Shepherd’s Pie

Here is a simple and inexpensive way to turn leftover roast mutton, lamb or beef into a delicious dinner.  Recipes for Shepherd’s Pie date from the end of the eighteenth century, but it was called Cottage Pie then and could be made with any leftover roasted meat.  In the eighteenth century, a cottage was a simple shelter where poor people lived in the rural areas of England and Ireland, so a Cottage Pie was something cheap enough for poor people to eat.

Potatoes had become a cheap edible crop by that time, so they went well with the leftover meat.  The earliest recipes tell the cook to line the sides and bottom of the pan with mashed potatoes before spooning in the filling and covering the meat with more mashed potatoes, so some of those pies may have had very little meat.  If there were a few vegetables and some fat and flour to make the gravy, the result could still be a nourishing and tasty hot dish. 

It wasn’t long before people with extra money learned about the dish and were making fancier versions.  Poor people used any meat they could afford or come by in the dark of night.  Wealthier people could afford to eat roast mutton or lamb on Sundays, so they started making Shepherd’s Pie, a name chosen because shepherds looked after sheep.

This recipe is my version of one I found in a cookbook published by the Church of  the Immaculate Conception in New Richmond.  Mary Sullivan’s recipe specifies hamburger and cream of mushroom soup, but I liked her additions of green peas and carrots, the bell pepper and seasoned mashed potatoes, so I think she deserves credit for inspiring me.  My recipe, however, is a little closer to a real shepherd’s pie with good brown gravy and diced lamb left over from our Easter dinner.

INGREDIENTS:

For the gravy:

4 T roast drippings or butter

4 T all-purpose flour

1 1/2 – 2 cups stock or beef broth

Salt, pepper and other seasonings to your taste

For the pie:

2 to 3 cups chopped roasted lamb

1 T vegetable oil

1 cup chopped onion

1/4 tsp. salt

1/2 cup diced bell pepper

1 T all-purpose flour

About 2 cups brown gravy

2 cups frozen peas and carrots

2 cups mashed potatoes

4 T butter, divided

1/3 to 1/2 cup half and half

1/4 tsp. white pepper

2 tsp. chopped parsley (fresh or dried)

PROCEDURE:

Trim the bones and excess fat from the meat, and chop it  into a quarter-inch dice.  Clean and chop the onion and pepper into a quarter-inch dice.  Otherwise, cook the frozen vegetables until they are crisp tender.  Peel and boil the potatoes.  Make or warm the gravy.

Making brown gravy from scratch is easy and takes only a few minutes.  Put four tablespoons of lamb or beef roast drippings or four tablespoons of butter into a medium saucepan or skillet over moderate heat.  Blend a quarter cup of all-purpose flour into the oil and stir continuously until the flour has turned to a medium brown.  I like to add some seasoning to the browning flour.  An eighth teaspoon each of salt, black pepper and thyme or rosemary are all good choices.  

Whisk in one and one-half cups of beef broth or stock made from the leftover lamb or beef bones.  Cook for three or four minutes until you have a thick gravy.  Add a little more broth if the gravy seems too thick.  Taste and adjust the seasoning.

Preheat the oven to 350º and lightly grease a two quart casserole. 

Heat the oil in a large skillet and warm the meat.  Stir in the flour and salt and add the onion and pepper.  Cook over low heat until the onion is translucent.  Blend the gravy, peas and carrots with the meat mixture.

Mash the potatoes and heat a third cup of half and half and three tablespoons of butter.  Blend these liquids with the potatoes and the quarter teaspoon of white pepper.  Spoon the meat mixture into the casserole and top it with the mashed potatoes.  Dribble a tablespoon of melted butter over the potatoes.

Put the casserole on a center shelf in the oven and bake for fifty minutes or until the potatoes begin to brown a little.  Sprinkle the parsley over the potatoes and bake for another four or five minutes.

NOTES:  Many recipes for Shepherd’s Pie today are like Mary’s and substitute hamburger or leftover roast beef for the lamb.  Drain any excess grease from the hamburger before adding the vegetables.

If you are using fresh peas and carrots, shell and rinse the peas and clean and chop the carrots into a half-inch dice.

Karen’s Tater Tot Hot Dish

Gourmets may sneer at Tater Tot Hot Dish.  It is, after all, a dish made with scraps of potatoes squeezed through a machine similar to a sausage stuffer, chopped into short lengths and briefly fried before being flash frozen.  

Mormon brothers F. Nephi Grigg and Golden Grigg invented Tater Tots in 1953 as a way to use the slivers of potatoes left over from their French fry production line.  By 1956, the brothers had developed a way to mass-produce these “little potatoes” and Tater Tots appeared in grocery stores. 

According to an advertising and marketing lecturer at Iowa State University, the new product did not sell well.  It was made from potato scraps and was priced accordingly.  Customers apparently felt that that something so cheap couldn’t be very good. The Griggs raised the price, and the rest is history.  

Their experience reminds me of one I had after my mother’s death.  We scheduled an estate sale on a summer weekend when lots of tourists would be in the Hayward area.  The sale was going well, but a small Johnson outboard motor that my father had bought many years before to use with his canoe still had not sold.  My sisters and brother-in-law had priced it at a hundred dollars, but at least a dozen potential buyers had looked at the motor and left without taking it.

My sisters suggested that we drop the price to $75, but refused their advice.  “It’s an antique motor in perfect running condition,” I pointed out, “and it’s worth a lot more,”  so I printed a new price tag for $200.  Just a few minutes later, a man bought the motor at the new price.  He collected antique outboards and needed this one for his collection.  He probably would have bought it for $100, but maybe not.  He might have seen the lower price and thought that it was a piece of junk that looked good on the outside, but was basically a piece of scrap.  I think I was just lucky, but that didn’t stop me from explaining to my sisters that I was a better salesman than they were.

Unlike the outboard motor collector, the housewife who bought her first package of Tater Tots almost certainly did so because of the low price.  Later,  when she needed to make something cheap and easy for a church potluck, she produced the original Tater Tot Hot Dish.  As a thrifty cook, she might even have made it with crumbled leftover meatloaf.

Perhaps this humble origin explains the popularity of Tater Tot Hot Dish for church potlucks.  The ladies in my church taught us not to waste anything edible, and my mom and dad reinforced those lessons.  Jerri learned the same principle from her parents, and her grandmother was famous for saving leftovers too small to warm up.  Once they had turned, she would throw them out, explaining that she didn’t feel so bad about discarding food that had spoiled.

The original recipe almost certainly used Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup and cut green beans, either a can from the store or a jar from the cellar, and the final layer may have been bread crumbs instead of French fried onions.  Today, there are thousands of variations on this basic recipe with different ingredients and directions for assembly.  There are even recipes for making your Tater Tot Hot Dish in a slow cooker, and—believe it or not—vegetarian versions.  About the only thing these recipes have in common is that Tater Tots are one of the main ingredients, though most of them also include a comment like “This is like my mother made.”

In small country churches, large urban churches, Protestant and Catholic churches, in the deep south, the great plains and the upper midwest, I have been a guest at potlucks and enjoyed many different Tater Tot Hot Dishes.  Some had the potatoes on the bottom, others on the top.  Some used French fried onions, others were smothered with cheese.  Many were made with cream of mushroom soup, but others used cream of chicken or celery.   They were all tasty, but until now I had never made Tater Tot Hot Dish myself.  

Looking through used cookbooks at the Two Fish Thrift Store in New Richmond a few weeks ago, I found a copy of Redeemer Lutheran’s Good Cooking.  The recipe for Karen Lindstrom’s Tater Tot Hot Dish was highlighted in visible orange, so I decided to try it.  The cookbook was published in 1997 by members of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Burkhardt, Wisconsin, “the little church with a BIG heart,”.  

The church seems to be thriving.   No longer a small clapboard church with some stained glass windows, Redeemer Lutheran is now housed in a larger building a quarter mile east of the original location but still along highway A in Burkhardt.  The “little church” is being remodeled into a private residence.

I haven’t found a Tater Tot Hot Dish recipe in my mother’s cookbooks or recipe files, but it was probably like Karen’s.  As I recall, Mom’s Tater Tot Hot Dish didn’t look like much, but it tasted good.  She might have been motivated by the fact that she could make a tasty meal without peeling potatoes and chopping lots of vegetables.  

Karen’s Tater Tot Hot Dish reminds me of the ones we used to have when I was a kid, and my effort produced a version as good as or even a little better than many I have eaten in church basements. That’s mainly because most of those potlucks staged the ketchup bottle on the serving line, so you needed to get up from your table to replenish the garnish.  When you serve it at home, you can make sure that the ketchup is within reach.

INGREDIENTS:

1  lb. ground beef

1/3 cup chopped onion

1 to 1 1/2 lbs. Tater Tots

1 can cut or French cut green beans (about 2 cups)

1 10 3/4 oz. can of cream of mushroom soup

1/4 tsp. salt

1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

1 cup French fried onions

PROCEDURE:

Brown a pound of lean ground beef over moderate heat. While the meat is browning, chop about a third cup of onion into a quarter-inch dice.  Add the onion to the meat a minute or two before the meat is done.  Preheat the oven to 350º and lightly grease an eight by twelve or nine by thirteen-inch baking pan.

Cover the bottom of the pan with Tater Tots.  Layer the meat and onion over the Tater Tots.  Drain the beans and spread them evenly over the meat and finish the casserole by spreading the undiluted mushroom soup over the three layers.  

Bake the casserole for fifty minutes, then sprinkle the French fried onions on top and bake another five to ten minutes.

Serve with ketchup.

NOTES:  Feel free to vary the recipe.  Karen says you can substitute ground venison for the beef.  If the results don’t please you, eat it anyway but don’t make that version again.  I have a vague memory of being served a Tater Tot hot dish made with tiny shrimp and condensed cream of shrimp soup.  Sounds weird but it might be worth trying, then again….