How to eat: shepherd’s pie
Written by icefmonline on April 27, 2017
This month, How to Eat is settling down on the sofa with a steaming plate of shepherd’s pie, peas and diced carrots, a mug of tea and, naturally, a slice of thickly buttered bread for mopping up. How else would you eat this meal?
It is not often that one might feel sorry for Jeffrey Archer. But his revulsion at the state of the shepherd’s pie at HMP Belmarsh, as described in A Prison Diary, Hell, Volume I, is surely vivid enough to elicit that rare flicker of sympathy? “The meat, if it is meat, is glued to the potato, and then deposited on your plastic plate in one large blob, resembling a Turner prize entry,” he shuddered.
Man can suffer many indignities in life but when you find yourself in a situation where no one can be bothered to make even a half-decent shepherd’s pie for you – the subject of this month’s How to Eat [HTE] – then you have surely hit rock-bottom. After all, it is not difficult to assemble, which may explain why this hardy northern dish (developed in sheep-farming country long after la-di-dah cottage pie and the mysterious gamekeeper’s version), has become one of Britain’s foremost comfort foods. It is both spoonable self-medication and something that the clumsiest kitchen clot can knock up.
It is testament to its universal appeal that, despite its humble origins, shepherd’s pie seems to exercise a peculiar hold over people who could afford, well, far more expensive things. “My weakness is for fish and chips, shepherd’s pie, spaghetti bolognese – all the common man’s food,” Archer once told the Guardian, sounding very much like a man beamed down from another planet. Michael Winner was partial to shepherd’s pie and Margaret Thatcher would cook it for civil servants as they plotted to destroy the country. It is also a perennial showbiz favourite at the Ivy.
But don’t let that put you off. Let us instead celebrate a dish which, evidently, speaks to a kernel of common humanity in all of us, however odd the company (plus Keith Richards loves it; so +10 cool points to shepherd’s pie). The only danger is that you can take it too seriously. “Why Britons prefer shepherd’s pie to sex” ran a 2005 Guardian headline, reporting that just 13% of people would choose a night of passion over a plate of home-cooked food. Frankly, that way disaster lies. Shepherd’s pie is many things, but it is not the bedrock of a happy romantic union.
By which of course HTE does not mean: is it OK to eat shepherd’s pie in front of the telly? Not only is it perfectly fine to eat almost all meals in front of the TV in 2017, it is borderline compulsory for shepherd’s pie. This is a meal which, on chilly nights, is all about comfort. So get comfortable. Close the curtains. Crank up the thermostat. Slump down on the sofa. Line up back-to-back episodes of The Team (other television programmes are available), and away you go.
Whether you should eat shepherd’s pie in a pub or restaurant, however, is another matter. It seems an odd choice, frankly. Not for the slightly prissy reasons that Anthony Bourdain outlined in Kitchen Confidential (“Beef Parmentier? Shepherd’s pie? Chilli special? Sounds like leftovers to me.”), but because, if you are paying someone to cook for you, why choose something that you can easily cook – or buy in a passable ready meal version of – at home?
Particularly when chefs (being chefs) will inevitably overcomplicate it in order to justify their wage. A shepherd’s pie does not need serving in a cast-iron mini Le Creuset pot, with the veg in a separate container and an optional pipette of extra gravy. In fact, such over-elaboration actively detracts from the absolute ease with which you should be able to eat shepherd’s pie, a key feature of this lazy meal’s appeal.
How you wish to cook your shepherd’s pie (passata or none; carrot within or as a side; grilled cheese topping) is, broadly, your affair. That is, unless said pie comes with mashed swede or parsnips on top, turkey fiendishly hidden in its depths or as a dreary meat-free concoction of spinach and lentils, a concept equally offensive to meat-eaters, vegetarians and anyone who farms spinach or lentils. In those cases, HTE has to say: no. Desist. A clear line has been crossed.
That same mark has clearly been overstepped – nay, gleefully and provocatively vaulted – if you see anyone serving shepherd’s pie topped with sliced potato (that, right there, is a hotpot); in a pasty; or as a kind of neither-arse-nor-elbow jacket potato filling. All are a disgrace to shepherd’s pie’s good name.
If you have to take a knife and fork to your shepherd’s pie, if you have to do anything more strenuous than spooning it into your gaping maw, then you have failed. This is comfort food. Assembling its constituent parts should not be a part-time job. This is why, for instance, neither tenderstem broccoli (like hacking your way through a bonsai jungle) or vogueish, whole-roasted mini vegetables have a role here. If it does not yield easily to the edge of your spoon, it should not be on your plate. Better still, any accompanying vegetables should have been prepared (as a dice, in coin-shaped slices etc), so that you do not have to cut anything.
Good accompaniments: (boiled, salted and buttered al dente) peas, carrots, mange tout; broad beans, softened leeks, tiny shallots; finely shredded cabbage, kale etc.; diced swede or parsnip. All of which, particularly in combination, offer a spectrum of sweet and mineral flavours that will offset and complement that meaty pie (if, indeed, that is what we can call it). It is a bit one-note, admittedly, but on dark days, when you are laid up ill with a chill, there is something about the smooth, emollient nature of baked beans, that – emotionally, rather than as a flavour enhancer – deepens the comforting nature of the shepherd’s pie experience. In sharp contrast to that, a dab of tomato sauce (or mustard even, if you crave heat) offers a little, pleasantly shrill, energetic punctuation to this otherwise comfortingly bland meal.
Bad accompaniments: cauliflower, broccoli and other unwieldly brassicas; great wet heaps of wilted spinach; big outsize lumps of roasted vegetables; sweetcorn (a vile contaminant of everything it touches); green beans (why would you do that to yourself?). Any sort of salad seems like a curiously drab addition. In its flavours, a green salad does nothing that the right vegetables will not. Yet, a great cold tangle of rocket or watercress seems like a jarringly worthy addition to the plate. You should be able to sink into a shepherd’s pie in the way you would a warm bath. In a warm bath, would you want the cold tap dripping on your back?
Seems superfluous (you can scrape your bowl clean with a spoon, no?), but, in many ways, actively leaving a light detritus of gravy, mash, sauces and fragments of veg around your bowl, then wiping it all up with a slice of thickly-buttered bread is shepherd’s pie’s crowning moment. Its peak. Its glorious conclusion.
Use a wide shallow bowl with a significant rim. You need to be able to hold it easily while watching TV. You want the shepherd’s pie to sit neatly in a moat of its own juices. You do not want to end up chasing errant vegetables around a flat plate with your spoon.
Of course, only afool would serve shepherd’s pie mash-side down. But do not be too prim with it. Occasionally, you see rectilinear slices of shepherd’s pie that look like an exercise in geometric precision. That is in no way aesthetically enticing. This should be a fat, casual splat of food in your bowl. One that clearly says: “Relax. You’re home. Roll your sleeves up. Dig in.”
Tea. True, beer or red wine work. But, really, this is a meal that should radiate warmth. A huge steaming mug of rusty tea can only add to that. It is like throwing another log on this metaphorical real fire.
So shepherd’s pie, how do you eat yours?