The Saturday after Thanksgiving was so deliciously frigid here in Helena that I could hardly bear to leave the house. Highs of 0°F is far to icy for my blood. Adam spent several hours outside shoveling our driveway and various footpaths, like the rugged Montana mountain man that he is, so I busied myself in the kitchen preparing a warm meal for us to nibble on, while the sun set on our snowy street.
Bison. We often purchase ground bison in two-packs from Costco. Bison is naturally leaner than beef, and I like to use it in sauces or meatloaf-style mixtures. I had set this in the refrigerator to thaw last Wednesday and forgot about it in the Thanksgiving rush, so I needed to use it before it went bad. Vegetables. I had a crisper drawer full of green goodies that I was dying to use. I adore Thanksgiving, but it is a holiday where nearly all green vegetables are breaded, smothered in butter and cream, or baked with some sort of fried topping. This is fine for a day or two, but by Saturday, I felt we could use a hit of something a bit healthier. I had just picked up a beautiful fennel bulb at the grocer the day before, so that helped decide my flavor profile (Italian). The other vegetables I included in addition to the fennel were: leeks, yellow onion, rainbow carrots, celery, garlic, and an entire bundle of Swiss chard.
Red Wine Sauce. The gravy base in the vegetable and bison mixture is not a traditional gravy, as I personally prefer the tang of a wine- or vinegar-based sauce to the pure, rich buttery flavor of gravy. I also enjoy the simplicity of a simple sauce. I was loathe to use my favorite bottle of red wine as a cooking wine, but it did give me the excuse to open it up and have a glass (or two). The wine I used was a blend of Zinfandel, Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, and quite jammy without being overpowering- anything similar would work just as well. Finally, the only other ingredients in the sauce are a few healthy glugs of Worcestershire sauce and a large spoonful of tomato paste.
Potatoes. The true reason that I made a shepherd’s pie instead of a meatloaf is because I wanted to use up my leftover mashed potatoes from Thanksgiving. I had made a scrumptious mashed potato recipe with caramelized onion, roasted garlic, sour cream and Parmesan cheese…then accidentally heavily over-salted it. Sigh. (Such is my penance for giggling [affectionately] at the little girl on Master Chef Junior for crying about over-salting her potatoes.) I couldn’t bear the idea of eating the potatoes plain, so I felt that combining them with a decidedly unsalty vegetable mixture would even out the overall sodium content a bit. Because I was using leftovers, my layer of potatoes was thin, and with the broiled mozzarella on top, more like a crust than the thick layer of fluffy potatoes common to traditional shepherd pies. Feel free to customize to your liking. Fresh Marinated Mozzarella. This could easily be made without the fresh mozzarella on top (or in the mashed potatoes, for that matter). I make no bones about my love for le fromage in all its glorious forms, however, and include it whenever possible. A meal simply does not seem complete to me without some form of cheese involved. This may or may not be the reason I cannot seem to drop those last ten pounds. At any rate, there were Italian-marinated fresh mozzarella balls in the deli section of our natural food store for 50% on Friday, priced low for quick sale, so I thought it best to use them up sooner rather than later. Fresh aromatic herbs. I had fresh thyme in the fridge, and our basil plant has exploded since I began using these. If I were to make this again, I will keep the basil fresh and added it to the top of the pie before serving, but it worked just as well cooked into the vegetable mixture. I also was fairly heavy-handed with the use of a generic Italian seasoning mix, purchased in bulk from our organic food store. Bison & Swiss Chard Shepherd’s Pie
1 lb. ground bison (or beef, turkey, or venison – just be sure to adjust butter levels to the relative fat content of your meat of choice)
1 yellow onion, roughly chopped
1 bulb fresh fennel, roughly chopped
2 leeks, finely sliced with a rough chop across
4 medium carrots, finely diced (I used a bunch of purple, yellow and orange rainbow carrots for extra color, although you can see that the addition of red wine mostly negated that)
1 stalk celery, finely diced 2-4 cloves grated* garlic, to taste (see note on grating garlic at the bottom of this post)
1 large bunch Swiss chard, stems removed, and roughly chopped into 1-inch squares
1 handful fresh basil chiffonade
1 large pinch fresh thyme leaves, stripped from stems
1-3 cups red cooking wine, to taste (bone broth will also work)
5-10 shakes of Worcestershire sauce, to taste
Heaping tablespoon of tomato paste, to taste
2-5 cups mashed potatoes (potatoes, butter, milk or cream, salt and pepper, and any additions you enjoy)
Butter or extra virgin olive oil, for sautéing
Salt & pepper, to taste
1. Melt butter in decently-sized sauté or chef’s pan on medium heat. Add diced carrots and cook slightly for one to two minutes; add remaining hard vegetables (leeks, fennel, celery, onion) and sauté until soft and translucent. Grate garlic into pan, add Italian seasoning to your desired taste level, and give it a good stir. Remove the vegetable mixture to a separate bowl.
2. In the same pan, add the ground bison and sprinkle liberally with Worcestershire sauce. Cook until nearly all the pink is gone. Turning up the heat toward the end of the process will sear the edges of the meat a bit – but not too much! Deglaze the pan (with the meat in it) by adding a few cups of red wine. Add the tomato paste and stir to combine. Taste as you go- you may need more or less, depending on the type of wine used, or how strong you like wine flavor in your cooking. If you prefer a milder red wine taste, replace some or all with beef bone broth or stock. I added enough wine to bring the sauce up to about level with the meat in the pan, but you may prefer more or less. Add additional Worcestershire sauce to taste. As state previously, I prefer my food to be very tangy and flavorful, and am heavy-handed with the use of Worcestershire, Tobasco, lemon juice, balsamic, and the like. Adam has been known to say, “All I taste is vinegar” – when I think a sauce is just right for my taste buds. So, use your best judgment according to your personal tastes when adding condiments like this to your cooking. You are in control of your own kitchen!
3. Once you are satisfied with the bison portion, add in the cooked vegetable mixture you prepared previously. Stir and allow to absorb for a few minutes. Add in the Swiss chard, fresh thyme, and basil. Reserve some fresh basil for a garnish. Adjust seasonings, salt and pepper, and add a touch more liquid if the sauce has cooked down beyond your liking. Turn on the broiler in your oven to heat up while you assemble the pie.
4. Remove the bison-vegetable mixture to a 9×13 or similarly-sized casserole dish. Spoon the warm mashed potatoes over the top of the mixture and spread to cover the entire pie. Dot the top of the potatoes with the fresh marinated mozzarella balls. I used about twelve of the 1-inch diameter variety. Regular slices of fresh mozzarella, torn into chunks, or shredded Parmesan, white cheddar, or similar would also be delicious (although I find that softer cheeses, like cheddar, can become very oily, very quickly, under the broiler- so be sure to keep an eye on it).
5. Pop the pie under the broiler for 5-10 minutes, watching closely to be ensure that the top does not burn. Remove when the top is lightly brown and bubbling. I served immediately, but you can always wait a few moments for it to set up properly. We ate this with a side of lemony kale soup, and it was delicious. Rich in flavor, with the subtle fruitiness of the red wine to accompany the vegetables and the comforting umami quality from the bison and mozzarella- but without the feeling of overwhelming heaviness that often accompanies meat pies.