Pieces of my culinary heart

Food is a fleeting experience. Yet, the taste and the thrill of its discovery captures our hearts. A cherished dish or restaurant can uniquely become a part of the fabric of our family's celebrations and who we are.

A few years ago, when my daughters were in first grade, they each had an assignment called "pieces of my heart." The project was a large construction paper heart whose interior was divided into squiggly boxes. Inside each box my daughters wrote what they loved. Its one of those assignments that I treasured because it gave me insight into what my girls were thinking.

Their pieces were filled with wonderful words like family member's names, favorite colors and games we played. However, the part I loved was that my daughters both had special places in their heart for certain foods like chocolate, cheese, pasta and ice cream. Girls after my own heart, because I too have places in my soul that belong to amazing meals.

One of those culinary pieces of my heart belongs to this shepherd's pie. It's inspired by a beloved British pub in my hometown of Houston, The Black Lab. We loved the cozy wood paneling, stone fireplaces and the charming British menu. It was our family's place to gather for a New Year's celebration for many years. So, when the owners retired and the pub closed, I was left longing.

My love of their cheddar topped shepherd's pie with its creamy mashed potatoes and gravy was too great to let it fade away. Thus, I set out to recreate the flavors that I missed. This comforting classic is the perfect dish for a snowy January day. So, cheers to the days and dishes gone by. May the new year fill your hearts with good company, great food and delicious culinary adventures!

Cheddar Topped Shepherd's Pie


• 2 tablespoons butter

• 1 medium yellow onion, diced

• 2 large carrots, peeled and diced

• 1 garlic clove, minced

• ¾ cup frozen peas

• 1½ pounds ground lamb or beef

• ½ teaspoon garlic powder

• ½ teaspoon salt

• ground pepper

• 1 tablespoon flour

• 2 tablespoons tomato paste

• 2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce

• 1 cup beef broth

• 1 cup grated cheddar cheese

Mashed Potatoes

• 3 medium russet potatoes, peeled and diced

• 4 tablespoons butter

• ½ cup cream or milk

• 1 teaspoon salt


Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Place the potatoes in a large pot and cover them with cold water. Bring to a boil over medium high heat. Cook for 25 minutes, until the potatoes are soft.

Melt the butter in a deep skillet add the onions and carrots. Cook until the onions turn translucent. Add in the garlic and peas and cook until warmed through. Place the vegetables aside in a bowl.

Then add the ground lamb to the pan. Season it with the salt, garlic powder and pepper and cook until browned. Sprinkle the flour over the ground lamb. Stir in the tomato paste and Worcestershire sauce. Next, slowly pour in the beef broth while stirring so the broth makes a sauce. Add the vegetables back to the pan. Continue to cook for 3 minutes until the sauce thickens. Set the lamb mixture aside, while you prepare the potatoes.

Drain the potatoes and then use a potato ricer or mash them in the pan. Add butter, cream and salt and mix until creamy.

Pour the lamb and vegetables in a greased 8×8 baking dish. Spread the mashed potatoes over the top and then sprinkle with the cheese. Place the baking dish on a baking pan.

Bake for 20 to 25 minutes until the cheese is golden. Serves 4 to 6.

- Amy McCauley of Hinsdale is the paper's food columnist. Readers can email her at [email protected].