Shepherd’s pie is one of my favourite comfort foods. It’s a meat-based pie with a mashed potato topping instead of a crust. The version presented here is my take on a classic French Canadian version of shepherd’s pie, called “pâté chinois” – literally “Chinese pie.” In Quebec, where I lived for a good part of my life, this type of shepherd’s pie has recently been named a sort of unofficial national dish.
Unlike shepherd’s pie made in the UK or in other parts of Canada, pâté chinois is made with three basic ingredients: ground beef, creamed corn, and mashed potatoes. An article about shepherd’s pie in Le Devoir suggests that these three elements each represent one of the founding peoples of Canada, which is a cool idea on the face of it.
The Three Founding Peoples in Shepherd’s Pie?
In this view of shepherd’s pie, corn represents our country’s First Nations. Corn is a New World crop that our First Nations gave to our European ancestors. The Haudenosaunee peoples (the nations of the Iroquois Confederacy) have been growing corn on their traditional territory for 1,400 years. So for the corn in shepherd’s pie to represent the Aboriginal peoples of Canada makes sense.
The place where I began to struggle was using the ground beef to represent the English settlers of Canada. The idea is supposed to be that because Anglophones in Quebec have traditionally been more affluent, they are the meat in shepherd’s pie. And by the same token, the French-speaking Québécois are supposed to be the potatoes because they “don’t have much to offer.”
Ummmm, OK… If you’re just looking at 20th century Quebec, I guess the metaphor makes some sense. But even there, the authors of the metaphor seem to have forgotten that a great number of Anglophones in Quebec are people of Scottish or Irish descent. Their ancestors were anything but affluent: in fact, many arrived in Canada during the Irish Potato Famine. And it’s particularly ironic to associate meat with these people, because not having access to meat in their country of origin is one of the major reasons the failure of the potato crop hit these people so hard that they fled en masse to the New World.
I would have thought that if either group of Europeans had an iconic connection to the potato, it would be the anglos. And neither group really has a special connection with beef. But another problem with this part of the metaphor is the suggestion that the potatoes really aren’t worth that much, either as an individual food or as an ingredient in shepherd’s pie.
Potatoes are a crucial element of shepherd’s pie. Ground beef and corn by themselves are really kind of boring. But top them with creamy mashed potatoes and crisp the whole thing up in the oven, and now you’re talking great food!
Nutritionally speaking, potatoes actually have a good bit to offer. One medium Russet potato provides 169 calories, which is on the high side for vegetables. But that same potato supplies 35% of your daily requirement of vitamin B6, 25% of potassium, 12% of magnesium, and 9% of iron.
The potato is known as a high carbohydrate food, but it isn’t as bad as it seems. A medium potato supplies 12% of your daily carbs but it also supplies 11% of your daily fibre. That Russet potato also supplies 9% of your day’s protein. The fibre and the protein together mean that eating potatoes leaves you feeling full. That feeling of satiety is probably one of the reasons that potatoes have long been a poor man’s food. A little goes a long way!
Should You Switch Out the Potatoes?
I wanted to mention this, not only because of the implication that the potatoes in shepherd’s pie don’t contribute much, but also because of the trend to replace potatoes with other ingredients.
Both sweet potatoes and cauliflower are lower in calories and total carbs than potatoes, so if you’re trying really hard to eat a low-carb or calorie-reduced diet, it is a good idea to include them in your shepherd’s pie instead of regular mashed potatoes. Just remember you’ll also be reducing the protein count a good bit as well.
It’s really a balancing act. Look at what you’ve eaten the rest of the day. If you haven’t had any dark green or orange vegetables, you may need more vitamin A in your supper. Then the sweet potatoes are a good choice. If you need a vitamin C boost but don’t feel like eating oranges, think cauliflower instead. All three vegetables are healthy in moderation and you should feel free to eat each of them in their turn.
Shepherd’s Pie Recipe
This recipe is an adaptation of the shepherd’s pie that a friend’s mother used to make. The carrots give colour and extra nutrients to the dish and make it just a little sweet.
2 lbs extra-lean ground beef
2 medium onions, chopped finely
2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
6 carrots, sliced into discs and boiled until just barely tender*
6 starchy potatoes (e.g. Russet or Idaho) mashed with about 1/2 cup milk
1 400 ml can (about 14 oz) creamed corn
2 cups frozen corn
a few pats of butter to dot the top
salt and pepper, or paprika to season the crust
* Save the water from boiling your carrots to make your own broth!
1) Brown the beef with the onion and Worcestershire sauce, breaking it up into fine bits.
2) Place the meat in the bottom of a 9″ x 13″ baking pan, pressing down lightly. If you plan on freezing this dish, use either a baking dish that has a snap-on lid, or a foil pan with a lid. Label the pan with the name of the dish, instructions, and the date. The pie should be eaten within 2-3 months.
3) Layer the carrots on top of the meat. (When you drain them, you can reserve the cooking liquid for making broth.)
4) Mix the two types of corn in a bowl and then spread the corn on top of the carrots.
5) Spread the mashed potatoes over the whole dish. Dust with a little salt and pepper, or some paprika. If you are preparing the casserole for eating right away, preheat the oven to 400ºF (200ºC, or gas mark 6) and dot the casserole with a little butter. If you aren’t going to serve right away, cover tightly and freeze or refrigerate.
6) Place the baking dish in a hot oven with a cookie sheet underneath to catch any drips. Bake until bubbling, about 40 minutes. Broil for a few minutes if necessary to brown. If the pie has been in the freezer, thaw for 1-2 days in the fridge before baking.
Serves 6-8 generously
- Add a cruciferous vegetable like broccoli to boost the antioxidant content of this casserole;
- Opt for mashed sweet potato instead of regular mashed potatoes to boost the vitamin A content of your dinner and lower the carbs and calories;
- Replace the mashed potato with mashed cauliflower. This will reduce the overall carbs and calories, and significantly boost the vitamin C content of your shepherd’s pie;
- For the feel of mashed potato with a huge fibre boost and added protein, cook up some giant Lima beans with a little garlic and mash them for your topping.
A Word About the Choice of Ground Beef
In Canada, all ground meat is labelled according to its fat content, whether beef, pork, veal, chicken or turkey. Ground beef and pork are fairly common. And if you live in Quebec, you can usually find ground veal around the Christmas holidays. Butchers often package a portion of each of the three ground meats together and offer it at a special price, as many traditional recipes for tourtière and ragoût de boulettes call for a blend of the three.
Ground beef in Canada can contain no more than 30% fat. Meat marked as lean can have no more than 17% fat, and extra-lean no more than 10% fat. This would put lean ground beef roughly on par with ground round (10-15% fat) in the US. Extra-lean ground beef is closer to ground sirloin (8-10% fat) if you’re shopping for beef in the US.
Nutrition and Corn
With all the flap over high fructose corn syrup and genetically modified corn, this vegetable isn’t exactly the first one that comes to mind when thinking of healthy foods. At more than 600 calories per cup, corn is also not a low-calorie vegetable. But if you enjoy eating corn, please don’t eliminate it completely from your diet. You just want to enjoy it in moderation and keep in mind the higher calorie count, compared to other vegetables.
Yellow corn is a source of lutein and zeaxanthin, two carotenoids that are associated with eye health. The American Optometric Association says these antioxidants are linked to a reduced risk of some chronic eye diseases, including cataracts and macular degeneration.
You may have been told that corn is essentially an empty-calorie food, but this is simply not true. One cup of yellow corn supplies more iron than the same amount of steak and about two-thirds the protein – with only half the fat and no cholesterol. Corn is also a source of vitamin A. Plus it supplies roughly half the vitamin B6, magnesium, and fibre you need for a whole day.
So splurge a little from time to time! Buy your corn from a local farmer who grows organic or GMO-free corn, if you can. And try to balance the calorie count for the rest of your day when you indulge in corn. But don’t write it off completely. It is still part of a healthy, balanced diet.
Original content © 2009-2017 Kyla Matton Osborne, aka #RubyWriter
Graphics adapted from a photo by cyclonebill/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0
This recipe was originally published by me on Bubblews, and was inspired by an earlier article I wrote for the now defunct Yahoo Voices site.
This article was published on my food blog, 24 Carrot Diet. If you are reading this content anywhere else, it has probably been stolen. Please report it to me so I can address any copyright infringements. Thank you!