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Thursday, October 8, 2009

Lamb and Vegetable Casserole with Herb Polenta Crust

Shepherd’s Pie.

Like myself, most of you have probably heard of it, eaten it, or made it. But do any of us know how it began or what it was traditionally made of?

I certainly don’t. I grew up believing that Shepherd’s Pie was ground meat (usually beef) mixed with peas, carrots, and corn that was put in a casserole dish, topped with mashed potatoes, and baked in the oven.

While there does seem to be some agreement that Shepherd’s Pie is a meat casserole with mashed potatoes, that is really where the agreement ends. What kind of meat and the addition (or omission) of vegetables seems to be under debate. And of course, the million dollar question… it’s a pie so where is the pie crust?

Well, I can’t answer all of these questions, but I have learned that Shepherd’s Pie originated as a sort of “poor man’s pie.” It was made using leftover meat between two layers of mashed potato “crust,” since potatoes were the affordable starch of those times. And it’s still a very affordable, easy to make dish that has become a staple in many households.

But today, we are going to do something a little different. We are going to turn this “poor man’s pie” into a gourmet feast by tweaking just a few ingredients in this dish. Will it add extra work or extra expense? Not at all. The steps are the same and if anything, I might have made this dish tastier and healthier that the way it’s usually made. I have loaded this recipe with vegetables and topped it with herb polenta instead of the classic mashed potatoes. Give it a try!

Lamb and Vegetable Casserole with Herb Polenta Crust
(a.k.a "Gourmet Shepherd’s Pie" )

Serves 4 people (either as 1 casserole or 4 individual servings)

For the Meat Layer
1/2 cup Carrot, diced
1/2 cup Onion, diced
1/2 cup Zucchini, diced
4 Cloves Garlic, minced
250 grams Lamb Mince
2 tbsp Flour
1/2 can Corn Kernels
1 Large Tomato, diced
1/2 cup Water
1/2 cup Frozen Peas
2 tbsp Tomato Paste
Salt and Pepper to taste
Oil for cooking

In a pan over medium-high heat, heat about 2 tbsp oil. Sweat the carrots, onions, zucchini and garlic for about 5 minutes until just starting to soften. Remove the vegetables from the pan and set aside.

In the same pan, crumble in the lamb mince and sprinkle with the flour. Stir constantly for about 3 minutes until the lamb starts to brown. Add the vegetable mixture back into the pot with the lamb. Add the corn, tomato, tomato paste, peas, water and a good pinch of both salt and pepper. Stir well so that all the ingredients are mixed. Cover and simmer for about 10 minutes. While it is simmering, you can make the polenta.

For the Herb Polenta Layer
2 cup Milk
2 cup Water
1 tsp Salt
1 cup Corn Meal
1/2 cup Fresh Parsley, finely chopped
2 tbsp Butter

In a heavy bottomed pot, heat milk, water and salt until it just starts to bubble. Reduce the heat to low. Add the cornmeal, stirring constantly, for about 5-8 minutes (depending on the type of cornmeal—check the package for timing). Be very careful that the heat is low as the polenta will sputter. When the polenta is cooked, remove from heat and stir in the butter and parsley.

Making the “pie”
Whether you choose to make one family style casserole or four individual ones, the method is the same. Place a layer of the meat mixture at the bottom of the baking dish. Top with a layer of the herb polenta. Bake in a preheated oven at 190 degrees Celsius for 25 minutes, until it’s bubbling around the edges and the polenta is golden on top.