During our sight-seeing trip last fall to New England, we stopped at a small café on the premises of a sustainable farm along the coast of Maine. Shepherd’s Pie was on the menu. Wow, I haven’t eaten this dish in many years. The restaurant included several “twists” on traditional Shepherd’s Pie recipes. In one variation, the filling included a local brand of porter beer. That pie tasted great! A second variation was a vegetarian one made with lentils. We ordered a second serving of this one! I associate Shepherd’s Pie with Irish cuisine and I believe that is entrée continues to be a popular dish in Irish pubs. With St. Patrick’s Day approaching, I decided to try my recollection and make the vegetarian “Lentil Shepherd’s Pie” version. Lentils are packed with nutritional value — an added plus to this tasty entrée.
About Shepherd’s Pie Origins
Shepherd’s Pie originated in Great Britain — perhaps England or Scotland or Ireland — their cultures are intermingled and no one really knows where the dish first appeared. The pie is a hearty dish, made with meat — either minced lamb or beef — along with onions, carrots, gravy and topped with mashed potatoes. Mashed potatoes are often used for a bottom crust, too. The beginnings of Shepherd’s Pie is obscure, but it seems that the pie was a way to be thrifty and use leftovers from Sunday’s roast. In the 18th century this pie was also termed a “cottage pie” referring to the peasants living in cottages who made the pies. Originally, beef was used in “cottage pies” and lamb was used in “shepherd’s pies.” Now the terms seem to have merged to “shepherd’s pies.”
Lentil Shepherd’s Pie Recipe
This Lentil Shepherd’s Pie recipe is certainly an Americanized version of Irish Shepherd’s Pies. My husband and I both agree that this vegetarian version, substituting lentils for the lamb or ground beef, is just as tasty. The recipe follows the Maine restaurant’s version for the filling. It includes used a thick layer of Cheddar cheese on top of the dish unlike Irish or English Shepherd’s pies. The cheese adds flavor and makes this pie rather unique. I included red wine vinegar as an ingredient in the lentil filling rather than porter beer found in the Maine recipe. Lentils have a nice “zip” but they can certainly use complementary flavor enhancements which the red wine vinegar and dry thyme provided. The porter beer seemed just too strong for my recipe. Rather than adding the beer to the pie filling, we’ll drink it along with our dinner.
Making the Recipe
This recipe is actually a much easier to make than you might imagine. Interestingly, it begins like many other Cajun dishes. Chop and dice the onions, carrots and garlic. Sauté these ingredients in a small amount of oil. Then add the seasonings (salt, pepper and thyme), the red wine vinegar and water. Instead of adding dried red beans, we’re adding dried lentils which will simmer on the stove until the beans begin to soften. The big difference in cooking Cajun red beans and lentils is that lentils cook so, so quickly — only 15 minutes on the stove for this recipe — rather than much of the day for red beans.
And this recipe has a “trick” or at least I have some advice — Don’t overcook the lentils and don’t over stir the pot. Although lentils are a dried bean (legume), they don’t take long to cook. Lentils do swell up (like other dried beans) — for 1 cup of lentils you add 4 cups of water. Unlike red beans and white beans, it is not necessary to soak lentils prior to cooking. Just check to make sure that the lentil package does not contain small stones and inedible objects. With lentils, if you forget to watch the stove and cook the lentils too long, they will become mushy, dry and lose their flavor. I had this experience and it ruined the dish. So pay attention, and set your cell phone alarm for 15 minutes. The lentils will cook additional time in the oven; both the carrots and lentils turned out “a dente”; just perfect.
After the lentils are cooked, pour the mixture, including liquid in the bottom of the pot, into a 9″-diameter deep dish pie pan or casserole dish. The lentils many not seem like they are completely cooked — don’t worry.
Add the mashed potato topping. For this step, I used instant mashed potatoes. This saves time and the dry instant form of mashed potatoes tastes just fine in this dish. Prepare this ingredient by boiling water and stirring in the dry mashed potatoes. Spread the potatoes over the top and bake until the shepherd’s pie is heated through. Then add shredded cheese on top and bake a few minutes longer.
And the “Lentil Shepherd’s Pie” is finished. This is a very tasty vegetarian entrée. This pie is enough for six average persons. We will eat this entrée for dinner with our Porter beer. I hope you will give it a try — if you follow a vegetarian diet or are thinking about trying some vegetarian meals — this is a good starting place.
Individual Pot Pies
Rather than making one large pot pie, it is easy to divide the lentil filling among six individual 5″-diameter aluminum pie tins. In this case, increase the dry lentils to 1-1/4 cup and the water to 5 cups. The other ingredients remain the same quantitates. These pies each make a generous serving. Eat some of the individual pot pies for supper and freeze the remainder for later meals.
Nutritional Value of Lentils
“Lentil Shepherd’s Pie” is a very healthy entrée — low in fat and sodium, high in protein, fiber and nutrients. Lentils are packed with nutritional value and one health-related internet site, “Eat This, Not That“, names lentils one of the “7 most healthiest foods.” Lentils are rich in many nutrients including B vitamins, folic acid and Vitamin B6, magnesium, zinc, potassium and iron. Lentils are a legume which means that this bean is a “complete protein” containing all the amino acids that a person needs for growth and functioning. Plus, lentils contain polyphenols, including procyanidin and flavanols, which have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and neuroprotective effects. This entrée is an easy way to include a vegetarian component to your diet and cut down on red meat. And the lentil pie tastes great!
On this St. Patrick’s Day, I plan to eat my Americanized “Lentil Shepherd’s Pie” which originated by the way of a Maine restaurant. I will play my Irish whistle and perhaps wander to downtown Baton Rouge to enjoy the traditional St. Patrick’s Day parade. There will be plenty of floats with reveler’s drinking green beer and throwing green beads. (Perhaps a mimic of Mardi Gras.) Plus, traditional Irish pipers and drummers will participate, too. Anyone with Irish heritage will find a place in the parade. On this day, Baton Rouge becomes “all things Irish.” Let’s appreciate all our varied heritages and I will try to locate that green T-shirt.
Tasty Lentil Shephard's Pie
- 2 Tbsp oil
- 1/2 medium onion, chopped (about 1 cup chopped onion)
- 4 medium carrots, peeled and small diced (1-1/2 cups diced)
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 cup dry lentils
- 1 tsp salt (optional)
- 1 tsp dry thyme leaves
- 1/4 tsp black pepper
- 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
- 4 cups water for lentils plus 2-1/2 cups water for mashed potatoes
- 1 (4 oz) package instant dry mashed potatoes
- 8 oz shredded cheddar cheese
Instructions and Steps:
- Sort the lentils, removing any small stones or non-food particles. Set aside.
- Heat oil over medium-low heat in large-sized heavy sauce pan. Add chopped onions, diced carrots and minced garlic. Stir and cook over medium-low heat until onions are translucent, about 5 minutes.
- Add dry lentils, salt (optional), thyme and black pepper and stir to combine.
- Stir in red wine vinegar. Next add 4 cups water. Bring to boil, stirring occasionally. Then turn heat to low, just simmering. Simmer for 15 minutes. Stir occasionally. Do not overcook and do not stir too much. Lentils should be watery and just beginning to soften.
- Meanwhile, make mashed potatoes. In another large pot, bring 2-1/2 cups water to boil. Remove from stove. With wire whip, stir dry mashed potatoes into water until well combined. Let set on counter while lentils finish simmering.
- Heat oven to 350 degrees.
- When lentil mixture finishes cooking, pour mixture, including any liquid, into 9′-diameter deep dish pie pan or ceramic dish.
- Carefully add spoonsful of mashed potatoes on top of the lentils and use a knife to spread potatoes to the edges of pie pan.
- Bake in oven for 20 minutes until lentils and potatoes are steamy and hot.
- Remove from oven. Sprinkle shredded cheddar cheese over top of mashed potatoes. Return to oven and bake for about 3 additional minutes until cheese melts.
- Remove from oven and serve.
NOTE: Individual shepherd’s pies can be made by dividing lentils into six 5″- diameter aluminum pie pans. In this case, increase dry lentils to 1-1/4 cup and water to 5 cups. The remaining ingredients quantities and cooking instructions remain the same. Place about 1 cup cooked lentil mixture into each pie pan, dividing evenly. Place about 1/3 cup mashed potatoes on top of lentils in each pie pan. Place individual pie pans on large baking sheet and follow same bake times. Add cheese at the end of baking time.