Christy Rost
celebrating home and family

From Cottage Meal to Grand Irish Tradition

Christy Rost |
2 min read

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 cozy. At Swan’s Nest, the warm promise of a springlike week can be replaced by a heavy snowstorm in the blink of an eye. This back-and -forth pattern is also reflected 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. By the late 1700’s, when potatoes were paired with leftover meat – usually mutton – onions, carrots, and gravy, the result was an affordable, hearty meal for poor Irish families. Fast forward a few hundred years, and this frugal peasant dish has become one of Ireland’s grand culinary traditions – and rightfully so. It’s incredibly delicious!

Although modern shepherd’s pie recipes traditionally feature ground lamb, I’ve substituted leg of lamb steak and sliced it into small cubes to better replicate the form of early cottage cooking. I prefer the texture of cubed lamb and I think it elevates the dish somewhat. One can also substitute ground beef, at which point it’s called a cottage pie, though Irish peasants could rarely afford beef. The signature final 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. For added convenience, prepare the lamb filling earlier in the day, spoon it into the serving dish, cover, and chill. Ninety minutes before mealtime, cook and mash the potatoes, spread them on top of the filling, and bake.

St. Patrick’s Day is a festive holiday whether one is Irish or not, so once my menu is selected, I turn my attention to creating a table setting that reflects the lighthearted spirit of the day. Green placemats, white dinnerware, pale green glassware, and a scattering of shiny green shamrocks and strings of beads in the center of the table set the tone for our celebration. Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

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 steak, trimmed and 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 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. 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 several minutes until they begin to soften. Stir in garlic, cook 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

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