Yummy Shepherd’s Pie

Shepherd’s Pie, also known as Cottage Pie, is a meat and vegetable pie with a potato crust. First mentioned in cookbooks in the UK and Ireland in the 1800s it was a hearty way for farmers to make a meal using leftover meat and potatoes from the field. DSC_0102

It was also a staple of my diet when I was growing up in the 70s. My mother made it all the time. What could be easier, for a young working mother of seven, than sautéing onions and ground beef, adding a few packages of frozen vegetables, with their perfectly square carrots, dimpled, olive-colored peas, and plump corn, and then topping the whole thing off with a layer of instant mashed potatoes? Mom cooked her shepherd’s pie in a white, round, Corningware dish. Her pie looked similar to the one in this photo from Betty Crocker.

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A few months ago, my team of volunteer chefs at The Nashville Food Project was tasked with making shepherd’s pie for 150, but it was not Betty Crocker’s shepherd’s pie. Noooo. This version had fresh, just-picked onions, carrots, chard ribs, garlic, and herbs. It turned out so well, I now make it regularly for my family often using vegetables from my backyard garden.

A word about ingredients: as long as you use onions, peppers, carrots, celery and garlic as your base, you can add other vegetables to change up the flavor. I added okra this time, and it was delicious. I have also been known to throw in a lone zucchini, eggplant, beet, or a few radishes from the fridge. They all work. Sometimes, I even add a few turnips to the mashed potatoes, and that works well, too.

Ingredients:
Yield: serves 4

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Mashed  Potato Topping:
1¾ pounds potatoes, scrubbed and unpeeled
2 tablespoons butter
¼ cup milk
1 teaspoon salt

Vegetable Filling:
¼ cup olive oil
1 medium onion (5 ounces), peeled
1 large carrot (4 ounces), scrubbed, unpeeled,
2 large stalks of celery, or 6-8 thin ribs of chard
6 okra pods (optional)
1 sweet red pepper, seeded
2 tablespoons minced garlic (I used garlic from a jar)
salt and pepper, to taste

Meat Filling:
1-1/3 pounds of ground meat: beef, pork, veal, lamb, or venison
salt and pepper, to taste
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 long sprig rosemary, leaves snipped and chopped
4 sprigs thyme, leaves snipped
5 sprigs parsley, leaves snipped and chopped

Instructions:
Preheat oven to 350º.
One 9-inch square or round pan, or ceramic casserole dish.

To cook the potatoes for the mashed potato topping:
Scrub the potatoes, chop them into 2-inch chunks and add to a pot of cold water. Bring to a boil and simmer for 10-15 minutes. Set a timer so you don’t forget about them while you are busy sautéing the meat and vegetables. After 10 minutes of boiling, insert a fork into a potato to test for doneness. If the potato chunk is too firm, cook for 5 more minutes. Do not over cook. You do not want the potatoes to get waterlogged. You’ll know if they are waterlogged because the potato will fall apart when you test it with the fork. If that happens, drain well and still use them, but next time, cook the potatoes for a little less time.

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To prep the vegetables for the food processor:
-Onions: peel the outer skin and quarter.
-Carrots: scrub the skin and chop into 3-inch chunks.
-Sweet Red Pepper: remove the stem, core, and seeds and chop into 3-inch chunks.
-Celery or Chard ribs: I didn’t have celery, so I picked a few stalks of rainbow chard from my vegetable garden. Chard ribs are an excellent substitute for celery. To prep the ribs, chop off the leaves and cut stalks into 4-inch segments.
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Okra: I’m growing a new variety of okra that is red. I have eight plants so I only get to pick about 5 small pods a day. I often store them in the fridge until I have picked enough tor a meal. One nice quality about red okra is that the longer pods are tender enough to eat, unlike green okra where a long pod is often too fibrous to cook. To prep okra: cut off the stem and chop into 3-inch segments.
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To process the vegetables:
Take all the vegetables, except for the herbs, and “pulse” them together in a food processor. Do not purée. You can also chop by hand with a knife.

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To sauté the vegetables and meat:
Add olive oil to a 12-inch sauté pan. Add chopped vegetables, garlic, salt, and pepper to pan. Sauté on medium heat for about 10 minutes until vegetables are translucent. Do not brown. Set aside.

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In another pan, add ground meat, garlic, salt, pepper, and herbs. Sauté for 5-10 minutes until meat is cooked but not browned. Drain fat.

To make the mashed potato topping:
While the meat filling is cooking, test your potatoes. If tender, remove from heat and drain in a colander reserving about ½ cup of the potato water. Since the food processor is already dirty, I purée my mashed potatoes in it.  Add hot potatoes, milk, butter, and salt to the food processor bowl. Process just until blended. If the mashed potatoes are too pasty, add the reserved potato water and pulse a little longer.

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To assemble:
Pour vegetables and meat into a baking dish. Spread the mashed potatoes over the filling with a spatula.

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Bake for 20-30 minutes. The pie is done when the peaks on the potatoes are lightly browned. In the two pictures below, you can see the difference between the time I drained the fat and the time I didn’t.  The browned edges around the pie on the right are from the fat that bubbled up during baking. Ugh. To avoid that, drain the meat before adding the potatoes.

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In the future, I’m going to try making this with mashed sweet potatoes and use lamb for the ground meat. It would also be fun to try with ground turkey. You could make a cauliflower purée instead of the mashed potatoes, and that would taste great, too. Start playing around with ingredients and see what happens. Like my recipe for frittatas, you never know what you will end up with when you start deviating from a recipe, but it’s fun to improvise with different fresh vegetables. The more you cook, the better you will become at experimenting and putting your special touches on a recipe.

Make it Whole30
Eliminate butter and milk in the mashed potatoes. Substitute 2 tablespoons of olive oil for the butter. My friend Libba suggested substituting a ¼ cup of broth for the milk. The extra liquid helped to fluff up the potatoes.

Make it for company: double the recipe (Serves 8-12)
We’ve been making this recipe a lot for big family dinners. Here is my husband managing all three pans on the stove top: vegetables, meat, and potatoes.

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I layered all the ingredients in a deep 9 x 13 lasagna pan.DSC_0081

New vegetables we’ve tried:
I’ve now learned I can pretty much add any vegetable to the mix. This time, we used leeks, a small onion, unpeeled eggplants, an assortment of cherry tomatoes, a sweet red bell pepper, okra, celery, and carrots. In other words, everything in the vegetable drawer of the fridge.

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Bonus: everyone was in the kitchen helping to prep the colorful veggies. When that happens I get all verklempt.

More comfort food:
Judy’s Mom’s Meatloaf
Chicken Cacciatore, Pollo alla Cacciatora, or Hunter’s Chicken
50 Ways to Make a Frittata
Fresh Marinara Sauce with Pasta and Mozzarella

LET’S STAY CONNECTED!

Follow my photos of vegetables growing, backyard chickens hanging out, and dinner preparations on Instagram at JudysChickens.

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© 2014-2017 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos and text may only be used with written consent.

Spring Planting Guide for Your Kitchen Garden

A hot pink and green salad. Mother Nature is a creative genius.
DSC_0342This is a close up of a salad we had for dinner this week. We call it the Lily Pulitzer Salad. Every part of it came out of our garden: lettuce, radishes, pea pods, dill, green onions and tasty radish flowers. I am beaming in amazement! To think, these vegetables all started out as tiny seeds planted in brown dirt, and now they’ve become something delicious, nutritious and gorgeous.

Here is how the newly planted garden looked on Sunday afternoon, March 15th after I spent the day tending to the soil and seeds.

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Here it is today, just ten weeks later.

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This was the first vegetable garden we built in our yard. I think of it as my summer Italian garden because later in the season, I will grow tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, onions, and basil in it. The garden space is 20 by 30 feet. The fence was made using four-foot high chicken wire and wood. About 18 inches from the fence sides, I “planted” a necklace of empty, upside-down, wine bottles to separate the spring planting space from the summer planting space. By keeping the center of the garden open and available, I no longer have to wait for spring crops to die off before I plant summer crops in early May.

People often ask when it is I start working the soil and planting vegetable seeds. The first vegetable I plant is always peas. I aim for getting them in the ground by March 1st, at the latest, which means I have to get the perimeter planting space prepped before then. This year, I invited the chickens to help out by doing what comes naturally to them: scratching up the dirt (tilling), eating the CHICKweed (weeding), and leaving some of their nutrient-rich poop (fertilizer) scattered about. It was a free-for-all for them and a bonanza for me.

Veg garden

To prepare the necklace space for planting, all I do is use a pitchfork to loosen the soil. I let worms and old roots do the bulk of the work of aerating the soil. I try to stay out of the way of nature. Additionally, because the perimeter space is off the beaten path, it doesn’t get compacted by foot traffic which also helps keep the soil loose and ready for the next planting season.

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Next, I planted a row of peas along the fence (notice the white dots in the soil), and then I planted two rows of green onion sets in the middle row, and finally, one row of radishes next to the bottles. This season, I was careful to space the radish seeds about every four inches to help with good root ball formation. I planted a different variety of radishes on each side of the garden, one that was quick to mature and one that would mature later in the spring.

Inside the Necklace Space: peas, onions, and radishes photographed 3/30, 4/17, and  5/30. Mixed in there were some dill seeds that had self-seeded from last year’s dill crop.

Sugar Ann Peas
There is an old gardening tradition that says to plant your peas on Valentine’s Day. That is always the goal, but seldom the reality. This year was no exception, in fact, we were iced-in for most of February, and I didn’t get around to planting anything until mid-March. This may be the reason my Sugar Ann peas, a new variety for me, failed so miserably. The other reason is they probably got crowded out by the quick growth of the onions and radishes in front of them. If I use this same planting plan next year, I’ll start the peas two weeks earlier than the onions and radishes.

In previous years, I planted two varieties of peas: a sugar snap and a snow pea. They both grow the same way and need a trellis or fence for vine support.

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Sugar snaps are an edible-podded cultivar that has plump peas inside. If you harvest while young, you can still eat the pods. If you harvest late, you would need to shell the peas and discard the pod. These are so delicious raw; they hardly ever make it to the kitchen.

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Snow peas have edible pods, as well, but are flat with tiny peas inside. Snow pea pods are often used in Asian cooking. I like to use a “stringless” variety of snow peas. The chickens love the pea plants, including the leaves, and will often eat what pokes out of the chicken wire fence. One of them took a bite out of a snow pea in the photo below.

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Spring Onions (aka Scallions or Green Onions)
Sets planted 3/15. Harvest started six weeks later and continues. Even though you can buy white, yellow, or purple onion sets, I plant the purple variety for one reason, I love the color. I planted 200 sets this year. I cannot get enough of spring onions. I use them sliced and uncooked in salads, sautéed in mirepoix, and roasted whole in the oven or on the grill. Yum.

For more information on growing spring onions, radishes, and turnips, go to my last blog post, Urban Farming Part 1: Fall Planting.

“Easter Egg” Radish
Seeds planted 3/15. 30 days to maturity. Started harvesting 4/17. Sweet, mild, crispy, and colorful. Flowers are edible.

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“Red Meat” Radish (aka “Watermelon” Radish)
Planted 3/15. 50 days to maturity. Started harvesting May 18. Crisp, have more of a bite and have a beautiful hot pink color inside. Their white flowers are edible, too.

Cauliflower and Broccoli
On each end of the rectangular garden, I planted cauliflower and broccoli. Both crops were a failure. Something ate the leaves within a week of planting them. Every year, I swear I’m not going to grow these two plants ever again and every year I cave when I see them at the garden center. It’s a case of tunnel vision — I remember the glory days of gorgeous broccoli and forget about the pesticides I used to keep caterpillars from chomping away at them. Now that I have free-range chickens in my yard, I don’t use any chemicals. In fact, I often joke that the hens keep me honest whenever I get tempted.

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Raised Beds: kale, chard, turnips, beets, potatoes

“Premier Blend” Kale
Seeds planted March 23. Days to maturity: 28 baby, 55 bunching. Harvesting began late April

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“Bright Lights” Swiss Chard
Seeds planted 3/23. Days to maturity: 28 baby, 55 bunching. Harvesting began 5/26

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“Hakurei Hybrid” Turnips
Seeds planted 3/23. Days to maturity: 38. Harvesting began 5/26

These white turnips have been the tastiest surprise of all the vegetables growing in my garden. This pure white variety of turnips are so light and crisp you can eat them like an apple. Truly. When sliced, they can be used as low-cal scoops for hummus and other dips. I’m so glad I planted two rows of them! As with other turnip varieties, you can cook the greens. I like to sauté them together with radish greens, green onions, and garlic in olive oil.

Turnip 4/17

Beets 
Planted as seedlings 4/2. Days to maturity 55. I haven’t started harvesting the beets yet because they are still quite small. I have, however, been harvesting the beet greens for the last month. I should have separated the seedlings when I first planted them for better root ball formation. In the picture below you can see how small the beets are. New gardening rule: all plants with edible roots need to be planted with sufficient space around them for good root ball formation.

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My healthiest vegetable seedlings came from my annual subscription to The Nashville Food Project‘s “Project Grow,”  a plant CSA. All plants are grown organically in TNFP’s greenhouse. The plant subscription includes herbs, leafy greens, edible flowers, tomatoes, eggplants, squashes, and peppers. Pick-up is once a month at their urban gardening site. The beet seedlings below were part of the March selection.

“Red Norland” and “Yukon Gold” Seed Potatoes
Sets planted 3/16. Harvesting began 5/26.  To prep seed potatoes for planting, slice the potatoes into 2″ chunks/sets that each contain 1-2 “eyes.” Allow to dry out for a couple of days to form calluses over the cut sides to help prevent sets from rotting in the soil. In general, when the plant leaves turn yellow, it’s time to harvest, but you can start digging for a few “new potatoes” long before that.

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Photos of potato plant growth taken on 4/4, 5/19, and 5/26:

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Every bit of the delightfully colored food in this photo was harvested on April 17th.

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LET’S STAY CONNECTED!

Follow my photos of vegetables growing, backyard chickens hanging out, and dinner preparations on Instagram at JudysChickens.

Never miss a post: sign up to become a follower of the Blog.

© 2014-2017 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos and text may only be used with written consent.