It’s been a globe-trotting sort of summer. I left Boston in a hurry towards the end of May in order to rush back to Hong Kong for a job interview that didn’t actually pan out; alternate plans sent me to Beijing for a month instead. After Beijing, I returned briefly to Hong Kong, and now I am currently in Perth, the largest city on Australia’s west coast, for another experience that is intended to improve my resume.*
It is winter in Australia. The weather in Perth has been rather disagreeable: not particularly cold, but just drizzly enough to require an umbrella, and just windy enough for an untimely gust or two to turn said umbrella inside out. I can’t help but feel like I’m always smelling faintly of wet wool, and even when I’m in fresh clothes, they still feel slightly damp. (Granted, my fate might have been similar had I stayed put in Boston, but it doesn’t make me any happier about it.)
Fortunately, Perth has an abundance of bakeries and takeaway places with all a manner of deliciously unhealthy hot foods to drive away the damp. There’s a shop on almost every street corner selling hot chips, sausage rolls, and meat pies, a fact that does lift my sodden spirits. Hot chips (with or without chicken gravy) were my undisputed favorite as a child, but when I left Australia, it was the meat pies that I missed.
A meat pie with plain pastry is a meat pie, pure and simple. Sometimes they’re a bit more specific, depending on the filling: “steak and onion,” or “steak and cheese." A meat pie with a potato topping is, sensibly enough, a "potato pie." They're a tuckshop staple, and as every Australian schoolchild knows, the correct way to eat them is to pick off the browned bits first, eat the top half-inch of potato, and then mix up the remaining potato with the meat filling before consumption.
A potato pie is, however, a commercial product. The homemade version is more commonly known as shepherd’s pie, or cottage pie. There’s a certain amount of debate over the exact definition of each – you’ll hear arguments that shepherd’s pie is made with lamb, and cottage pie is made with beef – but that’s just missing the key point. Whatever you call it, it’s all about the mashed potatoes. The meat is just a minor detail.**
A shepherd’s pie is the traditional way to use up the leftovers from Sunday roast. Of course, if you don’t do Sunday roast (or if you never have any leftover mashed potatoes), it’s just a matter of making a meat stew for a base, topping it with mash, and giving the whole some time in the oven. It’s not the same as a potato pie, but it drives away the damp equally well.
(Sorry, no photos. My camera's in Boston.)
Lamb and Leek Shepherd's Cottage Potato Pie
This recipe also works with stewing beef. Feel free to make the components separately a day or two before.
(Serves one, if one wants five meals’ worth of leftovers to freeze. Otherwise, serves one and several friends.)
Begin with a bunch of leeks. Cut away and discard the dark green parts, and slice the remaining white and pale green portion into thin strips. Rinse them thoroughly to get rid of any mud and grit. Set aside.
Preheat the oven to 350F.
Take a pound of boneless stewing lamb, rinse it if you feel compelled to do so, and pat it dry. Dredge the pieces in a few tablespoons of flour and shake off the excess.
Heat a little vegetable oil in a heavy-bottomed ovenproof pot. Brown the lamb in batches. Set aside.
Pour a little more oil into the pot. Add the leeks. Cook until the leeks have softened and started to color. Add the lamb.
Open a bottle of decent beer. It doesn’t have to be Guinness (I actually used Hoeegarten because it was all I had in the fridge), but make sure it has some flavor. You can cook with wine you wouldn’t drink, but that rule doesn’t work for beer. Pour the beer into the pot.
Turn up the heat and stir, scraping up any stuck bits on the bottom, until you can no longer smell alcohol when you stick your head over the pot. Turn off the heat.
Finely dice two or three carrots, and add them to the pot. Add a sprinkling of salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the carrots soften. Turn off the heat. Put the lid on and transfer the pot to the oven.
Let the mixture braise until the lamb is tender, about an hour and a half to two hours.
Meanwhile, prepare your potatoes. First, decide how much you like mashed potatoes. If you, like me, view shepherd’s pie as something of an excuse to eat mashed potatoes, you’ll want to peel and cut three pounds of potatoes into medium dice. Should you prefer a slightly more even potato-to-filling ratio, you’ll want to do the same with one and a half to two pounds of potatoes instead.
Put your potatoes in a pot, cover with cold water, and cook over low heat until they’re easily pierced with a fork. Drain. Mash with half a stick of butter and a splash of milk. Salt to taste.
Ready to put the whole thing together? Preheat the oven to 300F.
Mix a handful or two of frozen English peas into the lamb mixture. Spoon said lamb mixture into a shallow baking dish. Cover with mashed potato, making sure you get it all the way to the edges so that none of the lamb is visible.
To get those crusty browned bits, you’ll need to either get fancy with a piping bag, or drag a fork across the top of the potatoes to create little furrows, then lightly brush with melted butter.
Transfer the baking dish to the oven. If you’ve made the components separately and they’re cold, you’ll have to bake until everything’s heated through, about two hours. If you’re doing this all in one go, however, and the lamb and potatoes are still warm, you can bump up the heat to 400F and cook just until the potatoes brown, about half an hour or so.
Once the potatoes have browned on top, carefully remove the baking dish from the oven. Serve immediately.
*The less said about it, the better.
**Oh, and contrary to what American institutional dining facilities believe, it does not contain corn. Not ever.