Luck of the Irish: From Cottage Meal to Grand Tradition

I love the month of March when daffodils bloom and pansies become prolific as temperatures warm, but it’s also unpredictable.

With little warning, cold brisk winds can turn the day almost wintry, and I’m grabbing a sweater to stay warm. It’s the same in my kitchen. A springlike menu one day is often followed by a hearty oven meal the next.

Shepherd’s pie is one such meal, and how appropriate, for St. Patrick’s Day is just around the corner.

These days, shepherd’s pie is considered an Irish delicacy, but it didn’t begin that way.

Potatoes, introduced to Ireland in 1589 by Sir Walter Raleigh, became an affordable staple for Irish peasants. When combined with leftover meat – usually mutton – onions, carrots, and gravy, the result was an inexpensive, hearty meal. Fast forward a few hundred years, and this frugal peasant meal has become one of Ireland’s grand culinary traditions – and rightfully so. It’s incredibly delicious.

Although shepherd’s pie traditionally uses ground lamb, I’ve substituted lamb loin steak and sliced it into small cubes. If you roast a leg of lamb, cube leftover meat for shepherd’s pie. You can also substitute ground beef, at which point it’s called a cottage pie, though Irish peasants could rarely afford beef. The signature finishing flourish for shepherd’s pie is a top crust of mashed potatoes that seals in the creamy lamb and vegetable filling while forming a golden crust as it bakes.

Once the menu is selected, it’s time to set the table for St. Patrick’s Day.

Whether one is Irish or not, it’s a festive holiday, so my table setting reflects a joyful feeling. Green placemats, white dinnerware, pale green glassware, and a scattering of shiny green shamrocks and beads in the center of the table set the tone for our celebration.

Shepherd’s Pie:


2 tablespoons olive oil

1 ¼ cups sweet onion, peeled and finely chopped

1 ¼ cups carrot, rinsed, peeled, and finely chopped

1 ¼ cups celery, rinsed and finely chopped

4 large cloves garlic, peeled and minced

1 pound lamb sirloin chop, sliced into ½-inch cubes

2 tablespoons flour

1 ¼ cups lamb stock or beef broth

2 teaspoon tomato puree

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1 large sprig of fresh rosemary, stemmed and chopped

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1 cup frozen peas, thawed


1 ¼ pounds Yukon gold potatoes, about 4 medium

¼ cup unsalted butter

1/3 cup heavy cream

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Milk for desired consistency


Rinse and peel potatoes, cut into 1-inch cubes, and transfer to a large saucepan. Add enough water to cover, ½ teaspoon salt, cover, and bring to a boil. Turn the heat to medium-low and cook 25 minutes, or until the potatoes are knife tender. Drain and set them back on the heat for 1 minute, uncovered, to steam off any remaining water. Transfer then to a large bowl and mash with a potato masher or electric beater. Add butter, cream, salt, and pepper. Continue to mash potatoes until they are smooth, adding milk as needed until they are fluffy. Cover and set them aside.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Preheat a large skillet over medium heat, add oil, and swirl to coat the bottom of the pan. Add onion, carrot, and celery, and saute for several minutes until they begin to soften. Stir in garlic, cook for 1 minute, and add cubed lamb. Cook 5 minutes or until the lamb is just cooked through. Sprinkle the mixture with flour and cook 1 minute more, stirring constantly. Add lamb stock, tomato puree, and Worcestershire, and stir well to mix. If the mixture is too thick, add additional stock one tablespoon at a time until the gravy is the desired consistency. Season with chopped rosemary, salt, and pepper, and stir in peas. Cook 1 minute more, then transfer the mixture to a large casserole dish.

Spoon large dollops of mashed potato over the casserole and smooth with a rubber spatula, sealing the edges well. Bake 30 to 35 minutes until the potato crust is golden brown and the filling is bubbly. Serve immediately.

Yield: 6 servings

Christy Rost

Public television chef Christy Rost is the author of three cookbooks and a longtime resident of the Park Cities and Preston Hollow. For additional recipes and entertaining tips, please visit or follow her on Facebook and Twitter @ChristyRost.

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