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No secrets with shepherd’s pie

Julie Falsetti
For The York Dispatch

Pyrex might have fired up its first baking dish in 1913, but casseroles never made much of an inroad on my family’s menu.

My father tolerated an occasional tuna casserole on Fridays, but he much preferred fresh fish he had caught. My mother respected his preferences, and I grew up in a basically casserole-free household. When I started cooking for my family, I had no memories or a cooking repertoire of combining things in a baking dish. My family was spared both the tuna casserole and the iconic green bean casserole.

Life, however, is full of surprises. In a recent phone call, my daughter informed me that her new favorite dish was shepherd’s pie. I vaguely knew what it was, but I had never tried it. The next time we got together, she made one for me.

I gave it a thumbs-up. The ingredients were straightforward, so there was no mystery in the contents. It was easy to prepare, and leftovers were even better than the original. What was not to like? A big fan of mashed potatoes, I could even imagine my father enjoying it.

Shepherd’s pie has its origins in England; there it is usually made with ground lamb. A version made with ground beef is called cottage pie. My daughter uses a vegetarian ground beef product, producing a “shepherdless” pie. The protein choice is up to you. The real star is the mashed potato topping. This is not the time for skim milk and margarine mashed spuds. You are looking for a rich topping that will enhance the savory filling.

If you choose to go the ground lamb route, Pricerite has Australian grass-fed ground lamb for $6.99 a pound. For the vegetarian version, I like Morningstar Farm’s Grillers Crumbles, which are available in most supermarkets in the frozen food section.

Using a cast iron skillet to cook the filling, you can save some dishwashing by using the same pan in the oven — no casserole required.

Shepherd’s Pie

For the filling

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 large onion, finely chopped

1 pound ground lamb, beef or vegetarian substitute

2 tablespoons flour

1 cup tomato puree

2 cups mixed vegetables (frozen is fine)

1 teaspoon each chopped fresh rosemary and chopped fresh thyme, or 1/2 teaspoon each dried

1 teaspoon salt

A few grindings of black pepper

For the mashed potatoes

3 large russet potatoes

3/4 cup half-and-half

2 tablespoons butter

Over a medium-high flame, heat the oil in a large skillet and add the chopped onions. Cook the onions for 5 minutes, then add the meat. Using a spatula to break it up, cook the meat until browned. Sprinkle the meat with the flour, stir, and cook a minute more. Add the tomato puree and vegetables. Cook 5 minutes more, until the vegetables are heated through.

Boil the potatoes in salted water until tender. Drain. In the same pot, add the half-and-half and butter. Heat until the half-and-half is scalded, then add the potatoes and mash. Taste for salt.

Place the meat mixture in a low 2-quart casserole or baking dish. Top with the mashed potatoes. Using the tines of a fork, make cross hatches on the top. Cook in a 400-degree oven for about 25 minutes or until the potatoes are browned. Let cool 10 minutes before serving.

— Julie Falsetti, a York native, comes from a long line of good cooks. Her column, From Scratch, runs twice monthly in The York Dispatch food section.