Those of you in the southern latitudes might be sick of wintry food and have probably already moved on to mircrogreens and asparagus, but up here it’s still freezing and miserable and there’s still need for comfort. I can think of few dishes more comforting when the weather’s horrid than shepherd’s pie, and this one has the additional benefit of being kind to the sheep.
Yes, once again, it’s a recipe based on lentils. Don’t knock them. Lentils are cheap, delicious, nutritious, and cook quickly. Here they make a perfect stand-in for the usual beef or lamb, since they have a similar texture and a deep and substantial savoriness that’s perfect against the fluffy starchiness of the potatoes.
If it’s more than nominally spring where you are, you can tuck this away for six or seven months. Otherwise, please give this one a try now, especially if you’re having a bunch of guests over, since it can be assembled well ahead and baked when they arrive in need of warmth and welcome.
Vegetarian Shepherd’s Pie
1 cup lentils
1 large bay leaf
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 cups each finely diced onion, celery and carrots
2 cups diced cremini or white button mushrooms
1/4 cup tomato sauce
1 large sprig fresh sage
1 large handful fresh parsley
1/2 bag frozen peas
Salt, pepper, and splashes of soy sauce to taste
5-6 medium Russet or Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and diced
3 tablespoons butter, plus additional for dotting the top
In a medium pot, boil the lentils with the bay leaf in just enough liquid to keep them covered until just tender, adding more boiling water if necessary. Be sure not to drain the lentils once they’re cooked.
Saute the onion, celery, carrots and mushrooms in the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat until the vegetables just begin to caramelize. Add the tomato sauce, the lentils with their liquid, and the fresh herbs, leaves torn roughly by hand. Simmer until the liquid has mostly evaporated, then season with salt, pepper, and soy. Stir in the frozen peas and turn off the heat.
Bring a large pot of water to the boil, and salt well. Boil the potatoes until tender, then drain and mash or put through a ricer. Stir in the butter.
Butter a 9 x 13 glass baking dish. Decant the lentil filling into the dish, then spread the mashed potatoes over the top evenly. Create ridges or swirls in the mashed potatoes and dot the top with tiny bits of butter to promote browning.
Place the pie on a baking sheet to catch any drips, and bake the pie at 375 F until the potatoes are browning nicely and the filling is just starting to bubble, 20-30 minutes.
Let sit for a couple of minutes, then serve.
You can cut the recipe back at will, by half or even thirds. This just happens to be the amount that fits in my baking dish, and I like the leftovers so much that I don’t mind eating this for several days, which is contrary to my usual low tolerance.
The lentil variety doesn’t matter as much as in some other recipes. You can use whatever you have and prefer. In fact, I often mix brown lentils with French green or black beluga, since the brown ones will break down more and stick the filling together, while the firmer lentils will provide extra texture.
This recipe is easy to make vegan, since the only dairy is the butter in the mashed potato topping, which could be replaced with olive oil.