I have been a bibliophile and a voracious reader from an early age. The earliest books I laid my hands as a little girl was Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Malory Towers series and Wind in the Willows. It's unsurprising that I was easily drawn to English-Scottish cuisines, always imagining the pies, crumbles, scones, cobblers, puddings and mashes that I read about. These weren't a part of the food I grew up eating—naturally, as I was born and brought up in India. The closest my mother's baking got to non-Indian baked cuisine was in the form of nankhatai, similar to the Scottish shortbread.
My humble attempts with baking only burgeoned after I moved to Canada. The gas stoves here (like most of the gas stoves in western countries) are equipped with an oven, and doubtlessly nudged my inquisitiveness to bake something English that I had only read about, but never made or eaten. It had to be a shepherd's pie! I mean it's quintessential and hard to bungle. Right? Although Helen Fielding in Bridget Jone's Diary had hinted otherwise:
How can she mess up shepherd's pie? But dear Bridget can. Preparation for her birthday-party dinner starts to go wrong when she starts sipping on the Grand Marnier meant for the soufflés. She leaves the bag of ingredients for the salad shop, and steps in the pan of mashed potatoes in her new kitten heels. When her guests arrive, they tell her to go and get ready while they clean up the kitchen. Then they throw it all away, and go out for dinner.
Daunted by my dear Bridget's shepherd's pie, I pursued to bake a vegetarian version of this classic in my almost new Le Crueset casserole. I did some research and followed my gut. The result was oh-so-good! And after that first attempt, it got me making it every time I want a quick-assemble wholesome dish.
Is a vegetarian pie also called shepherd-less pie?
It's funny that it's called that way. Some also refer it as gardener's pie. In Chili and Peru, a similar dish is cooked called pastel de papa.
Which version of the shepherd's pie does this recipe resemble?
Shepherd's pie has travelled all over the United Kingdom, from Scotland to Ireland to England. My version follows the Irish mashed potato topping and not the Scottish pastry crust method. There's no beef in it, so it isn't a cottage pie. It doesn't have breadcrumb toppings, and thus not a Cumberland pie either.
Is a vegetarian shepherd's pie authentic?
No! A shepherd's pie traditionally has meat in it—lamb to be precise—in the gravy.
What vegetables can I use in this pie?
Shepherd's pie originated from the instinct to not waste food, and that appeals to me a lot. I prefer using whatever vegetables I have at my disposal. Personally, I like mushrooms, carrots, peas and lentils in the gravy, with crisped onions and sun-dried tomatoes. Leeks, celery and eggplants are other vegetables that go very well in this gravy too. So, don't hesitate from experimenting!
Can I make this vegan?
You definitely can! I have used Yukon gold potatoes for the crust that are mashed roughly in a bit of unsalted grass fed butter, Greek yogurt, black pepper and rock salt. To make this vegan, you can choose vegan options for the butter and yogurt. Cauliflower works great too for the crust, if you're not a potato fan or prefer them out of your diet. You could even use sweet potatoes — they're incredible!
For the vegetables: 2 tbsps olive oil, 1 bay leaf, 2 sprigs of rosemary and 1 sprig of thyme (alter the herbs as per your choice), a pinch of cumin, 2 tbsps garlic minced, 1 onion chopped, 2 cups mushrooms sliced, 2 cups carrots sliced, 2 cup green peas
For the gravy: 1 large tomato, 1/2 cup sun dried tomatoes, 1 medium onion, 1 tbsp vinegar, 1/2 tsp paprika, 2 cups boiled (or a can) of brown lentils (whole black masoor dal), salt to taste
For the crust: 5-6 potatoes (like Yukon Gold), 1 tbsp Greek yogurt, 1/2 tsp unsalted grass fed butter, 1/2 tsp black pepper, salt to taste
Boil the potatoes:
In a pressure cooker or instant pot, boil the potatoes. or Remove the skin of the potatoes, and in a pot of boiling salted water, add the potatoes.
Cook the vegetables:
In a pan or oven-safe skillet, heat oil over medium heat.
Add the herbs to flavour the oil. Let the herbs become slightly crisp and then remove and keep aside.
Add cumin and garlic, and toss for a few seconds. Add the onion and toss until it turns pink.
Add the mushrooms and carrots, and let them sizzle on medium heat.
Make the gravy:
In a blender, add all ingredients mentioned for the gravy except the lentils, add some water and make a fine paste.
Deglaze the pan or skillet with this gravy, and then add the lentils, stir and then add the peas.
Adjust seasoning if required, and let the gravy simmer on low to medium heat for about 10 to 15 minutes or until the gravy is thick in consistency.
Prepare the oven:
Preheat the oven to 375ºF.
Mash the potatoes:
Peel the boiled potatoes, if you have boiled them in a pressure cooker or instant pot or Take them out of water if boiling in a pot.
Mash them and add the ingredients mentioned for the crust.
Bake the pie:
If you're using an oven safe skillet, you can layer the mashed potatoes on top of the gravy. or If you're using a normal pan to make the gravy, now is the time you pour the gravy into a casserole. Then layer the mashed potatoes on top.
Bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until the gravy is bubbling and the crust is golden.
Serve it with simple seasonal greens or just as is! It's surely going to win you all over.