s on the heavy side, something that might require a nap after eating. So I’ve retooled the recipe, making it healthier, yet every bit as comforting as you’d expect from a meat and potato pie.
HOW THIS PIE IS DIFFERENT FROM TRADITIONAL SHEPHERD’S PIE
The shepherd’s pie of my upbringing features a hefty portion of meat, with vegetables playing a supporting role, and a thick topping of buttery mashed potatoes. My updated version bumps up the ratio of vegetables to meat and calls for extra-lean ground beef, which is the leanest option in the butcher case.
For the mashed potatoes, the recipe swaps in olive oil for butter, which means more heart-healthy fats in every bite. The sum total of these swaps is a lighter dish with no shortcuts on flavor.
THE SPECIAL TOPPING: CAULIFLOWER AND POTATO MASH
One other change from traditional shepherd’s pie is the topping: It’s a blend of cauliflower and potatoes! This means fewer carbs and calories (for those of you tracking), but more importantly, the added health benefits of cauliflower.
The recipe calls for sharp or extra-sharp cheddar cheese, which plays off of the cauliflower and adds a pleasing crust when baked.
SUGGESTIONS AND SUBSTITUTIONS FOR SHEPHERD’S PIE
A true shepherd’s pie is actually done with lamb, not beef (shepherds herd sheep and lamb, after all). Cottage pie is the term traditionally applied to one made with beef.
Regardless of what you call it, you can make this with basically any type of ground meat you like, knowing that they range widely in fat content. Ground lamb, turkey, bison, venison, and beef—or half and half of any of the above—are all fair game.
Nothing beats fresh vegetables and cheese you’ve grated on the spot to make this recipe, but if you’re short on time, here are a few shortcuts:
- Swap in frozen mixed vegetables for the carrots, celery, and peas. Use two and a half cups and add them to the dish when it instructs you to add the peas.
- Use pre-shredded sharp cheddar. Take a gander at the ingredients, since some brands use additives to keep the cheese from clumping. Less is more, if you ask me.
- Buy screw-top wine. Every little bit counts when it comes to saving time. Plus, fussing with a bottle opener isn’t my favorite pastime. You don’t need fancy wine for this anyway, just something dry and drinkable.
MAKE-AHEAD TIPS FOR HEALTHY SHEPHERD’S PIE
There’s no doubt that shepherd’s pie involves labor. Luckily, you can do some of the prep in advance, so it goes more quickly come dinnertime.
Cut all of the vegetables ahead of time, including the onions, carrots, celery, and cauliflower. You can also peel and cut the potatoes, being sure to store them in a bowl covered with water to prevent them from greying. Keep all prepped vegetables in the fridge until ready to cook.
The dish is also one you can assemble completely and then refrigerate before baking. Once assembled, let it cool completely, wrap in plastic, and store in the refrigerator for up to two days. When it’s time to bake, put it straight from fridge to oven and tack an additional 10 to 15 minutes to the cooking time.
The finished dish keeps well for several days and reheats well in the oven or microwave.
HOW TO FREEZE HEALTHY SHEPHERD’S PIE
Once the shepherd’s pie is baked, cool completely and cover loosely with plastic wrap. Place it in the freezer until fairly firm, about two hours. Then, cover tightly with plastic wrap, followed by aluminum foil. Mark the date on the outside and store in the freezer for up to two months.
When ready to serve, remove the foil and plastic wrap. Use the foil you just removed to loosely cover the pie. Make sure that your casserole dish can go straight from freezer to oven; if not, set the casserole in the oven while the oven preheats so that the dish warms slowly.
Bake the casserole for an hour, or until the pie is hot all the way through. Remove the foil for the last 15 minutes to allow the top to brown.
MORE WAYS TO ENJOY SHEPHERD’S PIE:
Healthy Shepherd’s Pie Recipe
Comfort more than nutrition usually comes to mind when you think of a meat-and-potatoes meal. This recipe qualifies as both. It has all the comfort of classic shepherd’s pie, but works in extra veggies, olive oil instead of butter, and leaner beef. Nobody will be the wiser, since it remains so flavorful and satisfying.
For the potato-cauliflower topping:
- 1 1/2 pounds russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for salting the cooking water
- 8 ounces cauliflower florets (2 heaping cups)
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/2 cup low-fat milk
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 cup shredded sharp or extra-sharp cheddar cheese (2 ounces)
For the filling:
- 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 large onion, diced
- 2 large carrots, diced
- 1 large celery stalk, diced
- 2 large cloves garlic, minced
- 1 1/2 teaspoons fresh thyme (or 1/2 teaspoon dried)
- 1 pound extra-lean ground beef
- 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more if needed
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1 cup fresh or frozen English peas
- 3 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1/2 cup red wine (substitute chicken broth, if desired)
- 1/2 cup low-sodium chicken broth
- 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 Preheat the oven to 400°F.
2 Cook the potatoes and cauliflower: Put the potatoes into a medium saucepan and cover by 2 inches with cold water. Add enough salt so the water tastes pleasantly of the sea (about 2 teaspoons). Bring to a boil over high heat.
After 3 minutes at a full boil, add cauliflower and cook until the vegetables are tender enough to easily slide a knife through, another 4 to 6 minutes. Drain well and return to the cooking pot.
2 Create the creamy mash: Add the olive oil, milk, salt, and several grinds of black pepper. Use a potato masher to blend everything into a creamy mash. Taste and add more salt or pepper as needed.
3 Cook the vegetables and meat: Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium high. Add the onion, carrots, and celery, and sauté until they begin to soften, about 4 minutes.
Add the garlic, thyme, beef, salt, and a generous shower of freshly ground black pepper. Sauté until the meat is crumbly and no longer pink. Add the peas, tomato paste, wine, chicken broth, and Worcestershire sauce. Adjust the heat so the liquid simmers.
Simmer, stirring occasionally, until the liquid reduces slightly and the flavors brighten, about 10 minutes. Taste and add more salt if needed.
4 Assemble the casserole: Transfer the meat and vegetable mixture to a baking dish, such as an 8-inch square baking pan, 9-inch round cake pan, or 1 to 1 1/2-quart oval baking dish. Spoon the cauliflower/potato mash evenly over the beef. Scatter the cheese on top.
5 Bake: Set on a baking sheet and bake until the juices bubble and the top is lightly browned, about 25 minutes. Feel free to set briefly under a broiler to brown further.
Remove from the oven and serve.
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