Turning a much loved traditional meat dish like cottage pie into a vegetarian option is likely to leave the meat eater feeling short changed. And that’s usually because the substitute ‘meat’ content feels and tastes the same as the topping because the gravy disappears into all the layers, homogenises all the flavours and turns it into something like baby food.
Florencia Clifford’s recipe for Lentil Cottage Pie from her book Feeding Orchids to the Slugs raises the bar and turns an old English favourite into a multi-cultural dish with ingredients from all over the world whilst firmly rooted in some very British vegetables. The recipe comes in two parts. It’s starts with Braised Lentils, a dish that is a complete meal or make a lot and keep some to use as the base for the Cottage Pie.
Braised Lentils. Flo recommends Puy lentils because they are more flavoursome than other lentils and keep their texture. Puy lentils come from a particular place in southern central part of France (the French are very precious about this fact, and rightly so) and are considered to be the Rolls Royce of lentils and probably the only lentil you’ll find served as an accompaniment in top restaurants.
Take: 345g Puy lentils, 1 large onion peeled and sliced, 1 carrot chopped in chunks, 3 celery stalks chopped in chunks, 1 red chilli, finely chopped small, 3 cloves of garlic, chopped, 3 Bay leaves, a bunch of parsley, a glass of white wine or light beer (optional), 1/3rd cup of Tamari sauce, 2 tbsp oilive oil, 1/2 tsp of cumin seed, 500ml home made strong vegetable stock. Flo’s recipe includes 2 cloves and 1/2 tsp of smoked paprika but she suggests you leave these out if you’re using the lentils for a cottage pie.
Toast the lentils in a pan over heat to bring out the flavour, set aside. Heat oil in a large pan add cumin seeds, cloves and onions. Cook gently until the onion is transparent. Add garlic, carrots, celery and chilli, cover and allow to sweat on a low heat. Next add lentils, paprika and wine/beer, mix well and simmer to allow the liquid to evaporate. Add Tamari. Pour enough stock to cover lentils and bring to the boil over a medium heat. Slow cooking is important, so as not to shock the gentle flavourings. Add bay leaves and half the parsley. Lower heat and simmer until lentils are cooked but not overly cooked, check at 15 minutes and thereafter in short intervals. When cooked remove cloves and add rest of the parsley.
To make the topping any root vegetable or combination works, experiment or go with favourites. Traditional cottage pie is beef, or lamb (shepherd’s pie) with mashed potatoes on top, grilled to make a crispy topping then serve with a green vegetable like peas or cabbage.
I chose parsnip and sweet potato for contrasting colours and textures placed as two separate layers. Celeriac and potato mixed together would work or a mash up of different root vegetables. Add butter or olive oil to the vegetables when mashing, this will hold the texture and flavours together and give structure to the pie. Use a shallow or a deep pie dish, it all depends on what you prefer. I went for a deep layer effect to make the most of the contrasting colours. Finish in a medium hot oven for about twenty minutes.
This dish is right up there on my list of comfort foods and as a complete meal in one very yummy. I’ve named my version the gourmand’s lentil layer pie due to the posh lentils and layers (your could have several vegetable layers if you were feeling up to the challenge . . . and more than three pans).