To unlock the secrets of making the ultimate shepherd’s pie, we visited a Greenwich Village institution for all things English: Tea & Sympathy. We caught up with Nicky Perry, the owner and founder, to learn her family’s recipe for beef shepherd’s pie (which technically, in modern British English, is a cottage pie).
Once upon a time Irish and Northern English peasants developed the dish after potatoes were introduced to the UK in the 16th century. Back then the pie was a hearty dish meant to feed a starving working class, which meant that beggars couldn’t be choosers when it came to ingredients, and the choice of meat and vegetables to be added depended mostly on what was affordable and available. Through time the recipe grew in popularity and was further developed in kitchen chronicles and recipe books. The staples of a shepherd’s pie are that it consists of ground meat cooked in a gravy with onions, with the addition of carrots, peas, and sometimes celery, covered or encased in a mashed potato crust (recipes vary; it can be top and bottom, or just top).
Today food historians and others debate the real origins of the dish—but no matter what, it’s a global comfort food loved by many, and still an ingenious and inexpensive, pantry-friendly dish. Some sources say shepherd’s pie is made with lamb, and cottage pie with beef. But others claim that the variations of name are related to socioeconomic changes and developments in Northern England and Ireland. Cottage pie seems to be the name associated with peasants (cottage was the designated name for poor/working class housing) and it literally was meant to be a way to use leftovers from a Sunday roast and have something filling and lasting for the next days (not being able to go buy ingredients for other meals, and needing to economize as much as possible).
Sounds familiar at a time of global crisis when we’re all trying to make our food last, use all the ingredients in our pantry, and reduce our visits to the market. No matter what you call it, this is an excellent dish to feel cozy and comforted during any time of year, and to make something delicious and inexpensive that will last for a couple of days (unless you’re a mashed potato monster like me and can sit and binge watch “Peaky Blinders” and eat the whole thing).
This is an incredibly pantry-friendly and comforting recipe for tough times; we’ve given some replacement ingredients in the recipe below, but see more ingredient substitution ideas if you’re out of anything listed.
Nicky Perry’s Beef Shepherd’s Pie (or Cottage Pie)
- FOR THE FILLING:
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 1 teaspoon butter
- 2 pounds ground beef (or lamb)
- 2 cups crushed tomatoes (or tomato paste)
- 1 ¼ cups beef stock (or 3 tablespoons beef bouillon/stock paste and add about ½ cup of water to adjust liquid amount)
- 3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce (optional)
- 3 tablespoons herbs de Provence (or a mix of favorite herbs, or just dry oregano)
- 3-4 bay leaves
- 3-4 medium carrots, chopped (cooked)
- 1 cup frozen peas (cooked)
- FOR THE MASHED POTATOES:
- 4-5 large potatoes (russets or Yukon Gold work great)
- 3 tablespoons butter
- Salt to taste
- Grated sharp cheddar cheese (optional)
- Make the filling: Heat oil in a large skillet (or large frying pan) over medium heat. Add onions and cook until slightly translucent.
- Add ground meat and cook with onions, stirring constantly to make sure you’re cooking all the meat evenly.
- Once meat is all brown and you see its juices filling the pan, add the bay leaves. Add the herbs, spreading them all over the pan, and crushing them with your fingers to break out some of the aromatics.
- Turn heat down to low and add the tomato and beef stock. Stir everything until well combined.
- Season with salt and pepper and let simmer for 40-45 minutes, checking and stirring occasionally. Adjust liquid as needed, adding water in small increments (you don’t want this to dry out, but you also don’t want to make soup).
- While the meat cooks, make your mashed potatoes: Wash and peel potatoes. Place in a large saucepan filled with salted cold water and bring to a boil over medium high heat.
- Turn heat down to medium and let it get to a boil again (until potatoes are tender, about 20 minutes).
- Drain in a colander, return the potatoes to the saucepan and add the butter. Mash until smooth and creamy. Adjust salt to taste, then cover and put to the side until ready to use.
- While the potatoes are cooking, boil the chopped carrots in salted water for 6-7 minutes and cook your frozen peas according to their instructions.
- Assemble the shepherd’s pie: Preheat oven to 375. Remove bay leaves from the meat.
- Grease a medium size baking dish and add the meat in an even layer. Add your carrots, spreading them evenly on top. Add your peas, spreading them evenly over the whole dish. Add a layer of mashed potatoes (both Nicky and I agree that the ratio of potato to beef should be very much equal). Cover the whole dish with grated cheddar.
- Throw it in the oven and let cook for 30-40 minutes (until the filling is bubbling and the top is golden). Let it rest for a couple of minutes before serving.
Nicky Perry moved to NYC in the nineties after falling in love with the city. After learning the hard way that there were no real English restaurants in New York—and that (at least according to The B-52’s Kate Pierson), you could not find a decent cup of tea anywhere in the city at the time—she decided she wanted to open a place with everything she loved and missed from home. She set out to create a haven for expats and Anglophiles alike. Three decades later, Nicky runs a three-store operation which includes the restaurant, a fish and chips counter, and a shop where people can buy hard-to-find British staples and exports.
Tea & Sympathy is a go-to for touring and visiting English artists and celebrities. Its dining room has hosted events such as David Bowie’s 50th birthday, and it has seen the likes of Dame Judi Dench and Rupert Everett.