Food & Drink

When shepherd’s pie loses the lamb

Preparing a leek and mushroom cottage pie. Meaty mushrooms and sautéed leeks are tucked under a cover of mashed potatoes and bread crumbs in this pie without a pastry.
Preparing a leek and mushroom cottage pie. Meaty mushrooms and sautéed leeks are tucked under a cover of mashed potatoes and bread crumbs in this pie without a pastry. New York Times

For most Americans, the word “pie” brings up images of apples (or some other fruit) encased in pastry and baked, cut into wedges and served for dessert, sometimes with a scoop of ice cream or a bit of whipped cream.

But in Britain and throughout the Commonwealth, dessert pies are more often called tarts, and it’s meat pies that are legion. There are pork pies baked in pastry and served cold, and pies made with beef in gravy, served warm. There are individual hand pies, like Cornish pasties and diminutive football pies, sold at sporting events. Chicken pies and potpies and game pies, the list is long and varied.

Still another type of pie has no pastry at all, but rather is covered with mashed potatoes. Shepherd’s pie, for example, is traditionally made with minced lamb and vegetables and baked with a mashed potato topping. If made with beef, however, it is referred to as cottage pie. Filled with seafood, it becomes fish pie. Leek pie is another, though the leeks are likely to be combined with ham or chicken, or both.

So it should follow that an all-vegetable variation might be named gardener’s pie, or at least I like to think so.

All sorts of vegetables are candidates for such a pie. A mixture of peas, lima beans and artichokes (plucked from the freezer section of the supermarket) makes a lovely pie. Carrots, parsnips and turnips, perhaps combined with chard or spinach, are other options for a meat-free version, but the choices are limited only by a cook’s imagination.

I’m inclined to make a leek and mushroom filling, bound with an easily made white sauce perfumed with fresh thyme. Instead of thickening the sauce with flour (which requires making a roux), I use cornstarch, mainly because it’s simpler. It also makes the filling gluten-free. I add a touch of white miso for extra flavor.

This meatless pie emerges from the oven fragrant, bubbling and golden. It is guaranteed to please vegetarians and carnivores alike.

Leek and Mushroom Cottage Pie

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Total time: 1 1/2 hours

For the filling:

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 large onion, diced (about 1 1/2 cups)

Salt and pepper

4 medium leeks, tender green and white parts, split lengthwise and cut in 1-inch pieces (about 4 cups)

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 pound medium-brown or white mushrooms, quartered

1/2 pound shiitake mushrooms, caps only, sliced 1/4-inch thick

2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme

2 small garlic cloves, minced

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

2 tablespoons white miso (optional)

2 cups whole milk

2 tablespoons cornstarch, dissolved in 2 tablespoons cold water

For the topping:

3 pounds russet or yellow-fleshed potatoes, peeled and cut in 2-inch chunks

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/2 cup heavy cream

Salt and pepper

1 cup homemade coarse dry breadcrumbs

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Put butter in a large skillet or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add onions and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until softened and beginning to color, 5 to 7 minutes.

Add leeks, a little more salt and stir to combine. Cook mixture for about 5 minutes more, until leeks have lost their crunch, but are still green. Turn off heat.

Cook the mushrooms separately (work in batches if necessary): Put olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. When oil is wavy, add both kinds of mushrooms and sauté 2 to 3 minutes, until lightly browned. Season with salt and pepper. Turn off heat and stir in thyme, garlic and parsley, and toss to coat.

Add mushrooms to onion-leek mixture, and turn heat to medium-high. Add miso and milk, and bring to a simmer. Stir cornstarch and water, add to mixture and simmer for 2 minutes, stirring, until sauce thickens. Transfer mixture to a 9-by-13-inch baking dish, and leave at room temperature.

Meanwhile, boil potatoes in salted water until very soft, about 15 minutes. Drain potatoes and mash with 4 tablespoons butter, then stir in cream and beat until smooth. Season with salt and pepper.

Spread mashed potatoes evenly over surface of vegetable mixture. Sprinkle with breadcrumbs and dot with remaining 2 tablespoons butter. Bake for 45 minutes, until bubbling and nicely browned.