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Seasons’ Eatings: Shepherds Pie Redux

2012 February 23

By Sarah A. Maine

Ground porkSunnyside, NY – Fuel.  Wacky winter weather and long work days necessitate energy dense sustenance.  I took advantage of both Valeria’s & Kara’s bold beefy meals to plunge into a protein packed meal of my own.  I was equally inspired by the carroty parts of Valeria’s Boiled Beef Sandwich as I was by Kara’s unabashed cut of meat in her Bone-in Ribeye & Garlic Bread.  Thinking about how to carry the meat theme forward I remembered a favorite childhood dish: shepherds pie.  Savory ground beef sautéed with onions, carrots and peas overlaid with creamy mashed potatoes.  A re-imagined shepherd’s pie seemed just the thing to propel me through a few days of winter weariness.

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Traditionally, shepherd’s pie is made with beef, but as I seldom cook beef at home I opted for pork.  But not just any pork!  Four days a week I have the good fortune to be nestled among the diverse food vendors that make up the Essex Street Market.  My neighbors include a sprawling grocery/mini-market, a lovely bakery (complete with dangerously tasty pain au chocolat), vendors of delicious Greek and Japanese foods, and (most relevant to this recipe) the Heritage Meat Shop.

The Heritage Meat Shop is the first brick and mortar retail outlet of Heritage Foods USA – a meat purveyor specializing in heritage breeds.  It’s a little known fact that factory farming, among other evils, has lead to the neglect and near extinction of certain venerable breeds of pigs, poultry and cattle.  Animals that don’t do well in the quantity oriented atmosphere of conventional meat production have been weeded out, leaving us with a less diverse and consequently weaker and less tasty array of animal proteins.  Heritage’s success can be measured by the breadth and depth of its network of farms as well as by the number of endangered breeds it has had a hand in reviving.  The pork in question today comes from Berkshire breed pigs – a pig prized for its smooth and buttery meat.

This is pork that reminds you what pork is supposed to be like – rich, red, and flecked with creamy fat.  Serious pork with flavor to prove it.  I went whole hog (!!) and got two pounds – yes, it’s a lot of meat, but my plan was to get several days worth of meals out of this dish – what looks decadent up front is part of a larger, and downright thrifty, master plan!

Why stop at replacing the type of meat?  I decided to review some of the usual shepherd’s pie ingredients.  Inspired by a recipe for “Mediterranean Shepherd’s Pie” in Louisa Shafia’s Lucid Food, I switched out the mashed potatoes that blanket a traditional shepherd’s pie for purée of butternut squash roasted in olive oil.  Though the vegetable doldrums have taken hold in the Northeast, on a blustery Monday afternoon in Union Square I found a buxom specimen of butternut at the John D. Madura farmstand.

Next up for revision – peas.  Needless to say there are no fresh local peas rolling around the farmers’ markets in January, so I turned to another member of their leguminous family, one I felt would significantly up the energy ante of my dish: pinto beans.  Once again I can’t help but sing the praises of Cayuga Pure Organics – their portly sacks of dried beans are a star attraction of the winter market.  So far I’ve tried their yellow eye beans, red kidney beans, and pinto beans.  The pintos may be my favorites, they are creamy without being mushy and are robust enough to hold onto their shape and their husks through the cooking process.  I soaked and boiled an entire pound of dried beans, using a cup and a half for this recipe and freezing the rest, money in the winter energy food bank!

Shepherd’s Pie Redux

Prep Time: 30 minutes

Cook Time: 1 hr

Total Time: 1 hr 30 minutes

Yield: 8 servings

Ingredients

For the topping:

  • 6 cups diced butternut squash
  • 4 Tablespoons olive oil

For the filling:

  • 2 lbs ground pork (or meat of your choice)
  • 1 medium onion
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 1/2 cup cooked pinto beans
  • 1 cup sliced carrots (4 small or 2 medium sized ones)
  • 3 Tablespoons olive oil
  • salt & pepper to taste

Cooking Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 F.  While the oven is heating up, peel and dice a large butternut squash.  Brush a baking sheet with 2 Tablespoons of olive oil, spread the cubed squash over the sheet in one layer, drizzle olive oil on top, turning the cubes over to coat them.  Cover with aluminum foil and bake for 50 minutes.
  2. Dice the onion, mince the garlic, slice up the carrots into thin discs.
  3. Heat 3 Tablespoons of olive oil in a large pot, throw in the bay leaves and stir them around for a bit.  When the aroma of bay starts wafting out of the pot add the onion, carrot and garlic. Sautée for about 5 minutes or until the onions are transluscent.
  4. Now for the pork.  Throw it all in there with the sautéed veggies!  Cook on low, stirring every so often until the pork is cooked through, about 10-15 minutes.
  5. Remove the pot from the heat and stir in the pinto beans (I cooked these several days ahead of time).
  6. Transfer the filling to a baking dish.
  7. When the squash is done roasting you can do one of two things – spread it directly onto the filling or run it through a food processor.  I processed mine but it isn’t really necessary – a chunky topping adds nice texture.
  8. Brush the finished pie with a little bit of olive oil and broil on low for 10 minutes until the squash starts to brown.
  9. Serve on a bed of your favorite greens sautéed in garlic and olive oil, and maybe some hot sauce on the side!

Using really high quality meat almost eliminates the need for seasoning this dish.  The sweetness of the squash and the creamy, nutty flavors of the pork need little more than the hint of bay and a touch of salt to support them.  Season lightly as you sautée the pork.  If your eaters demand a condiment I would recommend a touch of Pickapeppa Sauce or Worchestershire Sauce.

  • http://stephanieticknerwatercolors.com/ Stephanie Tickner

    What a great idea using butternut squash for the top of your pie, Sarah. I love all the colors with it being served on the greens as well. We use kidney beans in our shepherds pie as my daughter and I are vegetarians. I wonder what other ingredient I might add for the chewy texture of the pork.

    • sarahamaine

      I was thinking while I was writing about what could be substituted for the meat filling. I am not a big fan of ‘faux’ meat like seitan etc. Maybe a mixture of coarsely chopped mushrooms, beans and hearty green like kale? What do you usually use when a recipe calls for a large amount of meat?

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  • ALAMB

    I made it vegetarian by using a pound of tempeh in place of the pork.  I also added some peas and increased the carrots. I seasoned it with sage, coriander, shoyu, nutritional yeast and pepper.  

    • sarahamaine

      Those sound like some tasty substitutions! I hope it turned out well :)