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Vegetarian Dinner Crisis Averted: Lentil Shepherd’s Pie

Pop quiz, hotshot. You’ve got people coming to dinner: Ms. Foodie Italian, Mrs. Foodie Indian-American, and Mr. Foodie Italian-Peruvian-Nerd. Two of them are vegetarian. What do you serve? WHAT do you serve?

Ok, so not exactly as pressing as saving a bus full of screaming passengers with Sandra Bullock at the wheel, but this was still the closest thing to a crisis that I had to deal with last weekend. I was not about to throw down anything Italian, and Indian too–my go-to vegetarian dinner party option–was similarly off the menu. I toyed with Indonesian, given the “I” theme that had developed, but then it got a bit chilly and the idea of gado gado and smoked tofu summer rolls seemed a bit premature.

Instead, at the suggestion of  dear friend and PassionFruits Edinburgh correspondent Lady Dae-Dae, I whipped up a lentil-based shepherd’s pie based very loosely on several recipes by Nigel Slater (English foodie institution) and Sophie Dahl (English foodie… something).

Yes, yes, I know I just wrote about my “African” sheperd’s pie, but bracketed by tapenade and goat cheese toasts, fennel apple salad, and a flourless chocolate torte, the lentil-based pie made a perfect, hearty centerpiece to a tasty, veggie-friendly meal that didn’t rely on any of my guest’s native cuisines.

While definitely savory and substantial enough to stand on its own, the shepherd’s pie would also be absolutely stellar as a side for lamb chops… but then, what DOESN’T go with a good lamb chop? In any event, though, it was such a delicious success that Ms. Foodie Italian refused to leave till she’d extracted a promise that I’d share the recipe–which I gladly agreed to, with the warning that I’d have to write it down first!

Feel free to start off with dried lentils and cook them off before carrying on with the rest of the recipe. Alice Waters, Jamie Oliver, et. al. will surely smile beneficiently down upon you. Slater’s recipe called for jarred lentils, though, and as Mr. T pointedly pointed out two hours before our guests arrived, sometimes one doesn’t quite have the time to do everything from scratch. I used canned lentils and everyone still had seconds… do with that what you will.

Lentil Shepherd’s Pie
Adapted from Nigel Slater & Sophie Dahl
Yield: 6 entree servings

1 lb parsnips
4 large Russett potatoes
1 c cream or whole milk
4 tbs (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1 bunch Swiss chard
sea salt and white pepper

1 lb cremini mushrooms
1 tbs butter
~2 tbs olive oil
1 large or 2 medium onions
3 carrots
3 stalks celery
1/2 c dry white wine
3 cloves garlic
~2 c vegetable stock or water
1 bay leaf
2 tsp dried thyme
2 15oz cans lentils (or 1 scant c dry)
3 tbs tomato paste
sea salt & freshly ground black pepper
1/4 c minced fresh parsley

Prepare the topping: Peel the potatoes and parsnips. Cut into even 1 1/2″ pieces. If your parsnips are large, you may want to remove some of the fibery core. Steam over boiling water till tender when pierced with a fork.

Meanwhile, warm the cream and butter in a small saucepan on the stovetop or in microwave-safe bowl till the butter is melted and the mixture is hot to the touch. Rinse and shake dry the chard. Cut the thick stems from the leaves and reserve. Roughly chop the leaves and saute briefly with a tsp of butter in a large saucepan till just wilted. Remove from heat and set aside.

When cooked through, put the potatoes and parsnips through a ricer or mash well. Mix in the hot cream mixture and season well with salt and white pepper. Mix in the sauteed chard leaves and set aside.

Prepare the lentil mixture: Wipe the mushrooms clean, trim the stems and cut into 1/2″ pieces. Melt 1 tbs butter in a large, wide saute pan or stockpot over medium high heat. Add half the mushrooms and saute vigorously till the they give up their liquid and start to brown. (They should squeak in anguish as you stir them about. Have no mercy.) Remove the mushrooms to a plate, add a little of the oil to the pan, and repeat with remaining mushrooms.

Peel and quarter the onion(s) and slice thinly. Scrub the carrots and cut into coins. Rinse the celery and reserved chard ribs, then dice. Peel and mince the garlic. Add remaining oil to the pan, heat, and add onions. Turn heat down to medium and saute a minute or so. Add the carrots, celery, and chard ribs. Saute till tender and just beginning to color, about 5 minutes. Add the wine and deglaze the pan. Add the garlic and saute another minute or so, just till it’s fragrant. Add stock, bay leaf, thyme, and stir to combine. Drain lentils and add to the pot with the tomato paste. Mixture should be loose and soupy. Lower heat to medium-low and simmer, half covered, for 15 minutes or so till thickened and stewy. Stir every minute or so to prevent sticking. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Assemble & Bake: Turn broiler on low and position rack about 6″ from the element. Spread the lentil mixture into a 9×13 baking dish and dollop the potato mixture around the edges. Gently seal the edges first, then spread in toward the center to cover completely. Broil till browned on top. Serve immediately. (Alternatively, assemble, wrap, chill and bake uncovered in a 325°F oven for an hour or so, till heated through.)

Notes & Variations
To make this vegan, swap out the butter and cream in the potatoes with 3/4 c vegetable stock, a couple tbs of olive oil, and a little extra salt. One could also be daring and exchange the parsip for a celery root. Peel, cube, and steam along with the potatoes for a slightly different, uniquely delicious variation.

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