Posted On: 12/01/2013
If our attitudes about food are formed in childhood, then there was no greater influence on my pediatric palate than the lunch lady at W.J. Zahnow Elementary School. Neither my mother nor my grandmother were inspired cooks. But the lunch lady, with her flair for geometric-shaped entrees (Rectangle pizza! Triangle fish!), was my hero. So when her shepherd’s pie – an oval-shaped amalgam of watery ground beef, gray canned peas and gritty instant potatoes – failed to please, I swore off shepherd’s pie for life. If the lunch lady couldn’t make it, clearly no one could.
Fast forward a few decades, and I fall in love with Carnivore Bob, who likes shepherd’s pie so much he’ll order it even if there’s something “artisanal” or “heirloom” on the menu. But he looks good in a tux and is kind to small children, so I marry him anyway. Another decade later, we (I) decide to fit more plant-based meals into our (his) diet. Hoping a veggie version of his favorite comfort food would appeal to us both, I dive in.
When vegetizing, I try to use ingredients that resemble those original to the dish. If you squint hard enough, lentils are roughly the size and shape of ground beef. Trader Joe’s prepared lentils are my absolute favorite. Apparently they’re everyone else’s favorite too, because they were sold out in not one, but two, stores. A fellow shopper heard my sobs and assured me that it’s not hard to make lentils from scratch. She was right. Unlike dried beans, which often require soaking overnight, dried lentils just simmer in broth for 30 minutes. Bonus: Since I cooked the lentils myself, I could substitute dark beer for some of the broth. This lent my lentils meaty umami.
Mashed potatoes top traditional shepherd’s pie, but I experimented with sweet potatoes instead. Sweet potatoes are packed with beta carotene and vitamin C, and they probably make you a better person just by being in your kitchen. More important, they are super-tasty on their own, without loads of butter and cream. Instead of boiling them, I roasted them in the oven, which deepened the flavor and made the house smell amazing.
The last challenge was to figure out the spices. My friend Jocelyn makes a fantastic vegan Moroccan stew with sweet potatoes, cumin and cinnamon. I copied her spices, but I used too much cinnamon, and the whole thing tasted like a dessert. I cut back on the cinnamon and added some cayenne for heat. Done. Behold: A delicious, flavorful meal made from simple, healthy ingredients.
The great thing about this recipe is that you can experiment with your own flavors and ingredients. Try black beans instead of lentils or leeks instead of onions. Add sauteed mushrooms and kale, or keep it simple and use white potatoes. If cumin and cinnamon aren’t your favorites, try thyme and paprika. And instead of using one baking dish, divide everything into small, single-serving ramekins. They’re fun, and vastly improve the chances of your kiddos eating it. Little circle pies – my lunch lady would be proud.
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