Truffled Shepherd's Pie and A Study in Spontaneity

Let’s start with how the evening began, shall we? Neither Brian nor I wanted to make dinner. Brian had made pasta with frozen meatballs the past two nights, so technically I was the more obligated spouse, but that’s beside the point. Not that there is any point. Well, the point is, we didn’t feel like cooking, and like most people, we're on a budget and didn't want to order takeout. Can anybody relate?

So, we didn’t want to make dinner. And I felt guilty about it. I love to cook, and I usually do cook, so why didn't I feel like cooking tonight? We may never know...

Brian, being the sweet husband that he is, finally ended the collective hemming and hawing and announced that he would make dinner -- "a shepherd’s pie," he said. He grabbed frozen ground beef and a package of instant mashed potatoes.

Now…you may or may not know this about me, but I generally have an opinion about most things food-related (unless my mother-in-law is cooking -- she has the spiritual gift of making everything taste like's true!). I have come to realize that my opinions are better received by the hubster when they are positioned in the form of a casual suggestion, punctuated with an obvious question mark. Anywhoooo….I started asking what he thought about using some tomato paste and potentially beef bouillon. Oh, and we have frozen veggies? (yep, that was a question)

His response, you ask? A blank stare. 

Ladies….can we speak privately? It was at this moment, I knew he planned to make ONLY ground beef and instant mashed potatoes. I had to put a stop to it. And so….I hijacked the meal.

Today, unfortunately, I can’t share a recipe with you. But, I’ll share something that I personally find more valuable: a food philosophy and thought process. And, I’ll throw in a few of my key “always-have-these-no-matter-what” ingredients.

{Cue gentle, yet meaningful, background music that really pulls at your heartstrings.}

Shepherd’s pie….it’s a collection. It’s a scavenger hunt in your kitchen. Shepherd’s pie is best when it’s never the same as the last time you made it -- when it’s a snapshot in time of the life of your appetite.

So, while my ground beef defrosted in the microwave and my frozen veggies from like, 2007, steamed on the stove (hey - we're real in this house....not everything is farm fresh, ok?), I started collecting ingredients. 

{Big smile} This is my favorite part. The collecting. I want to point out that Brian and I desperately needed to go to the grocery store.  Part of the reason neither of us wanted to cook was because we had, as Brian says, "no food -- only ingredients." Luckily, I always keep a few key ingredients on hand that help turn meals into true experiences:    

  •  Dried shiitake mushrooms – Costco sells a tub of dried shiitakes that are a dream come true. They sell a larger tub of dried mixed “gourmet mushrooms” as well. I’ve purchased both and prefer the shiitakes.

  • Truffle oil – it’s pricey but it goes a long way (and it's certainly cheaper than real truffles)…and if anyone sees this at Costco again, you are hereby instructed to contact me by any means necessary. I repeat, any means necessary.

  • Tomato paste – while we’re on the topic of Costco, you might as well stock up on tomato paste there too. Food Network has been subtly evangelizing the tomato paste "toothpaste" style tube for years, and honestly, I prefer the can...but that's just because (1) I'm cheap, (2) I like to buy in bulk, and (3) the tubes always leak in my fridge. 'Nuff said. 

What do these items have in common? Umami and richness – key components of a good shepherd’s pie. When you're working with frozen meat and veggies from who knows when, ingredients like these three can give your meal the boost it needs. I'll walk you through my meal prep, but keep in mind I made it up as I went and didn't keep track of measurements. I used what I already had and that is the moral of this spontaneous story.

  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1-2 cups dehydrated shiitake mushrooms
  • 2 cloves minced garlic
  • a bunch of frozen veggies
  • 2-3 lbs (I think?) ground beef
  • flour
  • more butter
  • 57 sauce
  • whatsthishere (aka worcestershire) sauce
  • 1 big ol’ tablespoon tomato paste
  • ½ to 1 cup chicken stock (???)
  • the mushroom-y water you rehydrated your mushrooms in (straining out any debris)
  • Salt
  • onion soup mix
  • All purpose seasoning salt (or montreal steak seasoning….or just more salt)
  • Pepper
  • Instant mashed potatoes (which called for milk, more butter, water)
  • Truffle oil
  • Grated aged cheddar
  • A single, solitary beef bouillon cube (hey, why not?)

Pre-heat the oven to 400 F. 

I rehydrated my dried shiitakes in hot water for about 10-15 minutes. I strained the mushrooms (reserving the water....that's good mushroomy water!) and gave 'em a choppity chop. 

I melted 2 tablespoons of butter over medium heat in my beloved dutch oven, and added my mushrooms, which sauteed for about 5-7 minutes until they had browned slightly. 

I added the garlic and an additional tablespoon of butter to the pan. Once the butter was melted, I added the flour and tomato paste and stirred well to incorporate. Then, with whisk-in-hand, I added about a cup (maybe less) of chicken stock, whisking vigorously to remove any lumps. I added about 1/4 to 1/2 cup of the mushroom stock, a little at a time, just until the mixture was smooth.

I seasoned my ground beef with salt and pepper, and tossed it into the pot. At this point, I also added a splishy-splash of whatsthishere sauce and a beef bouillon cube.....and another dash of mushroom stock. I tossed in a package of onion soup mix, just before I added the kitchen sink (just kidding....about the sink).

I used a wooden spoon to break the beef into small pieces, and stirred periodically to ensure the beef cooked through evenly.

At some point, I added my veggies (which I had defrosted by way of steaming earlier). Once my beef had cooked through, I started the Quality Control process. I added more mushroom stock, a generous helping of this seasoning salt Brian stole in a white elephant gift exchange, more whatsthishere sauce, and healthy amount of 57 sauce. I QCed it and kept adding a little more of this or that until it tasted "right."And then I QCed a little more just for good measure. 

I turned the pot to a low simmer, and moved on to the instant mashed potatoes. I used slightly less butter than the package called for, and stirred in 2 tablespoons of truffle oil once the flakes had magically transformed into potatoes.

I smeared the potatoes on top of my meat mixture (in the dutch oven)...Brian cheered me along ("It's just like icing a can do it!"). We had a small nugget of aged cheddar in the fridge, so I put Brian to work grating the cheese, which went right on top of the potatoes.

We popped this in oven at 400 F for 10 minutes.

When the 10 minutes were up, we set our broiler to HIGH, and let it go for another 10 minutes.

And here she is, ladies and gentlemen.....

Now that's a happy hub!

And so, we ate...

....and we went back for seconds.

All in all, it turned out to be surprisingly delicious evening!

We ended the night with our dog, Aybee, puking on our couch. Awesome.

P.S. I'm linking up here:

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  1. Your MIL does make everything perfectly. It's good to have her in the family :) AND those are my VERY favorite way to make mashed taters. Good post! Nice & comfortable food from stuff in the pantry...those meals are the best!


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