Comfortable (a recipe for lentil shepherd’s pie)

Once I had recovered sufficiently from my flu last week to think of cooking, I wanted to try out something I’d read about, coincidentally, in both Apple Betty & Sloppy Joe and in that unexpected free issue of Cook’s Country Magazine: making mashed potatoes with an electric mixer.

When I was learning to cook, I remember my dad telling me that if you overwhipped mashed potatoes, as he sometimes did by mistake while using an immersion blender, they would become gummy and unpleasant. So I had always avoided electrical help, and used the world’s best potato masher to make my mashed potatoes. But the potato masher got lost in the move, and so I decided to try out the mixer-method in one of my favorite vehicles for mashed potatoes: vegetarian lentil shepherd’s pie.

This is my own recipe, and it changes a little every time I make it, but I thought this latest attempt was particularly good, because I decided to make caramelized onion “jam” for the filling.

Ingredients

Makes at least 6 servings

for the onion “jam”
4 large onions (yes, you read that right)
2 tsbp olive oil

for the lentil base

4 cups brown lentils
8 cups water
2 tsp adobo seasoning (I use the version from Penzey’s)
2 tsp granulated garlic or 2 cloves garlic
2 tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsp ketchup
2 vegetable bouillon cubes (I use Knorr)
2 tsp dried thyme

for the mashed potatoes

8 medium potatoes (Yukon Gold or other floury potatoes_
3/4 cup 2% milk
1/4 cup butter
salt and pepper to taste

Method

At least three hours before you want to eat, cut the peeled onions in half, then cut the halves into thin slices. Heat the olive oil in a large, heavy pot (I used an enameled cast-iron dutch oven) and put the onions in to cook. Cook the onions over low to medium heat for at least one hour, stirring occasionally. If you hear sizzling, the heat is too high. At first, the onions will give off a large amount of liquid, and look mushy. They will then start to caramelize. They are ready whenever they look yummy to you! They will cook down to at least half of their initial volume, so don’t despair if it looks like an enormous amount of onions at the beginning.

*Since this takes so long, I would actually double this part of the recipe and use 8 onions. You can freeze the onion “jam” and/or use it in other recipes, and it’s a good way to cook up a bunch of onions if you have some that are slightly “on the edge” of freshness. My husband used only about 1/4 cup of the “jam” as the base for a very good chickpea/spinach/quinoa salad for example.

To make the lentil base, put the lentils in another large pot (stockpot or similar), and add the water and all the seasonings. Bring this to a boil and then turn down to simmer. Check every ten minutes to see if the liquid is used up – what you want to end up with is soft cooked lentils with not very much liquid in them – about a porridgey consistency. This should take about an hour.

You can vary the seasonings in the lentils depending on what you have on hand. I sometimes use worcestershire sauce or Marmite to give a “meaty” flavor, or toss in whatever I have in the fridge that seems good: tomato paste, roasted red peppers, fresh herbs. I find the thyme, soy sauce, and bouillon cubes are really essential to give it sufficient flavor.

You can cook both the lentils and the onions in advance – the lentils actually taste better if you cook them and then leave them overnight.

On the day you plan to eat, boil the potatoes according to your preferred method and prepare to make the mashed potatoes using an electric mixer. Heat the milk in a small pan till it’s the temperature of hot coffee (not boiling – I would have done this in the microwave, but we don’t have one). It’s probably a good idea to preheat your oven to 375 F at this point too. I used my stand mixer to make the mashed potatoes, but you can use a hand-held mixer too. Put the boiled potatoes in the mixer bowl, and beat them with a normal paddle attachment (not the whisk) at low speed, then moving to medium speed (speeds 2-4 on a KitchenAid). Add the butter and keep mixing. Then add the hot milk, and salt and pepper to taste. I would estimate that I beat the potatoes for at least five minutes at speed 4, so there is no need to fear over mixing. The more I beat them, the better they became!

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They were the best mashed potatoes I have ever made: fluffy, smooth, but with a few chunks to vary the texture, and not at all gummy.

To assemble the shepherd’s pie, lightly oil the bottom and sides of a 9×12 pyrex or ceramic baking dish (or you can use cooking spray). Pour in a layer of lentils about 3 inches deep, then add the onions. Important: You will probably have either onions or lentils left over. Don’t overfill the dish, and leave enough space for a nice layer of potatoes. Use the leftover lentils to make another pie later, or as a base for soup.

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Then top the whole thing with the mashed potatoes. Take a fork, and drag the tines up and down the mashed potatoes, like you were making furrows in a field. Using a pastry brush, brush the potatoes with milk, which will help them to brown in the oven. Bake at 375 F for 30 minutes, or until the top of the potatoes are golden with a few brown bits.

Enjoy! and enjoy all the leftovers – the flavor improves over the course of a few days.

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