January is always a hard month for me. After the gluttony of the holiday season, my head tells me I should eat greens and grains and healthful things. But it’s coooooold out, and my heart craves large bowls of carbohydrates, preferably coated in melted cheese. There’s not a lot of in-between there, at least not in-betweens that leave me satisfied. (Get your cauliflower out of my mac and cheese please!) So I yo-yo back and forth, crushing a rainbow-colored salad one day and a buttery pastry-topped pot pie the next.
This sweet potato shepherd’s pie manages to straddle the line between “healthy” and “indulgent,” proving that comfort food doesn’t always have to be a diet-killer. Shephard’s pie is a British classic, dating back to the late 18th century. Technically, what I made was cottage pie, since it’s made with beef and traditional shepherd’s pie is made with ground lamb or mutton, but they’re basically the same thing: ground meat cooked with aromatics and topped with mashed potatoes.
To keep my version on the healthy side, I upped the vegetable-to-meat ratio in the filling, adding extra celery. carrots and peas. (I also swapped in sweet potatoes instead of regular Idaho potatoes, though that was more of a “what’s on sale” decision than anything else.)
The recipe takes a fair amount of work, as you really want to build flavors while making the filling. With time, the gravy becomes intensely savory and full of meaty, umami flavor, and honestly, I could eat that with a spoon all day long. The sweet potatoes balance the savoriness nicely, and the final product is so delicious I almost ate the entire skillet in one sitting. And the beauty of this dish is, that wouldn’t have left me with an aching belly or a guilty conscience.*
*Regardless, you probably shouldn’t eat an entire shepherd’s pie …
- 1-1/2 pounds sweet potatoes potatoes, peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks
- 1/4 cup whole milk, warmed
- 2 ounces unsalted butter
- salt and pepper, to taste
- 1 tablespoon canola oil
- 1 medium yellow onion, chopped
- 3 carrots, peeled and diced
- 3 stalks celery, peeled and diced
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 pound lean ground beef
- salt and pepper, to taste
- 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour*
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 1/2 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
- 1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary
- 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1/4 cup red wine or stout beer (optional)
- 1 cup low-sodium chicken stock
- 1 cup frozen peas
- Place the potatoes in a pot and cover with cold water. Set them over high heat and bring to a boil. Once the water is at a rolling boil, reduce the heat and simmer until the potatoes are tender, 20-25 minutes.
- Drain the potatoes and return them to the pot. Stir in the warm milk, butter, salt and pepper. Mash until the potatoes are creamy, adding more milk if necessary. Set aside.
- Preheat the oven to 400F. In a 10-inch cast-iron skillet, heat up the oil on medium-high heat. Add the onions, carrots and celery, then saute until the vegetables have softened and are beginning to brown, 10-12 minutes. Stir in the garlic and cook for an additional 3-4 minutes.
- Add the ground beef, salt and pepper and brown the meat, using a wooden spoon to break it into crumbles. Stir in the flour and cook for another 4-5 minutes, until the flour has cooked.
- Stir in the tomato paste, Worcestershire sauce, rosemary, thyme, red wine or beer (if using) and chicken stock. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the sauce has thickened to a gravy, about 10-15 minutes. Remove from heat.
- Stir the frozen peas into the filling and spread it in an even layer in the skillet. Top with the mashed sweet potatoes, creating an even layer of potatoes and smoothing the top. Bake for 25-30 minutes, until the potatoes have just begun to brown. Let sit for 15 minutes before serving.
- *The flour thickens the gravy -- you could replace it with a gluten-free flour (or maybe cornstarch) to keep the recipe gluten-free