This recipe is one of the first I ever attempted, back before I had any experience cooking. The version was an easy one for a college student juggling school, a tutoring job, and a retail job, simple enough for me to feel confident in making it. Over the years I’ve gotten more experienced as a cook (a great deal better) and more confident, and the recipe has changed along with me. It’s like an old friend: it’s seen me through busy weeknights, stuck it out with me through a divorce, come to dinner with me to meet my friends and the man who would become the love of my life, and it’s never judged me, but always rewarded me when I wanted to try something new with it. The recipe, like me, is far removed from what it used to look like—we’re both a little fancier and more grown-up now—except for the fact we both like a few lazy indulgences here and there; the recipe features frozen vegetables and pre-made mashed potatoes in a culinary parallel to my occasional inability to be bothered with makeup or to swap my comfy flip flops for high heels for the summer class I’m teaching. It’s accessible and effortlessly comforting.
Yet it wasn’t until I met my fiancé’s brother for the first time on a family vacation to New Orleans that I realized this recipe, which I thought I knew so well, was not really what I thought it was. All this time, I had called it an easy “shepherd’s pie.” I had a version for a large casserole dish, a cuter version for single-serve ramekins, a party-friendly version for mini shepherd pies using pastry dough, a lower-carb variation with cauliflower mash. I’d been making “shepherd’s pie” for about a decade. But one balmy, cocktail-enriched evening my fiancé’s brother Corwin (with whom I had quickly bonded because we shared a love of food) sat across from me at a long table at K-Paul’s and said with a stony but endearingly earnest tone, “But that’s not shepherd’s pie. That’s cottage pie.”
A rose by any other name?
For the uninitiated, who haven’t undergone the heavy pause and correction of one who knows better, shepherd’s pie uses lamb or mutton—hence the name, since sheep are herded by shepherds. Cottage pie instead uses beef, and derives its name from the simple association of rural workers (who dwelt in modest “cottages”) with a lower class who would use potatoes to round out their meager meals. Both, however, originated in Britain during the 17th and early 18th century out of the need to transform leftover roasted meat into something new and satisfying for the next day. A little bit of meat is mixed with vegetables in a rich gravy and topped with a crust of mashed potatoes to give you a luscious, hearty dinner. Often it’s topped with bubbly, golden brown cheese, adding yet another layer of texture and flavor. While traditionally the meat is minced, here in America it’s generally just ground, like hamburger meat. If you want to be more traditional, consider taking leftover roast meat from, say, your Sunday dinner and mince it up for this recipe.
In the beginning, regardless of the kind of meat, the two terms were used interchangeably—or rather, “cottage pie” came about first, and the version using lamb fell under its more general umbrella as a kind of cottage pie. It’s only in the 20th century that the distinction between the two became a firm one.
Distinctions are important for the sake of accuracy and nuance, but the impulse to dissect and taxonomize can also impose a distance between one thing and the vital origins and functions it shares with its counterparts. Both meat pies emerged out of the humble desire to stretch what we have, to waste nothing, and to eat well. While I appreciate the ability to distinguish between whether the item I’m ordering off of the menu contains beef or lamb, I also appreciate knowing that they were originally called by the same name, that the inclusion of potatoes for the “cottage”-dwellers is what defined them as a unique kind of dish. That in spite of lamb being more expensive than beef today, “shepherd’s pies” are not a more rarified version of a more mundane cottage pie, but rather, just another kind of cottage pie; in fact, up until the 19th century, beef would have been more expensive and therefore less common than lamb or mutton. So next time you or someone else feels the need to correct someone on their use of the term “shepherd’s pie,” remember that when cottage pies first became a part of western food culture, the distinction was both not entirely relevant—it was the potatoes and not the meat that defined the dish—and not necessarily favoring the shepherd’s pie.
Whatever you choose to call it, this recipe is versatile, giving you something indulgent to reward you at the end of a long workday, pleasing a crowd at a potluck, or convincing your new partner that you know your way around the kitchen. Make it in a casserole, or in individual ramekins to make your diners feel special. Dress it up with pastry dough, making mini cottage pies in a muffin tin (I’ve brought these to potlucks and they’re devoured instantly). Do a lower-carb version with roasted mashed cauliflower rather than the potato topping. Enjoy and tailor it to fit you as I have over the years.
2 TBSP butter, plus more for greasing
1 onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
About1 1/3 lb ground beef (or lamb, which would make this a shepherd’s pie, or whatever leftover roasted meat you have lying around, minced)*
10-12 oz frozen mixed veggies
2 TBSP tomato paste
Salt, freshly ground black pepper, and garlic powder, to taste
4 bay leaves
1 TBSP chili powder
1 ½ TBSP herbes fondamentales
A handful of flour, enough to coat the meat and vegetables evenly
1 ¼ cup beef stock, plus more as needed, preferably homemade
A dash of Worcestershire sauce
1 box pre-cooked mashed potatoes or sweet potatoes, seasoned with garlic powder, salt, pepper, and chili powder
2 cups cheddar cheese, shredded
A handful of chives, finely sliced, to garnish
*If you’re using meat that has already been roasted and then minced, don’t cook it with the vegetables, but instead wait to add it in just before you make the gravy.
Grease an 8×8 casserole dish (or four ramekins) with butter and preheat the oven to 375F.
Heat the butter in a large cast-iron skillet over medium heat, then add the onion and cook until just beginning to soften and turn semi-translucent, about 5 minutes. Add garlic, ground beef, vegetables, and the tomato paste and stir together, breaking up the ground beef with a wooden spoon. Add the spices and seasonings and cook for 10 minutes, until the beef is mostly browned (a little pink is okay, since it’ll finish cooking in the oven) and the onions are softened.
While the meat and vegetable mixture is cooking, heat the mashed potatoes according to the package instructions and season with garlic powder, salt, pepper, and chili powder.
Add the flour to the meat and vegetable mixture and stir to coat. Cook for about 2 minutes to remove the raw flour taste.
Add a little bit of stock at a time, stirring to allow the flour to absorb the liquid before adding more stock. Allow to cook for 5-10 minutes, until the gravy thickens to the desired consistency. Add the Worcestershire. Taste and adjust seasonings as necessary.
Remove the bay leaves and transfer the meat and vegetable mixture into the casserole dish, or four ramekins (fill each ramekin to ¾-full). Spoon mashed potatoes onto the top and spread so that the potatoes touch the edges of the casserole dish, and sprinkle the cheese on top.
Place the ramekins or casserole dish on a baking sheet so that if anything bubbles over, the baking sheet catches it. Cook for 22-27 minutes, or until the edges of the potatoes are brown. Top with chives. Allow to sit for 10 minutes before serving.
For a low-carb version, make Roasted Garlic Mashed Cauliflower ahead of time and use instead of mashed potatoes.
To make Mini Cottage Pie pastries:
You’ll need two tins of Pillsbury crescent roll dough and a muffin tin for this variation.
While the beef and vegetable mixture is cooking, unroll the Pillsbury crescent roll dough (do only half a tin at a time, keeping the rest in the fridge, or it’ll get too soft to work with). Use your fingers to pinch along the perforations to join the dough into a single sheet, then cut into squares that are large enough to cover the molds in the muffin tin you’re using. Place each square in its spot in the muffin tin, using your fingers to mold it to fit and fill the mold to the brim.
Spoon the meat and vegetable mixture into the muffin tin, leaving just a bit of space at the top—don’t overfill. Spoon mashed potatoes onto the top and spread so that the potatoes touch the edges of the casserole dish, and sprinkle with cheese.
Place the muffin tin on a baking sheet so that if anything bubbles over, the baking sheet catches it. Cook for 22-27 minutes, or until the edges of the potatoes are brown. Top with chives and allow to sit for 10 minutes before serving.