January 6, 2011

"Farmer's Pie" with Lentils, Mushrooms, and Caramelized Onions

We have to start this post off with a confession: neither of us has actually ever eaten shepherd's pie, which is the inspiration for this dish. The original version is made with ground or chopped lamb or beef mixed with vegetables and topped with mashed potatoes. Apparently the original dish, which originated in England and Ireland, was called cottage pie, and if you want to know more about the etymology, history, and variations, Wikipedia will tell you probably more than you need to know. We have nothing against the original idea; in fact, it sounds good, but it wasn't what we were in the mood for. We wanted to create something different.

So, you will probably not be surprised to hear that over the holidays we ate a lot. We took quite a tour of the east coast, visiting our families in North Carolina, Washington, D.C., Connecticut, and New York (yes, there was a blizzard, but we were pretty lucky compared to many trying to travel and only got delayed three hours on a train ride from D.C. to New York). You will also probably not be surprised to hear that our families are into food. In fact, you might call this whole trip a food tour of the east coast, starting with my dad's delicious chicken dijonnaise in North Carolina, moving up to the fantastic rib roast my brother made for Christmas dinner and and outstanding meal at Marcel's in D.C., followed by Michael's moms feast of potstickers (she made them! By hand!), roast chicken, and cannoli cake for Shabbos/New Year's Eve dinner, and culminating in a final day of eating nothing but New York bagels. We were spoiled. We were full. And we are certainly not complaining, but we were feeling filled up on rich proteins and ready to eat some vegetables.

You may have noticed that we love mushrooms; it's one of the most common tags for recipes here. And we love lentils too. And who doesn't love mashed potatoes? We wanted to create a hearty, filling dish that wasn't too rich or heavy, and we are very happy with the results. Earthy mushrooms and lentils with thyme, a bit of savoriness from the parmesan cheese, and the sweetness of caramelized onions are all made even better by a creamy, crisp topping of browned mashed potatoes. We decided to call it farmer's pie because no sheep were involved, but we wouldn't object if you added some sausage! Or you could go the other way completely and make these vegan by skipping the butter and cheese.

Farmer's Pie (serves 2)

- 1 small shallot, chopped
- 1 small carrot, chopped
- 1 clove garlic, chopped
- 1 tsp chopped fresh rosemary
- 1/3 cup lentils
- 2/3 cup vegetable stock
- Olive oil (for cooking)
- 1 small onion, cut in half and sliced
- Dash of red wine vinegar
- About 1/4 cup white wine
- 1/3 pound wild mushrooms, chopped (we used hedgehog and oyster)
- 3 sprigs fresh thyme
- 2 medium potatoes (yukon gold or white)
- 2 tbsp butter
- 1/4 cup milk or more if needed
- 1/2 cup parmesan cheese
- Salt and pepper, to taste

Heat some oil over medium heat in a medium saucepan and when the oil is hot, add the shallot, carrot, garlic, and rosemary, and cook until they are softened (about 5 minutes). Add the lentils and stock and stir. Bring the mixture to a boil, then cover and turn down to a low simmer. Cook until the lentils are tender (About 40 minutes).

While the lentils are cooking, peel the potatoes and chop them into large pieces. Heat a pot of water to a boil and put the potatoes in, and cook until they are tender when pierced with a fork (about 20 minutes. You can move on to the next steps but keep an eye on the potatoes and remove them to a bowl when they are ready; they can sit if they're ready before you are).

As the potatoes and lentils cook, you can deal with the mushrooms and onions (we just did one after the other using the same skillet, since there's plenty of time while the slow cooking legumes are boiling). For the mushrooms, heat a little bit of oil over medium high heat, and then add the mushrooms and the sprigs of thyme. Season with some salt and pepper, and saute until the moisture has evaporated from the mushrooms and they begin to brown (about 10 minutes). Remove the mushrooms to a plate, discarding the sprigs of thyme.

Heat a little bit more oil over medium heat and add the onions. Season with salt and pepper, and stir occasionally. As they cook, they will get soft and liquid will evaporate; eventually the onions will start to turn a golden brown color. When the pan gets dry and the onions begin to stick, use a splash of the white wine to deglaze the pan, scraping off the caramelized flavorful bits. Keep cooking and deglazing until the onions have turned a golden brown. Add the vinegar on the final deglazing.

Meanwhile, your potatoes should be ready. Put them in a large bowl and add 1 tbsp of the butter, the milk, and some salt and pepper. Use a potato masher, a ricer, or a hand mixer to smash them to your desired smoothness, then stir in 1/4 cup of the parmesan.

Now you're ready to put it all together. Combine the lentils, onions, and mushrooms, and stir in the remaining 1 tbsp of butter and 1/4 cup parmesan. Pour the mixture into a baking dish (we used 2 five inch round dishes for individual portions) and spread the mashed potatoes evenly over the top. 

Turn the broiler on to high and put the dish under the broiler until the potatoes begin to turn crispy and brown (this took about 8 minutes for us, but our broiler isn't very good).

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