My sister Tina, my BFF Grace and I exchange Christmas lists sometime in November; this year, I asked for a subscription to Cook’s Illustrated. Grace gave it to me and I have been happily devouring the bi-monthly issues. I love CI because the authors always explain the benefit of a given technique or treatment.
Since it’s winter and we’re expecting snow tomorrow after a 75-degree day yesterday, I thought I’d try the shepherd’s pie; what intrigued me was the fact that baking soda is added to ground beef to soften it. This treatment keeps the meat in chunks rather than the non-treated result of crumbly, pebbly bits floating around in the gravy.
I made slight changes to the recipe; I omitted the green onions for the mashed potatoes because of Ken (“What’s this green stuff? I hope it’s not PARSLEY”) but I think they would be a great addition. I substituted Marsala wine for the Madeira/ruby port as I had neither, and I used dried thyme as the thyme on my deck was looking too sad.
Shepherd’s Pie (adapted from Cook’s Illustrated– I list the original and omitted ingredients in parentheses)
- 1 1/2 lbs ground beef no less than 93% lean
- 2 TB plus 2 tsp water
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp pepper
- 1/2 tsp baking soda
- 2 1/2 lbs russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
- (8 scallions, chopped to mix into mashed potatoes)
- 1/2 c milk
- 1 lg egg yolk
- 4 TB melted butter
- 4 oz mushrooms, sliced
- 1 onion, chopped
- olive oil for sauteeing
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 TB tomato paste
- 2 TB Marsala wine (Madeira/ruby port)
- 2 TB flour
- 1 1/4 c beef broth
- 2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 tsp dried thyme (2 sprigs fresh)
- 2 carrots, chopped
- 2 tsp cornstarch
- 2 tsp water
Here’s what I started with:
Prep the ground beef by adding the water, salt, pepper and baking soda. Mix well! Let rest 20 minutes.
Place the potatoes into a pot with water to cover. Salt the water. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook for 8 to 10 minutes until tender. Drain and place pot back on the stove over low heat to evaporate excess water. Off heat, add the melted butter and mash well.
Beat the egg yolk and milk together and mix into the potatoes. Season to taste, then cover and set aside.
In a medium broil-proof pan (CI suggests 10 in, but I went bigger), heat olive oil over medium high heat. When the oil begins to shimmer, add the onions and mushrooms. Season with salt and pepper.
Saute until vegetables are soft, and beginning to leave brown bits on the bottom of the pan, about 5 minutes.
Add the garlic and tomato paste and continue cooking until paste turns brown and covers the bottom of the pan.
Add the Marsala, scraping up bits from the bottom of the pan.
Add the flour and cook briefly, about 1 to 2 minutes.
Add the broth, Worcestershire, thyme and bay leaf.
Continue to scrape up bottom of the pan and then add the carrots.
Bring to a boil, scraping up any remaining bits on the bottom. Reduce the heat and add beef in 2-inch chunks over the sauce.
Bring to a gentle simmer, then cover the pan and cook for 10 to 15 minutes. About half-way through, break up the beef chunks with two forks.
When meat is cooked through, mix 2 tsp water with the cornstarch and stir into the pan to thicken, about 1 minute. Remove pan from heat. Preheat the broiler with a rack 5 inches from the heating element.
Load a gallon ziplock back with the mashed potatoes. Seal bag, pressing out excess air. Snip off one corner to make a 1-in opening and pipe mashed potatoes over the beef mixture. Using an off-set spatula, smooth the mashed potatoes. Using a dinner fork, create ridges across the potatoes.
Place the pan on a rimmed cooking sheet to catch any spillover and broil for 9 to 12 minutes until topping is brown and juices are bubbling.
Let rest 10 minutes before serving.
My broiler was way too powerful for the poor mashed potatoes, even with the oven rack 5 inches away. I’m lucky I checked after a few minutes because the ridges were beginning to burn! I moved the rack to the center position and went from broil to baking at 475 degrees. Broiling on the center rack next time will fix the problem.
The texture of the meat was fantastic– chunks of ground beef that were juicy; Kurt suggested I try to do the same technique with ground lamb (the traditional meat for shepherd’s pie). The mashed potato layer was thick and delicious (despite the slight over-broil) with the underlying stew. The flavor of the stew itself was pretty good, but both Kurt and I thought the sauce lacked the rich, caramelized flavors of browned meat. After some debate, we decided that problem was either the broth (I didn’t use my favorite Pacific brand) or that I didn’t sufficiently brown the onions and mushrooms.
Overall it’s a keeper; Kurt did, after all, have TWO platefuls of the stuff!