The former group will maintain that shepherd's pie must be made with only certain meats and certain toppings, and must be prepared in a certain way. I fall into the latter group, a freewheeling bunch willing to reinvent shepherd's pie based on whim and convenience.
In my case, so long as there is a meat — any meat will do — on the bottom, corn on top of that and some sort of buttery mashed something over it all, I'm willing to call it good. I even do a quick version that involves no baking whatsoever. The meat and corn are browned in skillets while the potatoes are boiled and mashed nearby. Then I assemble individual portions directly onto serving plates.
I'm even willing to be liberal with the very name of the dish. When I was a child, I'd actually never heard of shepherd's pie. My great-grandmother always called it Chinese pie, a bit of a New England regionalism I've never been able to suss out the origins of. It wasn't until I was an adult that I realized my Chinese pie was everyone else's shepherd's pie.
And so with all due respect to the purists who will claim this is no shepherd's pie, I give you this wonderful version that begins with a blend of sausage and ground bison, and ends with buttery-brown sugar mashed sweet potatoes.
SWEET POTATO AND BISON SHEPHERD'S PIE
Ground bison pairs perfectly with the rich sweet potatoes and corn. Of course, any ground meat — including turkey, beef and lamb — can be substituted.
Start to finish: 40 minutes
2 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch chunks
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium yellow onion, diced
1/2 pound loose Italian sausage meat
1 pound ground bison
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
6 ounces (half a bottle) stout or other dark beer
1 tablespoon cornstarch
2 tablespoons cool water
15-ounce can corn kernels, drained
8 1/4-ounce can creamed corn
1/4 cup milk
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon packed brown sugar
Heat the oven to broil. Lightly oil a standard loaf pan.
Place the sweet potatoes in a large pot and add enough water to cover by 1 inch. Add a hefty pinch of salt to the water, then bring to a boil and cook until tender, about 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a large skillet over high, combine the olive oil, garlic and onion. Saute for 5 minutes, or until just tender. Add the sausage, bison and pepper. Saute until the meat is browned and cooked through, about 8 minutes. Carefully spoon or drain off any collected fat in the skillet. Add the beer and simmer until reduced by half, about 4 minutes.
In a small glass, mix the cornstarch with the cool water. Add the cornstarch mixture to the meat and stir until thickened. Remove from the heat. Season with salt.
Spread the meat and onion mixture evenly in the prepared loaf pan. In a small bowl, mix the corn kernels and creamed corn, then spread in an even layer over the meat. Set aside.
Once the sweet potatoes have cooked, drain and return them to the pot. Add the milk, butter and brown sugar, then mash until smooth. Season with salt. Spoon the potatoes evenly over the corn. Place the pan in the oven, about 10 inches below the broiler. Cook for 5 to 10 minutes, or until bubbling at the edges and starting to brown. Watch it carefully; some broilers run hotter than others.
Nutrition information per serving: 570 calories; 230 calories from fat; 25 g fat (10 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 70 mg cholesterol; 65 g carbohydrate; 6 g fiber; 8 g sugar; 22 g protein; 710 mg sodium.
J.M. Hirsch is the food editor for The Associated Press. He blogs at http://www.LunchBoxBlues.com and tweets at http://twitter.com/JM_Hirsch . Email him at email@example.comSuggest a correction