Every day is a good day. And today was a very good day for Shepherds Pie.
When I think of Zen food, Shepherds Pie is not the first thing that comes to mind. But when the chill from the incessant wind and slapping rain gives way to hunger pangs for oven dishes, it starts to make sense. On such a cold, damp day, I admire the sheep grazing in our neighbouring fields, who appear more interested in the green grass beneath their feet than in the wet, grey skies above them.
Every day really can be a good day, even when it’s miserable. It’s just a matter of changing perspective, side-stepping our usual habits, finding the green in the greyness, something whole within the messiness, and appreciating our oh-so- very-ordinary life.
I haven’t made too many Shepherds Pies – or Cottage Pie – as it’s hard to find a good vegetarian alternative for mince-meat besides soy protein. However, it turns out that the basic ingredient in the MacRiver Burger is a brilliant substitute (it’s in the Zen River Cookbook, if you’re curious).
This Shepherds Pie is made with sweet and regular potatoes mashed together for the topping, and lightly cooked black urad lentils, soy sauce gravy, carrots and green peas tucked underneath. These lentils are amazing when toasted before cooking, as they keep a little bit of bite and offer a nice chewy texture. Almost like the real thing.
For the lentil & vegetables:
140 g (¾ cup) lentils, preferably black split urad
350 ml (1½ cups) water
½ teaspoon vegetable bouillon powder, or to taste
2 bay leaves
3 medium onions
4-5 medium carrots
150 g (1 cup) frozen green peas, thawed
For the soy sauce gravy:
2 cloves garlic
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon each of rosemary, sage and thyme
Dash of pepper
Pinch of clove
300 ml (1¼ cups) water
2-3 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon corn starch dissolved in 1 tablespoons cold water
Salt to taste
For the mashed potatoes:
750 g (4-5 medium) floury potatoes (Idaho or Russet)
750 g (4-5 medium) sweet potatoes
160 ml (⅔ cup) milk of your choice, unsweetened
2 tablespoons butter, or olive oil
Olive oil for frying
Bread crumbs for sprinkling
- To make the lentils: In a dry frying pan or skillet over a low-medium flame toast the lentils until they begin to blush. Put them in a rice cooker or small heavy-bottomed pot with double the amount of water, the bouillon powder, and bay leaves. Cover and simmer gently over a low flame until all the water has absorbed, about 20-25 minutes. Set aside when done.
- Prepare the vegetables while the lentils are cooking;
- Peel and dice the onions and peel and mince the garlic.
- Peel and slice the carrots into rings.
- Peel the regular and sweet potatoes and cut into equal-sized halves or quarters. Rinse well in freshwater, drain and cover with water.
- Preheat the oven to 200 °C (400 °F), and oil a 22 cm x 30 cm (10” x 15”) baking pan.
- To make the lentil filling: In a frying pan or skillet over a medium flame, heat up a little olive oil and stir fry the onions until caramelized. Add the garlic and continue to stir-fry until the garlic releases its fragrance. As soon as the garlic opens, stir in all the herbs and spices and stir-fry for 30-40 seconds. Next, add the water and carrots. Simmer for a few minutes, or until the carrots are tender.
- Dissolve the corn starch in a tablespoon of cold water and whisk into the simmering gravy. Keep stirring until it thickens, then add the cooked lentils and thawed green peas. Stir in the soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, and red wine vinegar. Season with salt, or more soy sauce, to taste. Turn off the flame and cover with a lid.
To make the mashed potatoes: Bring a large pot of boiling salted water to a rapid boil. Drop-in all the potatoes. Return to a boil and simmer until soft, about 10 minutes, depending on their size. A toothpick should slide through the centres easily and the corners of the potatoes will appear rounded off. When they are ready, scoop out with a slotted spoon and set aside. Reserve the cooking water for the mash if needed.
- Put the milk and the butter or olive oil into a large clean pot and heat over a medium flame. Add the potatoes, and heat together for about a minute. Turn off the flame and mash well with a potato masher, adding more milk, or reserved potato water, until they are both firm and fluffy.
- Pour the lentils, carrots and gravy into the bottom of the baking pan and top with an even layer of mashed potatoes. Using a fork, fluff the surface of the mash into little peaks.
- Sprinkle with breadcrumbs.
- Bake in the oven for 20-30 minutes, or until the peaks on the potatoes start to brown and crisp up.