I am very pleased that fall is finally here. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the summer, but this particular summer was not my favorite. Having to stay inside in order to avoid hazardous air, hazardous fascists, and potentially hazardous infected people sucks no matter what the weather’s like, but it’s particularly oppressive when said weather is perfect for sipping cocktails on a patio. (Leo season has never been so disrespected.)
But it’s fall now, and we’re moving on. It’s time for soups, stews, casseroles, and carbs, and I’m kicking it off with a tater tot-crowned shepherd’s pie. Why tater tots instead of the traditional mashed potatoes? It’s easier, it generates fewer dirty dishes, tots are crunchier than a mash, and I like how they look all lined up, like little potato soldiers.
If you have access to those smiling potatoes, that might be fun too. Any potato that’s crunchy on the outside and tender on the inside will work. The whole point is to create a cozy bowl of gravy-drenched ground meat and lightly crunchy potatoes.
Since this is a shepherd’s pie, I used lamb as a filling, but you are welcome to use beef and make a cottage pie instead. The third most important ingredient in this dish is an entire burnt onion. A burnt—not caramelized—onion flavors and thickens whatever it’s blended into, and that ultra-roasted, alliumy note hoists this casserole to a higher plane.
Other than that, we have your usual players: carrots, peas, (unburnt) onions, corn, and garlic. It’s a homey, satisfying, fun dish that only dirties a pan and a casserole dish. (In fact, if you used an oven-safe pan, you could bake the whole thing in it, but I really wanted to use my pretty casserole dish.) Here’s how to put it together:
Tater Tot Shepherd’s Pie
2 onions, diced
3 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil, divided into 2- and 1-tablespoon portions
1 cup sherry (or wine)
2 carrots, cut into thin coins (slice the larger coins near the top into half-circles)
5 cloves of garlic, minced
1 1/2 pounds ground lamb
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoons of mushroom-flavored Better Than Bouillon, or two bouillon cubes
2 tablespoons flour
3/4 cup fresh or frozen corn
3/4 cup frozen peas
1 2-lb bag of tater tots (you may not use the whole bag)
Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a large stainless steel pan over medium-high heat. Once it starts shimmering, add the first onion and cook until it is burnt (look here if you need a visual). Transfer the burnt onions to a blender, deglaze the pan with the sherry, pour that into the blender, and let cool.
Heat the remaining oil in that same pan, add the onions and carrots, and cook until the onions are translucent and the carrots are soft but not mushy—about 6-9 minutes. Add the garlic, and cook for a couple of minutes, until you can smell its delicious aroma. Add the lamb, salt, and pepper, and cook until the lamb is no longer pink in spots. (Go ahead and preheat your oven to 400℉ if you haven’t already.)
While the lamb is cooking, blend the burnt onions and sherry with the tomato paste, bouillon paste (or cubes) and Worcestershire sauce. Sprinkle the flour over the lamb, give it a good stir, then pour the burnt onion sauce over the meat and stir to coat. Let cook for a couple of minutes until the gravy is nice and thick, add the corn and peas, then transfer the filling to a casserole dish. (Depending on the fat content of your lamb you may notice a good bit of grease in the pan. If you see any grease pooling, simply use a fish spatula or other slotted implement to lift the meat and vegetables out of the pan; don’t worry, the gravy will stick to the rest of the filling, leaving only the grease behind.)
Arrange your frozen tater tots in neat little rows on top of your filling and then pop the whole thing in the oven for 30 minutes. You may need a minute or two of broiling to get the tots extra golden. Let cool for 10 minutes before serving, then enjoy.