Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Shepherd’s Pie, Sheffield style, circa 1960s

This is the way my mother and grandmother prepared this dish. It was always made with “Oxo,” a British brand of bouillon cubes, and served with “Henderson’s Relish,” a local Sheffield specialty. My grandfather would often grow the potatoes and onions in his “allotment” or community garden. I expect the recipe was modified from a farmhouse recipe, and passed on from earlier generations, but modified by wartime rationing like most of their recipes were. This is probably where the bouillon comes from: obviously not a traditional ingredient, but very popular during the war as a flavoring that made meat “go” further, and that was not rationed. Their recipe was never written down, and I never saw either woman consult a cookbook, not for this recipe. The optional carrots and peas are my addition.

Peel, chop and boil three or four pounds of potatoes. My mother and grandmother always used “old” winter-stored potatoes for this recipe, so they were always peeled. You could scrub some brands of Maine potatoes, instead of peeling. More nutritious.

While the potatoes are boiling, chop finely and brown two or three small onions in oil. (My mother and grandmother would have used lard.) If you wish to add some vegetables, such as peas or diced carrots, now is the time. The original recipe used neither.

Take two pounds of ground beef or lamb (They always used beef.) Brown among the onions. Crumble in one or two bouillon cubes, depending on how strong and salty they are. Vegetable bouillon should be just fine. Salt and pepper to taste. Add water or stock if you have it, until the other ingredients are just covered. Cover with a lid and simmer lightly for twenty minutes.

Meanwhile, mash the potatoes.

Make a flour “roue,” or thickener, by heating some more oil or lard and mixing in some flour while continuing to heat, and add just a little of this to the simmering meat so the gravy is not watery, but don’t make it so thick it burns easily when you cook it later in the oven. My mother used “Bisto” brand gravy thickener for this part of the operation. My grandmother, an illegitimate child who was raised “in service” in a big house from age 13, knew how to make a roue.

Put the meat in a “Pyrex” or other glass baking dish. Put the potatoes on top. If your mix is just thick enough, the potatoes should not be drowned by the meat gravy. Use a fork to pat down the top, leaving lines on the surface of the potatoes. Later these lines will become nice and crispy. Do not cover.

Pop into an oven at 350 degrees until the surface is golden brown and beginning to get crispy, about twenty minutes.

Serve with Worcestershire Sauce. This is the closest you can get to “Hendy’s Relish” in the US. If you serve with another vegetable, you have “meat and two veg,” the traditional British working class square meal.


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