My wife (Jess) doesn't eat red meat, but she does when I make shepherd's pie! Partly this is because potatoes are her spirit animal. Mostly it's because she is fully aware that my only source of validation is when people eat my food and tell me it's delicious.
The first time I made this dish was in 2009 when I was living in New Hampshire. At that time I was for the most part cold and sad and sneezing and all of that Northeast nonsense. Jess, who was my fiance at the time, was still in school in Upstate New York, and drove six hours every Friday after classes to stay with me for the weekend in New Hampshire. I had just recently started cooking, and we basically had no kitchen tools yet because we were pre-wedding registry and basically homeless, so I was pretty much restricted in my culinary abilities to sauteing meat and boiling potatoes, and that's exactly what this dish is! I added some curry to it to be extra fancy, and when Jess arrived at our tiny subterranean frozen apartment in the middle of some desolate New England forest one Friday night in October, I presented her with this very fancy pile of mush.
We were pretty skeptical that it would be good, so we tentatively raised our spoonfuls (we were eating it with spoons because we didn't know what we were doing) to our mouths, and took the plunge. And we didn't hate it (which was rare for us at the time)! Now, I have a proper kitchen and low- to medium-level cooking skills, and I have much improved my old misguided recipe. I see it as a kind of symbol of how much better things can get with time and experience. Jess probably doesn't remember anything about that damp and windy night in October 7 years ago, (to be fair I can't usually remember anything at all. Like, do Ross and Rachel end up together? Or..... ?), but this memory for some reason shone crystal clear in my mind as I made this dish this past Friday. Jess has been happily eating it all week, most likely oblivious to its connection to our past and future.
This is a super hearty dish. The mashed potatoes are full of butter, just like the beef, so basically it's really healthy. The butter is needed to cut the saltiness of the gravy, which is earthy and fragrant and ridiculous. The peas give the dish a welcome sweetness and brightness, and the curry powder just enhances everything.
Butter Count: 8 Tbsp
2 large Russet potatoes, peeled and cubed
8 Tbsp butter, divided
3/4 cup brown onion, finely chopped
1 Tbsp garlic, minced
1 Tbsp curry powder
2 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
2 lb ground beef
1 cup canned crushed tomatoes
1/2 cup beef broth
1 tsp sugar
2 cups frozen peas, defrosted
1/2 cup milk
1. Add the cubed potatoes to a pot, cover with water, add a generous heap of salt, bring to a boil, and cook about 15 minutes until the potatoes are fork-tender.
2. Meanwhile, melt 2 Tbsp butter in a large pot, add the onions and garlic and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until they are fragrant and translucent. Add the curry powder, cumin, and coriander and cook for about 1 minute, stirring constantly.
3. Add the beef to the onions mixture. Break the beef up with a wooden spoon so that it is crumbly, cooking about 3 minutes until it is lightly browned. Add the tomatoes, broth, sugar, and salt and pepper to taste. Cook 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the peas after about 27 minutes. Add the mixture evenly to two heavy casserole dishes and set aside.
4. Meanwhile, drain the potatoes and mash them up with the milk, 4 Tbsp butter, and salt and pepper to taste. Spread the mashed potatoes evenly over the meat mixtures.
5. Preheat the broiler. Cut up 2 Tbsp butter and evenly dot the mashed potatoes with it, 1 Tbsp per casserole. Heat the dishes under the broiler for about 6-7 minutes, or until the potatoes are golden brown. Serve immediately.