Lentil Sentimental and a Good Shepherd’s Pie

One of my friends enjoys telling the story about the night his parents came to dinner. It was during the late 1970s, at the height of the hippy era, when many young folk had a brief flirtation with vegetarianism, which for many, was embodied in the form of a lentil. Peter had just moved into his first share house. He proudly presented the main course, his signature dish at the time, a lentil curry. His parents were horrified, exclaiming loudly that they had not migrated all the way from Poland to Australia to eat lentils. Peter narrates this story like an episode from Seinfeld, and adds that his parents eat meat for every meal, with an occasional side vegetable in the form of either a pickle or sauerkraut. Underlying this humourous tale lies the strong historic association of lentils with poverty and hardship.

When I trawl through the food memories of my own childhood, there are no lentils. If pulses turned up at all, they took the form of split peas: a yellow or green split pea, married with a ham bone or two, made a thick, salty soup. Split peas were also mixed with barley, the iconic McKenzie’s soup mix, a pantry staple in many Australian homes in the past. It’s still a staple in mine today. My mother and grandmother always added a lamb shank, but I’m very happy using vegetable stock and/or stock cubes to flavour this old fashioned soup, which goes by the name ‘Nana’s soup’ regardless of the age or gender of the maker. It is the soup of everyone’s Nana.

Rachael, seven years old, Annapurna Range, Nepal, 1979

My love of lentils became more pronounced after a trip to Nepal at the end of 1978. We trekked through the Annapurna range near Pokhara with two young children in tow. The meal along route was invariably Dal Bhat, a Nepalese dish consisting of a mild flavoured soupy dal of red lentils, with rice and one or two vegetables on the side. ‘Eat that kids because that’s all there is,’ and they did because they were hungry. Whenever I make Dal Bhat today, I return to that adventure in the mountains of the Himalayas. The key to Dal Bhat is to keep it plain and simple.

Old fish- tail mountain, Machapuchare, Annapurna range, Nepal, 1979.
Andrew, 8 years old, Nepal,1979.

My lentil repertoire has become more sophisticated over the years though I return often to the classic Lentil Shepherd’s Pie. Everyone has a version, I’m sure. I don’t associate lentils with poverty or the hippy era. They are, for me, the most comforting food of all.

Lentil Shepherd’s Pie

On the surface, a lentil shepherd’s pie seems incredibly simple to make but many fail due to blandness or because they lack the traditional references. Modern versions might include the addition of sweet potato or parmesan in the mash. Other versions search for umami by adding miso or soy sauce to the lentil mixture. Play around if you like but I’m a bit of a stickler for tradition with this dish and prefer the old British flavours. 

My recipe is a descriptive rather than prescriptive and gives only a rough approximation of quantities.

  • Boil up some brown lentils, about 1½ cups should make enough for a pie for 4-6 people. Cook the lentils in 3-4 cups of water with a bay leaf and one onion, peeled and halved. Keep an eye on the liquid and top up as required. When the lentils are soft, drain them, catching the cooking liquid in a bowl beneath.
  • Boil some peeled potatoes, enough for 4 people. Add a little salt to the cooking water. When ready, drain and mash with butter and milk.
  • Cut up one large onion and gently fry in a pan with a mixture of olive oil and butter. Then add two chopped garlic cloves, a non traditional addition but a habit I can’t break. 
  • When the onion is soft and golden, add the drained lentils, Worcestershire sauce ( this is the key ingredient so add a fair bit- 2 tablespoons or more), some dried mixed herbs, a few slurps of tomato sauce, although tomato paste makes a good substitute, some of the thick reserved cooking water, salt and pepper. You are looking for a tasty dark gravy at the base of the lentils.
  • Put the lentil mixture into a buttered gratin dish, cover with the mash, and using a fork, make groovy patterns on top. Add small knobs of butter. 
  • Bake in a moderate oven until the top is golden and the lentil mixture starts to bubble from underneath.
  • Serve with bottled tomato sauce or any other condiment you fancy. I quite like a home made tomato chilli jam with this, my only concession to modernity.

See also The Lost Photos

Dear Reader, do you have any amusing lentil anecdotes from the past? Do lentils symbolise hard times for you? 

 

19 thoughts on “Lentil Sentimental and a Good Shepherd’s Pie”

  1. I agree lentils are a comfort food in my opinion. However, my mother and grandmother always used the McKenzie’s soup mix of barley and split peas in many dishes. While at the time I never knew that it was ‘hardship’ food, I now look back and realise that lentils were used to replace the more expensive proteins. My mother did so well with the little disposable income she had and I had no idea I was eating ‘poverty’ food. I enjoyed it and still do!

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    1. That’s interesting. My mother tended to rely on lamb for most meals, and the McKenzie’s mix was used to give more variety to the soups that preceded the main course of meat, or the soup was served as a sustaining lunch. Lentils are associated with hardship and poverty. My mother must have been quite well off at the time as they were never really used as such, other than in this soup.

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      1. Very similar to a vegetarian moussaka we make, using brown lentils. At time we’ve also adapted it as a ragu in lasagne, but starting off with the usual sofrito, and adding a little white wine, sometimes finely chopped mushrooms.

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    1. You must remember them hanging in our old house Val? Fortunately, my brother had the negs. He went through a stage of keeping everyone’s negatives, otherwise these photos would never exist today.

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  2. Good idea signora. I will do this for the marito. My mother in law used to make these fantastic lentil patties, we loved them. She had the recipe written down somewhere and I can’t find it. Wish she was still here so I could ask her for it, among other things.

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  3. I love Shepherd’s pie-something I never make at home. I’ve never seen it made with lentils, but it sounds good-you probably can’t taste the lentils much. We always had lentil soup once a week when I was growing up. it is ok, simple with garlic and tomato sauce. I’m not going to say it is my favourite, but good for soaking crusty bread into. Now what I find really gross is riso e lenticchie. yuk. I always insisted on having my riso plain. Love your Nepalese bambini photos! Ciao, Cristina

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    1. I’m very fond of lentils and all beans and pulses as i don’t eat meat. This shepherd’s pie can fool any meat eater. Yes, not mad about riso e lenticchie either, though love the Lebanese version. We also make lentil ragu` for pasta.

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  4. I have no memory of when I first ate lentils! But I have a very clear memory almost exactly like yours about a hippie friend who became a Buddhist vegetarian back at the time when that was happening a lot. He invited us for dinner, and his visiting mother was cooking. She took a vegetarian casserole out of the oven and looked at it disdainfully and said, well maybe that’s not too bad. I haven’t thought about this for years, but I just googled the friend, and he’s still a leader in an American Buddhist monastery.

    Be well… mae at maefood.blogspot.com

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    1. Wonderful recollection Mae, and good to know your friend is alive and well, leading such a wonderful monastery. People often did turn up their noses at vegetarian food back then. Some of those same people have made the switch to vegetarianism lately. It was through Nepalese Buddhism in 1978 that i switched myself, though i do eaten fish on occasion. Now i cant go to the fish markets, I’m feeling the loss.

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  5. The photo of the collection of lentils in jars looks so comforting though a podcast I listen to this morning suggests that such things these days are a form of riches. The Nepal photos are wonderful, I’m so pleased the negatives were held off-site. The Lentil Shepherds pie looks amazing, meat superfluous. I have such wonderful childhood food memories from my grandparents’ farm including shepherds pie made with leftover roast lamb put through the mincer that clipped onto the table but I also remember delicious soups with barley and vegetables as a carrier for some scraps of lamb, beef, an old chicken or rooster. There was the ubiquitous and pungent pea and ham soup, which later my Dad and stepmother made legendary and dangerous by keeping a cool weather pot on the stove for days, weeks, adding water and ad hoc ingredients to it.

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    1. Your memories are close to mine. That big leg of lamb, the Sunday roast, back in the day when lamb was cheap, made school lunch sandwiches and shepherd’s pie … I have Mum’s mincer, though not much use for it here. You’re making me feel nostalgic.

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