I have had to work hard to love winter as an adult, and so I find it intriguing that most of my favorite memories from my childhood involve being home in the wintertime.
One of my most vivid memories is from when I was around 6 years old. I remember wearing white stockings and sliding down the tiled hallways of my childhood home. It was winter, and the whole house was filled with the savory smell of sautéed mushrooms and meat simmering in gravy. It couldn’t have been past 4:30 p.m., but it was dark outside in upstate New York, and the bright lights inside made me feel like we were in some kind of cozy burrow.
I played that way, sliding on stockinged feet in the hallway with my siblings, until my mom called us to the table for our favorite dinner: shepherd’s pie.
Shepherd’s pie is a classic English dish that first appeared in the 1700s. Traditionally, it’s made with minced lamb and vegetables, covered with a thick layer of mashed potatoes. My mom, raising four kids, put her own economical spin on it, and we had it with a mix of lamb and ground beef, or just ground beef.
When I think about home today, I think about shepherd’s pie nights: about the sun setting over the snowy yard so that it looked like it sparkled, doing puzzles with my siblings while we waited for dinner, and gathering around the table looking at that giant casserole topped with melted cheese, feeling warm and the kind of good tired you only get from a day spent outside.
As a child, I loved winter, and shepherd’s pie nights had a lot to do with that. Shepherd’s pie for me represented everything that was safe, warm, and secure.
I was in college when I realized that shepherd’s pie is not the most typical comfort food; when my friends had bad days, they craved ice cream or chocolate. But when my world felt like it was falling apart, what I wanted most was peas, carrots, mushrooms, and ground beef, blanketed in mashed potatoes and cheese. I wanted home.
I live in Central Pennsylvania now, and the winters are nowhere near as cold, snowy, or dark as they are in New York. I’ve found that, as with all things in life, winter is what we make of it. If I could embrace winter as a child, then I must have the ability to also embrace the colder, darker, cloudy months as an adult.
So as the season approaches, we begin to change our family rhythms. We can’t have leisurely walks after dinner like we do in the summertime, so I take the girls out for walks after lunch, while the weak light of winter is still strong enough to provide a little warmth. We can’t enjoy the fireflies outside, so we kindle the fire in our stove insert and try to lean into slower evenings of reading or playing games—and I try to embrace the mess that comes with small children playing games.
Most of all, though, we change our cooking rhythms: swapping salads and grilled meats for thick stews, mushroom risotto, and pot roasts. All of that helps turn winter into a sweet time for me, rather than the season I dread most.
But still, there come the frigid days when you feel like you are cold from the inside out, like you will never quite warm up enough, when you can’t stand too close to a window because you feel a draft, and the thought of bundling up two toddlers to take them anywhere feels overwhelming. Those are the days when I return to shepherd’s pie.
In the morning, I knead dough for lemon and rosemary bread and let it rise by our fire while I pull out whatever leftover vegetables we have in our fridge. My girls stand on stools next to me as I simmer beef, tomato paste, garlic, and thyme in a big cast-iron skillet. I’ve tweaked my mom’s recipe to suit my tastes, adding more herbs and spices to the dish.
While the potatoes boil, I let my girls race their cars across our tile floor. As the smells of my childhood fill the house, I wonder what they will remember of these days.
I think about how winter must have been for my mom with four small children. Was shepherd’s pie just another way of filling bellies for her, or was it also her way of shutting out the dark?
As we gather around the table with warm bread and my older daughter builds mounds out of her potato, I think again, winter’s not so bad. I wonder if my girls one day will move somewhere even colder than here, if they will make shepherd’s pie with their own twists to embrace their own winters as adults.
I wonder if they, too, will turn to shepherd’s pie when they long for home.
- 4–5 large potatoes
- 5 tablespoons butter, divided
- 3–4 tablespoons milk
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 2 pounds ground beef, lamb, or a mix of both
- 1 large onion, finely chopped
- 2 cups diced carrots
- 2 cups sliced mushrooms
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 tablespoons fresh thyme, minced
- 2 tablespoons fresh rosemary, minced
- Pinch of cayenne pepper
- 2 cups peas
- 1–2 cups chicken broth
- 2 cups shredded cheese of choice (I like Gouda or sharp cheddar)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Place the potatoes in a large stockpot and fill with water (I leave the potatoes unpeeled). Bring water to a boil and simmer for about 20 minutes, or until potatoes are tender enough to be pierced easily with a fork.
Drain well and place potatoes in the bowl of a standing mixer (or use a large mixing bowl with a handheld mixer). Add 4 tablespoons butter, milk, and salt and pepper to taste. Mix on medium speed until light and fluffy. Set aside.
In a skillet, brown ground meat until almost all the pink is gone, about 10 minutes. Remove from skillet and set aside.
In the same skillet, melt the remaining 1 tablespoon butter. Add onion and carrots and cook for about 5 minutes, or until onions are translucent. Add mushrooms and cook over medium heat until tender, about 8 minutes.
Add tomato paste and garlic and saute for 2 more minutes. Add fresh herbs, cayenne, peas, and chicken broth and simmer for a few minutes, until the mixture begins to thicken.
Add meat back into the skillet and mix in.
Fill a 9×13 casserole dish with the meat mixture. Layer the mashed potatoes on top and sprinkle with cheese.
Bake for about 40–50 minutes, or until the casserole begins to bubble. Let stand for 5–10 minutes, then enjoy.
Rachael Dymski is an author, florist, and mom to two little girls. She is currently writing a novel about the German occupation of the Channel Islands and blogs on her website, RachaelDymski.com