Vegetarian “Shepherd’s” Pie
It’s an oxymoron.
How can a dish be both “shepherd’s” and vegetarian? Doesn’t “shepherds” imply that some herd has or is being shepherded? Perhaps. No animals were harmed in the making of this dish. Maybe what I’m doing is shepherding lentils. Is that a thing?
It is now.
A while back, Ellen and I decided to become vegetarian (vegetarians?). Why? The idea that we would become vegetarians (not vegan–not yet, at least…) was born with our becoming acquainted with a local organization called the Lancaster Farm Sanctuary. These are great folks. They do the incomparable goodness of rescuing farm animals (of which there are many, many here in Lancaster County–more than there are people, actually) that are abused, misused, ignored, forgotten…you get the idea. The owners/angels of the farm sanctuary, one of many across the nation, but the one closest to us, are brilliant at social media, and their frequent posts of the wonderful things they do just captured our hearts. The animals they husband seem to have personalities, likes and dislikes, friends among the herds–including friends of other species at the sanctuary. We were particularly taken by a friendship struck up between a dairy cow with a cleft palate and a chicken that followed him everywhere about the farm like a remora. They just seemed to get along perfectly.
These animals are sentient beings; they have souls. You simply can’t look into the eyes of these animals and not get the feeling that they are looking back at you and trying to communicate their gratitude.
And then there was the lamb.
We were driving someplace together (Ellen and I). We were stopped at a traffic light, and a large animal carrier cruised by us filled with animals, and likely on their way to a slaughterhouse. As we watched the truck pass by, one solitary lamb had extended its head out of one of the vent openings in the side of the trailer, and it seemed like it was smiling, enjoying the wind of a beautiful fall afternoon in its face. Unaware, most likely, of its destination.
Seeing that lamb enjoying its last moments alive crystallized something in both of us, and we haven’t eaten meat since. We haven’t yet forsaken seafood, but I can imagine us doing that sometime in the future. Having recently read David Foster Wallace’s essay, “Consider the Lobster,” I’m not sure that won’t happen sooner rather than later.
[END OF RANT]
And so, in search of alternatives, we have turned to other sources of protein, and recipes that are suitable substitutes for the dishes I have long prepared and enjoyed. Which brings me to Vegetarian Shepherd’s Pie. It’s a mashup of lentils and mushrooms and aromatics and potatoes and herbs and spices that caught me entirely by surprise.
It’s one of the best dishes I’ve ever tasted. It has the bite and texture of a ground-meat casserole, and flavors that just burst on my palate.
So I decided to share it. It comes from the New York Times food section, originally written about by Samantha Seneviratne, and I’m telling you, it’s a winner. Somewhat labor intensive, but this recipe will satisfy eight hungry vegetarians (or even those who aren’t necessarily on board but are open to a new experience). Like I always do, I’ve changed up the recipe a bit, to suit my–our–palate, but it is, to my mind, better than the original.
Vegetarian Shepherd’s Pie
FOR THE TOPPING:
- 2 tablespoons kosher salt, plus more for seasoning
- 2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and quartered
- 6 tablespoons butter or Earth Balance butter substitute
- ½ cup half and half or almond milk
- ½ cup sour cream or plain yogurt
- ½ cup packed grated Parmesan-style cheese
- Freshly ground black pepper
FOR THE FILLING
- ¾ cup French lentils
- 4 sprigs fresh thyme
- 3 ½ cups vegetable broth
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for seasoning
- 4 tablespoons butter or Earth Balance butter substitute
- 12 ounces sliced mixed mushrooms, such as cremini, and shiitake (remove shiitake stems)
- 1 large leek, white part only, thinly sliced (about 1 1/2 cups)
- 2 medium carrots, peeled and diced (about 1 cup)
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 3 tablespoons AP flour
- 1 cup frozen peas, thawed
- 1 to 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
- In a large pot, bring a gallon of water and 2 tablespoons salt to a boil over high heat. Add potatoes to boiling water and boil for about 15 to 20 minutes, until soft; a knife should go in with almost no resistance.
- Meanwhile, prepare the filling: In a 10-inch oven-safe skillet with high sides or an enameled cast-iron braiser over medium-high heat, bring the lentils, thyme and 2 cups of the broth to a simmer with 1 teaspoon salt. Reduce the heat and continue to cook the lentils, partly covered, until they are tender and most of the liquid is absorbed, about 20 minutes. Transfer the lentils to a bowl.
- Finish the topping: In a small saucepan or a microwave oven, heat 6 tablespoons of the butter and milk together until butter melts. Drain potatoes well and return to pot. Using a masher or a ricer, mash hot potatoes until smooth. Mix in the hot butter mixture and sour cream just until blended. Stir in 1/2 of the Parmigiano. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover and set aside.
- Finish the filling: Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Melt the butter in the 10-inch skillet over medium-high heat. Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring often with a wooden spoon, until they are deep golden brown, about 8 to 10 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium and add leeks, carrots and garlic, and continue to cook until tender, another 10 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add the tomato paste and stir, cooking until it is well combined, another 2 to 3 minutes. Sprinkle flour over the mixture, stir and cook for 1 minute. Add remaining 1 1/2 cups broth, cooked lentils and peas, and cook until thickened. Remove thyme stems and stir in lemon juice to taste.
- Top the mixture with dollops of the mashed potatoes, then spread them out over the top. (Or transfer the lentil mixture to a 3-quart casserole dish and spread into an even layer, and top with potatoes.) Sprinkle with the remaining Parmigiano. Transfer to the oven and, if the mixture is at the top edges of your pan, set a foil-lined baking sheet underneath the pan to catch any drips. Bake the pie until the potatoes have begun to brown and the edges are bubbling, about 30 minutes, then 3-5 minutes under a low broiler, until the potatoes begin to brown. Let stand at room temperature for 15 minutes before serving.