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You know those days when you make dinner and all you can think is, “damn, I nailed that one”? I don’t make too many recipes that I want to repeat over and over, but this is one of them.

I cooked up the idea for this shepherd’s pie—or really, cottage pie if we’re getting technical, because it’s made with beef—around this time last year. I find it incredibly comforting and satisfying when there’s a constant damp chill in the air.

The one problem? It always gets eaten so fast that I don’t have time to take pictures of it. I think it might even be better the next day, so it disappears quickly (usually in a container on the way out the door), even in a home where there are only two of us.

Finally, I managed to get the recipe down on paper and snap a few photos. It’s definitely not the most picturesque dish, but it will warm you right up. I’m pretty excited to get to share it.

I’m not entirely sure what spurred me to create this recipe. I never understood why people liked shepherd’s pie when I was growing up. Maybe because lamb has that funny flavour that a lot of kids don’t love. Maybe because it was a summer camp meal that was made in huge batches and always looked a little nauseating. Maybe it’s because, although I was raised by some very talented cooks (promise I’m not complaining, Mom and Dad!), this was one of the only frozen dinners we had on occasion, in dire situations. And that may have been enough for me to decide shepherd’s pie was just not that good; I don’t think anybody loves frozen dinners.

But I’m a convert, with a few caveats: mainly, it needs to have this topping. It’s totally non-traditional—a mix of cauliflower, parsnips and garlic. It also doesn’t have the traditional corn and peas, because my body does not do so well with those little guys. (Let’s be real: who here is actually good at digesting corn?) The slightly zesty flavour from the parsnips and garlic, along with the velvety non-starchy texture of puréed cauliflower, makes it an instant winner and, in my opinion, a better balance for all that heavy meat than a pile of mashed potatoes.

The topping is so light and fluffy that it won’t weigh you down and, because it has such a nice mix of veggies with different flavours, it adds a lovely complexity to this classic dish. If you bake it in personal ramekins and top it with fresh herbs, it would make for a really elegant dinner party entrée. Then again, It’s pretty darn good spooned messily into a bowl and eaten on the couch in sweatpants (but I’m just classy like that).

I know this is the “cottage pie” version, but I’m pretty positive it would be great with lamb. My guy is not a fan (some people never grow out of that aversion), so I always go with good ol’ grass-fed beef. I like to stock up on the quality stuff, get it vacuum-sealed in portions, and freeze it for easy meals when I don’t have time to go to the butcher.

On that note, whenever possible, buy your beef grass-fed. There is a huge difference between the nutritional value of grass-fed beef and conventionally raised beef. Conventionally raised cows are fed grains (and sometimes ickier things), which is not their natural diet; they are meant to graze in pastures and eat green grasses of all sorts. This means it’s harder for them to stay healthy, develop the way they are supposed to, and, ultimately, give you the nutrients you require. It also means that farmers often have to give them hormones and antibiotics to keep them alive and “healthy.” Grass-fed beef has nutritious fat with a high amount of omega-3s and healthy saturated fat (yes, it’s good for you when it’s from the right places!), and you don’t get that from the other kind. It also has more vitamins and minerals because the cows are eating more vitamins and minerals. Want to learn more? Here’s some additional information.

This recipe has two completely separate parts. While neither of them are particularly time-consuming, it would be a good opportunity to divide and conquer if you have a cooking buddy. Alternately, if it seems intimidating to do everything at the end of the day, you can easily make it ahead and stick it in the oven to warm and brown at dinnertime.

Paleo shepherd’s pie with cauliflower-parsnip mash

Prep Time20 mins
Cook Time1 hr 5 mins
Course: Main Course
Keyword: AIP, autoimmune paleo, cauliflower, cottage pie, dairy-free, egg-free, gluten-free, grain-free, grass-fed beef, keto, nut-free, shepherd’s pie, whole 30

Ingredients

The topping

  • 1 medium head cauliflower
  • 2 parsnips
  • 4 garlic cloves
  • 1 Tb coconut oil
  • ¾ tsp salt

The filling

  • 2 lbs grass-fed ground beef
  • 3 carrots
  • 3 celery stalks
  • 2 onions
  • 2 tsp rosemary
  • 2 tsp thyme
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 Tb tomato paste omit for AIP
  • 1.5 Tb tallow or lard or oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste – omit pepper for AIP

Instructions

The topping

  • Cut the cauliflower into large florets and parsnips into 1-inch chunks. Peel the garlic cloves.
  • Add cauliflower, parsnips and garlic to a large pot.
  • Add an inch of water and steam with the lid on for about 10 minutes, until a fork easily pierces all the vegetables.**
  • Add all the vegetables and ¼ cup of the cooking liquid (this may be all there is) to a large food processor with the coconut oil and salt. Purée until very smooth.

The filling

  • Dice up the carrots, celery and onion.
  • Heat 1 Tb of the fat in a large skillet over medium heat.
  • Add the cut up vegetables, rosemary, thyme, bay leaf, and some salt and pepper to the skillet.
  • Sautée for 5 minutes, until onions become translucent. Stir in the tomato paste to coat the vegetables.
  • Push the veggies to the outside of the pan and add in the beef, breaking it up with a wooden spoon. Season it liberally with salt and pepper.
  • Cook for 5-10 minutes, until the bottom is browned, and mix it up to cook the other side until no pink remains.
  • Remove the bay leaf!

Putting it together

  • Preheat the oven to 350°F for convection or 400°F otherwise.
  • Use a square or rectangular dish that holds between 6 to 8 cups to assemble. (I love this one. It’s the perfect size for tall slices and has a leak-proof lid for storage or taking to a dinner party.
  • Pour in the meat mixture and press down into an even layer.
  • Evenly distribute the topping over the meat layer with a rubber spatula.
  • Drag a fork over the top in both directions to make peaks that will brown up in the oven.
  • Use the remaining ½ Tb fat to dot the top, which will help with browning, too.
  • Bake for 20 minutes. Then, switch on the broiler to get the top really brown.
  • Let cool for a few minutes (it will be very hot) and serve.

Notes

**When steaming veggies, I would usually recommend a steaming basket so you don’t lose the nutrients, but I use the water for the recipe, so it doesn’t make much difference.