A Moroccan Twist on Shepherd's Pie for #Whole30

Thursday, March 17, 2016

In an effort to celebrate more "food holidays" this year, I was excited to cook for Pi Day on March 14th. The only challenge was that it fell right under my last couple days of Whole 30, so any dessert pie or even a savory pot pie were out of the question. It dawned on me that I could make a Shepherd's Pie. I pondered that idea for a week and couldn't bring myself to get excited about Irish food. Despite loving lamb and mashed potatoes, I needed something else to liven this up enough to appeal to my palate. The answer turned out to be saffron, which inspired me to make the saffron mashed potatoes and parsnips from the last post. Once my brain headed in that direction, along with lamb in mind, I immediately knew Morocco was the answer. What I ended up with was a spiced ground American lamb and eggplant mixture, topped with a creamy layer of those saffron potatoes. It was amazing and I especially loved how the texture of the mashed potatoes changed after being mixed with egg yolks and baked in the oven. That alone made me want to reconsider trying a traditional version of Shepherd's pie, although next time I think I'd go all the way out and braise lamb shoulder instead of the ground meat.

The meat filling was really interesting and reminded me of a Cuban beef picadillo. I wanted to mimic the vegetables in a traditional Shepherd's pie, but keeping with the Moroccan flavor profile. I turned to diced cubes of roasted eggplant, which melted into the meat and added a silky creamy texture. I also used carrots, golden raisins and chopped dates for sweetness, preserved lemons for brightness and caper berries for a punch of brininess (I hate peas but I thought it was cool to give the appearance of peas.) It was all seasoned with an aromatic ras el hanout spice blend. I suspect my homemade batch of gelatinous beef stock was also essential to the texture of the sauce; no thickener was required.  I'm not usually nervous to "sell" a dish to my kids but I thought maybe I had pushed it too far this time with so much going on at once. Nope! They devoured it both days, and I actually found myself having to compete for leftovers. We'll definitely be enjoying this dish again!

I've only made this once so it's more of a successful experiment that I'm sharing for this post versus a thoroughly tested recipe. Which I think is fine, and I've been meaning to do more of that anyway. Sometimes you don't need to make something a hundred times to know that it's good. The little tweaks that we all inevitably make to recipes in our kitchens are what gives a dish its character. The takeaway here for me was that I was able to pull from a variety of dishes and cuisines that I knew well, in order to execute a dish that I'd never made before. It's cool that food connects cultures in this way. This is comfort food I'd be happy to eat on any day.

A Moroccan Twist on Shepherd's Pie for Whole 30

1 large eggplant, peeled and diced
1 tbsp ras el hanout, divided
Olive oil, as needed
Kosher salt, to taste
2 lbs ground American lamb
1 onion, diced
1 carrot, diced
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 garlic clove, grated
1" knob fresh ginger, grated
1/4 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp smoked paprika
2 tbsp tomato paste
1 1/2 cups good beef stock (if not homemade, use chicken stock)
1/2 preserved lemon rind, rinsed and finely chopped (or the juice and zest of 1 Meyer lemon)
1/3 cup golden raisins
3 pitted dates, finely chopped
2 tbsp caper berries, drained
1/4 cup fresh mint leaves, chopped
1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
3 cups prepared saffron mashed potatoes
1 egg plus 1 yolk, beaten

Active Time: 45 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Yield: Serves 4 to 6
Special Equipment: Heavy skillet or dutch oven pot

I started out by getting my eggplant into the oven. After the eggplant was peeled and diced into 1/2" cubes, I tossed it with half of the ras el hanout spices, salt and a couple tablespoons of olive oil. It was then spread out on a lined heavy baking sheet and roasted at 375°F for about 25 minutes, until golden brown. (I continued with the rest of the recipe once it was in the oven; this is the cooked eggplant in the photo.)

To my pot, I added the ground lamb, breaking it up over medium high heat.

I cooked the lamb until no pink remained, then transferred it out of the pot and drained the fat.

Back in the pot, I sauteed the diced onions, carrot and bell peppers in a little bit of olive oil, seasoning with salt and pepper. I cooked the veggies until they were tender and starting to brown, about 5 minutes.

Next, I added the garlic, ginger, remaining ras el hanout spices, cinnamon and smoked paprika. I continued to cook the veggies for another minute until the spices were fragrant.

I then added the tomato paste, stirring it into the bottom of the pot to cook the raw flavor out for a minute.

Then I began to build a sauce by pouring in my beef stock. Homemade beef stock is rich and has a ton of body to it, due to all the natural gelatin. This is how I was able to get away without using any kind of thickeners, like flour or cornstarch. You can improvise with homemade chicken stock, I just don't recommend store bought beef stock nor is it usually Whole 30 compliant.

The stock helps to deglaze the pot, so I scraped up all the crusty brown bits at the bottom. Within a couple minutes the sauce had already reduced and thickened up on his own, so I reduced the heat down to medium low.

At this point I added the cooked lamb and roasted eggplant back to the pot, tossing with that sauce.

This is where I started getting creative. I added the raisins, dates, and preserved lemons to the pot...

....followed by the capers. Mostly because I was out of green olives, so you could try it either way and it will work.

I let that all simmer so the flavors could marry, just for a few minutes. Honestly I could have just eaten it all right here. But it gets better. Everything gets better with fresh mint and cilantro.

I turned the heat off after that and began to assemble my shepherd's pie, with the oven preheating to 350°F. I lightly oiled my casserole dish and packed the lamb filling into the bottom.

Then I stirred the beaten egg and egg yolk into those saffron mashed potatoes, which had cooled already, and spread them over the lamb filling.

I placed the casserole dish over a heavy baking sheet to catch any drips, and transferred it to the oven. It baked for about 30 minutes, until the topping had become crusty and golden brown and the filling was bubbly. As soon as it came out, I immediately thought... "wow, okay I get shepherd's pie now." So don't skip those eggs!

I impatiently allowed this masterpiece to cool a little bit before we dug in. The nice thing was that I got to eat before pictures, for a change!

It was glorious. The saffron mixed with the Moroccan spices, little pops of sweetness and saltiness and lemon here and there, it was an adventure for my taste buds. I know I didn't make it the traditional way, but I'd love to try a good version of the original now. I hope you enjoy as well!

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