How to make an old-school Shepherd's Pie: The perfect St. Patrick's Day meal

By traditional, I really do mean it as I'll be using a recipe from a 1952 book and even mincing the lamb myself.

26w ago

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St. Patrick's Day – it's a day I both dreaded and loved as a child. The part I never liked was my father pulling out his book of Irish jokes after dinner, in which a 'Paddy' is the butt of every single one of them. Given my name, you can probably figure out why that had a young me confused as to why everyone was laughing at what a clumsy fool 'I' was.

The bit I did, however, look forward to then and still do every year when St. Patrick's Day comes around is said dinner that prefaced the many, many horrific jokes I'd have to endure afterwards, as it always presented the opportunity to enjoy some traditional Irish food.

What I always looked forward to most though was shepherd's pie – the first dish I think of when my name day comes to mind, and that's why this year I decided I wanted to make one that was about as traditional as I could to try and imagine as best I could how this would have tasted back when the dish first originated a couple of centuries ago as an inexpensive way for housewives to repurpose leftovers into a nourishing meal.

And given that this year, celebrating St. Patrick's Day out at your local Irish pub may not be the best idea due to the coronavirus outbreak, I figured I might as well share with you all how to celebrate it at home yourself by whipping up this classic shepherd's pie along with me.

How it's done

The recipe I'll be following is from 'The Penguin Cookery Book' by Bee Nilson which was first published in 1952, although the third-edition copy I'm working off is from 1972. When I say recipe, though, the convoluted way in which this book is written actually separates it into three different recipes within it, although for one of those recipes – the sauce the lamb is mixed with – you are presented with three further options.

Wanting to do things as traditionally as possible, however, I went with brown sauce as it was the simplest and cheapest, so very on-brand with the recipe's intent then.

To start with, the day before making it I cooked a lamb roast as leftover meat would be required, and although when this recipe originated it was intended to be cheap, I'd argue that the AU$40 this 1.6kg boneless lamb roast cost is a sign of how times have changed. Remember when lamb shanks were mere dog food? Well, I don't because I wasn't alive then, but you get the point I'm making.

After slow-roasting the big bit of lamb in the oven for 2.5 hours with some homegrown rosemary, bay leaves, and an Adelaide Hills sauvignon blanc, half of it was stored in the fridge overnight ready to be run through the mincer.

Yes, that's right, we're really doing things old-school for this one as you'll need a meat mincer – something I didn't have until I decided to undertake this experiment, but I'm glad I do now have it as the mince it produced was perfect and gristle-free, and while it's a bit of a pain to set up, I certainly plan on using it for creating my own mince for dishes in the future. It even has a sausage-making attachment, too, so there's certainly a lot more mileage for it yet.

While mincing half the lamb (around 750g), I had six large peeled potatoes boiling on the stove, with a healthy amount of Celtic sea salt in the water, which, after 20 minutes, I drained and set aside to be mashed later.

With the oven preheating to 230°C, the next step was to make the brown sauce, which is something that took far longer than I expected it would. To begin with, you'll want to fry some sliced carrots and onions in a pan (you'll be straining these out later, so they don't need to be too perfect) with some fat or, as I opted to use, ghee.

Once the onions are transparent and just starting to brown, you'll then want to add in some flour to thicken the mixture, along with half a bay leaf and a sprig of homegrown parsley, before slowly stirring in some vegetable stock. The recipe also suggests adding some "gravy browning if necessary," which I took to simply mean gravy mix, which I did prepare and add just a touch of to give it a slightly more brown colour as it was looking a bit beige.

With everything thoroughly combined and the mixture properly thickened, which felt like it would take until next St. Patricks Day to do, it's a case of then straining it into a bowl and mixing it together with the lamb you've minced, also adding a few drops of Worcestershire sauce (because it just makes everything taste better) and seasoning with salt and pepper.

Once you're happy with the taste of the meat and sauce mixture after seasoning, evenly spread it at the bottom of a baking dish, before mashing the potatoes and topping it with them, keeping in mind that the potatoes should not have butter or anything else added to them when mashing. The ratio of meat-to-potatoes should be around 50:50 based off this recipe's listed ingredient proportions.

To finish it, after smoothing the top of the mashed potatoes out, use a fork to 'roughen' the top, which, after putting into the hot 230°C oven for 20 minutes will just start to brown, giving you that classic shepherd's pie look.

Then, after taking plenty of photos for posting on FoodTribe here in the Home Cooking tribe – an optional step, but one I highly recommend – it's a simple case of dividing the contents of your dish into four, as this recipe is designed for four servings, and plating it up. Given how hot you'll have had the oven, there'll be some browning on the bottom of the meat that should help keep it together. Et voilà... in Irish.

So, how does it taste?

As mentioned, I was hoping to achieve an authentically dated taste from this dish, and in that regard, I wasn't disappointed.

While in some ways it can run the risk of tasting very plain – hence why heavily salting the water your potatoes are boiled in and getting all of the flavour out of your carrots and onions and into the sauce is so important – the basic taste of the potatoes and brown sauce do truly showcase the delicious flavour of the lamb in the dish, so opting for a quality cut and putting some good flavour into your initial roast is essential.

If the 50:50 balance of meat-to-potatoes makes it seem like there's a lot in the way of the carbs, do keep in mind that this is meant to be cheap sustenance – or at least it was before lamb cost as much as it does these days – hence why it's such a high proportion of potatoes. If they are too much, however, adding some very untraditional tomato sauce or ketchup (controversy incoming: Heinz Organic Ketchup is my go-to, and it stays in the fridge!) into the mix to balance it out is something you can do, which I myself may or may not have done to add a bit of needed tang to the potatoes.

That's why for the modern palate, the two other sauces suggested for mixing the meat into in the Penguin Cookery Book may be the better bet, as one is a tomato-based sauce, while the other is a curry sauce which, as someone who eats more food that's spicy than food that's not, I'll surely have to make it again with that one next time.

The aim here, though, was to get that authentic taste – and, of course, for the slow-cooked lamb to shine brightly as the star of the dish – and that I reckon I absolutely achieved by following this recipe.

And there you have it!

Happy St. Patrick's Day all! Let me know what dish you'll be celebrating it with in the comments, and let me know if you'd like to see more retro recipes like this from the old cookbook vault as well!

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Comments (7)

  • I wouldn't mind seeing you do some more retro recipes. I thought it was rather interesting. Looks very tasty!

      6 months ago
    • Thanks Jane! I’ve got plenty of other old cookbooks on the shelf I’ve been looking through so expect to see more soon!

        6 months ago
    • Nice! I have pondered doing the same thing..I several older cookbooks including the galloping gourmet.

        6 months ago
  • This is great Patrick! Would love to see you cook more old recipes!!

      6 months ago
    • Thanks Rachael! I've been going through many an old cookbook recently and have a decent shortlist of other recipes so far, so you can definitely expect to see more of it!

        6 months ago
  • A very good Idea.

      6 months ago
  • Someone should make a 1950s cooking tv show, complete with references to the reasonable cost of living.

    I reckon James May would be in for a penny, as I think he is a fan of the 1950s.

      6 months ago
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