There are lots of great vegetarian dishes using herbs and spices to create interesting flavour profiles. But it isn’t so easy to find good vegetarian versions of comforting, earthy and, speaking plainly, bland traditional dishes like Shepherd’s Pie. Shepherd’s Pie is made to make the best of leftover meat, nothing special, just meat and veg in a gravy, topped with creamy mashed potato. Not complicated, not fancy but still so satisfying. With the list of ingredients and instructions below you might be thinking that the vegan version is more complicated. It’s not, but it does take quite a long time to make – about 2 hours and a half! – though for at least half that time you are off doing something else while you wait for things to cook. Is it still comforting and satisfying enough to be worth it? Yes, I think so.
As I mention, throughout the site, I’m not vegetarian, but I was for a while in my teens and I remember people giving me recipes that listed among the ingredients yeast extract. I had no idea what yeast extract might be, decided it must be some hard to get “foodie” item and dismissed all thoughts of attempting the recipes or trying to find yeast extract. I survived mostly on mashed potato and peas at the time – a very unhealthy vegetarian. Anyway in case you are also wondering just what yeast extract is, it is not at all a foodie item it is more commonly known by it’s brand name either Marmite or Vegemite (both Marmite and Vegemite are vegan-friendly). I used to think that Marmite and Vegemite were just different brands of Bovril because they all taste very similar but Bovril is actually beef extract – and this is why yeast extract can make a very suitable substitute for dark meaty flavours in food.
Often when I make this I will make it vegetarian rather than vegan making the mashed potato with milk and butter and topping with cheddar cheese. I love it; it’s as comforting as a comfort blanket and you will just want to sleep afterwards. Perfect dish for the winter. But if you want to do more then drift off into a cozy snooze then the vegan version is definitely the better option, and it is certainly much lower in saturated fat. The vegan version is the heart-healthy version and although the topping is much lighter it still tastes pretty great.
So there is obviously a lot of veg in this dish, so you know it’s packed with the good stuff and there are also Puy lentils. Lentils aren’t just good for your health, they are great for your pocket too as they taste great, provide great filling and depth to dishes like stews and pies but they are so much cheaper than meat and have a long shelf life. And they really are good for you, they are full of vegetarian protein (this means it’s not complete protein so it must be combined with another wholegrain source of protein to make it complete), full of fibre and they are a rich source of folate, copper, phosphorus, and manganese, while also providing good amounts of iron and zinc.
Serves 4 – 6
For the filling:
- 3 medium-sized mild onions, chopped roughly (2 tablespoons will be used for herb crust)
- sunflower oil for frying
- 150g Puy green lentils
- 1 – 2 teaspoons yeast extract
- 1/2 – 1 level teaspoon brown sugar
- 1 level teaspoon tomato purée
- 1 heaped teaspoon wholegrain mustard
- 2 leeks, trimmed and sliced
- 2 carrots, chopped small
- 2 celery sticks, chopped small
- 1 teaspoon mixed herbs
- 8 – 10 mushrooms, quartered
For vegan mashed potato
- 1.5kg potatoes
- unsweetened almond milk
- ground white pepper
For herb crust
- 1 slice of vegan wholemeal bread or 1 scone
- 2 tablespoons fried (stewed) onions
- tablespoon pine nuts
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1/2 teaspoon dried basil
- good pinch ground rainbow pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- Heat a little oil in a frying pan on a low heat setting. Add the onion, cover and leave for 5 – 10 minutes by which time the onion will be soft enough that you can easily break it up with a spoon. Cover the pan again and leave the onion to cook gently until completely soft, about 40 minutes
- Cooking lentils: Place lentils in a sieve and rinse thoroughly. Put the washed lentils into a deep saucepan and cover them with 3 times their depth of cold water. Bring to the boil and boil for 5 minutes. Reduce heat and leave to simmer for a further 25 minutes until lentils are tender. By this time most of the water will have been soaked up by the lentils or evaporated but they should still be a little wet. Taste them, they should be tender but with a little bite, not at all hard, but not mushy either.
- When the onions are cooked, remove the pan from the heat, then remove 2 tablespoons of the stewed onions and place in a small bowl or cup, for using in the herb crust. The rest of the onion is added to the lentils when ready.
- Making the gravy: To the lentil and onion mix, stir in 1 generous teaspoon of yeast extract. Taste it. If it is a little bitter, add in the tomato purée, 1/2 teaspoon of brown sugar and a heaped teaspoon of wholegrain mustard. Taste again. If it now tastes too sweet add in some more yeast extract, adding no more than a 1/4 teaspoon at a time, and stir in very well before tasting again. If it wasn’t too sweet, if you found it still too bitter, add in some more sugar, one pinch at a time, stirring in well before tasting. Every time I make this I seem to use slightly different quantities of yeast extract and sugar and I think it’s because the stewed onions vary in sweetness.
- Add a little more oil to the frying pan and then add the carrots, leeks and celery. Stir in the mixed herbs, cover and leave to cook on a gentle to moderate heat for 5 minutes.
- Add the mushrooms to the pan, stir around, cover and leave for a further 8 minutes to cook. Then add the gravy mix into the veg, stir around and then remove from the heat.
- Sliced potatoes into evenly sized slices, place in a deep saucepan, cover in hot water and boil on high heat until a fork can easily cut through a slice.
- Drain the potatoes, add a good splash of almond milk, some salt and ground white pepper. Mash to a smooth even consistency.
- Add the wholemeal bread, dried herbs and pine nuts to a food mixer. Mix till you have a crumby mixture. Add the onion and pulse again till it is blended. It should clump together but depending on how dry the bread is and/or how wet the onions are it may not. It doesn’t make much difference but the topping holds much better the more clumpy the mixture.
Putting it all together
- To a baking dish (roughly 10 in x 10 in /25 cm x 25 cm) add the filling, top with the mashed potato, add clumps of the herb crust topping over the potato and with a fork, gently break it up to evenly dot the pie.
- Bake in a moderate oven (160° C) for 40 minutes. Leave to cool 10 minutes before serving.