SHEPHERD'S PIE ITALIAN STYLE
Funny thing, the weather we've been having hereabouts to greet the New Year: Shirtsleeves-warm, weirdly out of synch for January, but gray and bleak so it looks like winter. Accordingly, I thought about comfort food last night, and finding some cheap lamb leg meat at the market, merged the concepts of Shepherd's Pie and Roman lamb to come up with a strange but delicious "fusion" -- shepherd's pie with an Italian accent.
Shepherd's pie, after all, is nothing more than lamb stew topped with mashed potatoes and melted cheese and oven-baked until it's bubbly. So it wasn't rocket science to take this bland British tradition and give it a taste of the sunny South by (1) adding traditional Roman roast-lamb flavors to the stew; (2) fashioning the mashed potatoes in a Tuscan style with Parmigiano; and (3) using Italian and Swiss cheeses in place of the usual cheddar.
It was definitely a flavorful dish, so hearty that we (wisely) chose not to finish it all at a sitting. Another keeper!
I used the Cuisinart extensively in preparing this dish, to grind the lamb and to mince all the vegetables fine.
So, whether you grind it or use the chef's knife, finely chop about 1 cup sweet onion (about 2 small onions or one large) and 3 or 4 cloves garlic. Separately, chop fine 1 carrot and 1 stalk of celery. Chop about 12 ounces lean lamb (or buy ground lamb).
Using a mortar and pestle, grind together about 20 juniper berries, 1 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon black peppercorns, and 1 teaspoon fresh chopped rosemary.
In a sautee pan or black iron skillet, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil, and sautee the chopped onions and garlic until they're soft; add the chopped carrot and celery and continue cooking (adding a little water if necessary) until they soften a little; then add the spice mix, then the lamb, and cook just until the lamb loses its raw, red color. Add 1/2 cup white wine (I used the little bit of fine Champagne left over from New Year's Eve), reduce heat to very low, cover, and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, peel and cube 1 large or two small baking potatoes; cook in salted water for about 20 minutes or until they're very soft. Mash them with 1 tablespoon butter, 1/2 cup whole milk and 1/2 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano, adding a little potato water if necessary to get a good, creamy texture.
Put the lamb stew in the bottom of a casserole or oven-safe baking dish. Layer the mashed potatoes atop the stew. Sprinkle about 1/2 cup grated cheese over the potatoes. (I used a mixture of about half provolone and half swiss, with a bit of Pecorino Romano to heighten the flavor.)
Pop into a 400F oven and bake for 20 minutes or until the cheese is melted and turning brown; you can run it under the broiler at the end to hasten browning if you like.
With the lamb and cheese, it made a fine match with a Barbera d'Alba, a dry but fruity Italian red; it would also do well with a rich, full-bodied white.