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Burns Night, Meet Pie Day

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shepherds pie

What happens when National Pie Day meets Burns Night?

Not a haggis pie, thankfully. But something haggis-inspired, something that could live up to lines like these, from the Scottish poet Robert Burns' immortal Address to a Haggis,

But mark the Rustic, haggis fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread.

In other words, not salad. Lamb, the foundation of this "great chieftain o' the puddin'-race," should be involved, perhaps using parts a little more approachable than the lungs, liver, and heart from which haggis is traditionally made. Also present should be neeps and tatties (rutabagas, or what Brits would call swedes, and potatoes), the pearls and pumps to haggis's little black dress. Finally, it should be both celebratory and economical, in honor of that famous Scottish thrift.

And why not make it pie-like while you're at it? Not because I really take a marketing ploy like National Pie Day seriously (yes, inroads may have been made by panna cotta, Oreos, and pineapple upside-down cake, but pie is far from an endangered species here) but because pie makes a party. Cupcakes are cute, cookies are swell, but a pie is Something Special. Not to mention that as a certified Pie Therapist, I feel that no good pie-making opportunity should be ignored.


Taken altogether, then, what better dish for a rainy winter day than a Shepherd's Pie, made with the leftovers of a good lamb stew instead of the usual drab gravel of ground meat. And topped with a thick cloud of mashed potatoes mixed with rutabaga, turnip's earthier cousin, the whole flecked with green bits of leek or scallion. Some rosemary, thyme, and bay leaf could also go into the stew, since this is California and these herbs grow everywhere.

Irish cookbook author Tamasin Day-Lewis suggests lamb neck for stewing, and having spied some at Avedano's recently, I decided to give her advice a try. And she's right: these "thick, bony, fatty chunks" are just right for stewing, falling into thick flavorful shreds after stewing, while the bones add body to the base. You'll need 2 necks for this, each cut up into four or five pieces (ask the butcher to do this for you, as this is requires serious bone-cleaving action that you don't want to attempt without a mallet, a heavy cleaver, solid arm muscles, and a very sturdy wooden countertop).

The stew makes plenty; eat it one day for dinner, then make your shepherd's pie with the leftovers on the following day. Serve, naturally, with a wee dram of your favorite whisky--Caol Ila, perhaps, Laguvulin, a tot of Ardbeg or Laphroaig.

Shepherd's Pie for Scotland
It can be a bit tricky to find rutabagas. Cauliflower, especially the beautiful, usually organic golden variety, makes a fine substitute if you find yourself stranded far from these useful roots. If you're making the stew a day ahead of time, leave the meat on the bones. Remove the meat and discard the bones just before serving.

3 1/2 lbs (or thereabouts) lamb neck
4 carrots, chopped in rough chunks
3 sticks celery or one head fennel, chopped
2 onions, peeled and sliced
2 leeks, trimmed and chopped
2 sprigs fresh thyme, 2 sprigs fresh rosemary, 4 sprigs parsley, tied together
Salt and pepper

For topping:
3 large potatoes, peeled and roughly chopped
1 large rutabaga, or 1 small head cauliflower
knob of butter (size depends on how buttery you think mashed potatoes should be)
1 cup buttermilk or whole milk, more as needed
green part of 1 leek, finely chopped, or 3 scallions, finally chopped
Salt and pepper

1. Put the lamb in a large pot and cover with cold water. Over medium heat, bring to a boil. Drain off water and scummy froth; rinse both meat and pot.

2. Lay onions, carrots, leeks, celery on bottom of pot. Add lamb and herb bundle. Sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Cover with water until lamb is just barely covered.

3. Bring to a simmer, reduce heat, cover, and cook slowly until lamb is very tender and can be pushed off the bone with a spoon, 1 1/2 to 2 hours.

4. Let cool slightly, then remove lamb from pot. Set aside until cool enough to handle. While lamb is cooling, mash some of the cooked vegetables roughly to thicken sauce. Taste for seasoning. Remove herb bundle and discard.

5. Using your hands, remove lamb from bones and return meat to pot. Reheat before serving. Refrigerate any leftovers.

6. To make topping, cover potatoes and rutabaga chunks with water, adding a few good pinches of salt. Bring to a boil and simmer gently until potatoes are soft. (If using cauliflower, add when potatoes are just barely tender.)

7. Preheat oven to 350F. Drain potatoes and return to pot. Add butter and mash well. Add buttermilk or milk a little at a time, mashing thoroughly as you go, until desired consistency is reached (don't let it get too loose and creamy; it should be on the stiff side).

8. Saute leeks or scallion in a little butter, stirring, until softened. Add to potatoes.

9. Spread leftover stew in a 2-inch-deep baking dish, preferably glass or ceramic. Mound mashed potato over stew. Bake in the oven until stew is heated through and potatoes are just beginning to brown in parts, about 30 minutes. Serve hot.

For those truly dedicated to all things haggis, this report from the BBC claims that the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture is considering lifting a twenty-year-old ban on importing Scottish-made haggis into the U.S. It also notes that a prominent haggis manufacturer has recently branched out into making haggis nachos.

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