“I do hunt, and I do fish, and I don’t apologize to anybody for hunting and fishing.” ~ Norman Schwarzkopf
I never had shepherd’s pie as a kid. My mom never made it. No grandmother on either side of my family passed along their secret ingredient that made their shepherd’s pie a family favorite, requested for any special occasion. Growing up, the closest I had to shepherd’s pie was when my mom would split a hot dog in half down the center, place it on a baking sheet, pile on a mound of mashed potatoes, sprinkle on cheddar cheese, and melt it under the broiler. Not exactly shepherd’s pie, but I see some similarities I guess: meat, potatoes, cheese.
I wasn’t introduced to shepherd’s pie until I graduated high school. Over a college break, I stayed with a friend’s family and we had it for dinner. I immediately was a fan of the gravy soaked beef with vegetables under a dome of potatoes and cheese. I was informed then that this meal was a family favorite, ever requested by aunts, uncles, and cousins when they came to visit. I was secretly a little angry at my own family for trying to pass off hot dogs as an acceptable substitute. Trust me, aunts and uncles weren’t requesting hot dogs as a special treat when visiting my home growing up.
Since then, I have prepared shepherd’s pie many times and experimented with different flavor and texture combinations. I have used different meat bases: elk, deer, pronghorn, beef, lamb, buffalo. I have manipulated the gravy from cream-of-this to cream-of-that or even gone broth or wine based. I’ve switched up the vegetables: corn, celery, carrots, maybe a little cubed sweet potato. Once, I even used mashed turnips in place of the mashed potatoes to see if anyone would notice. For the record, they did, and not really in a good way. The only thing I always keeps the same is a big pile of cheese to finish everything off.
This recipe is a double bonus; it is a wild game dish, and it is a dutch oven recipe that is perfect for your hunting camp! To start, light your coals. I use a charcoal chimney when I am camping. They heat the coals quickly, and the chimney is easy to use. Simply pour the desired number of charcoal briquettes in the top, wad up a few pieces of newspaper, stuff them under the chimney, and light the newspaper. The chimney should start to smoke and the coals should be ready in about 15 minutes. You can tell they are ready to go when the top layer of coals start to turn to ash around the edges.
For this recipe, I used a 12″ oven, but a 14″ would also work fine. Place the oven over a fairly large number of coals, like 20 -25. You want to get the oven as hot as you can in order to fry the meat. You could also use a gas camp stove for this part, which would save on the number of coals needed for the entire recipe.
Drop in a pound of ground elk meat to the oven. I used my homemade elk burger for this recipe, which is simply a 1/4 pound of bacon ends ground with 3/4 pound of elk. I like the bacon because it adds a hint of bacon flavor to the burger but still the perfect amount of fat. Brown the meat, which takes about five to seven minutes. About half way through the meat cooking, throw in the diced carrots, onion, and celery. You want them to cook until they are soft. Once the vegetables are soft, add two or three tablespoons of tomato paste. Season the pot with salt and pepper to your liking.
Okay, it is now gravy time! With the pot still hot, pour in a cup of red wine. You can use whatever type of wine you prefer or have on hand. I used pinot noir this time because I wanted to have a glass of that wine with my dinner, but merlot or cabernet would also be great. Let the wine reduce down by half and then add two cups of beef stock to the pot. Continue to cook over medium high heat and allow this to start to reduce down, which can take around ten minutes.
While the beef stock is reducing, in a large pot of water boil two pounds of potatoes. I used a Yukon potato, but you could use russet or red potatoes too. Another great option when camping would also be the boxed instant mashed potatoes. These would eliminate the need to boil a pot of water and cook the actual potatoes. Boxed instant potatoes simply require adding boiling water to dehydrated potato flakes. Another option would be to make the mashed potatoes at home and just bring them along. You will heat them up when you melt the cheese, so this option works just as well as any.
To the potatoes, add a quarter cup of butter and a quarter cup of milk or cream. You could also add a couple tablespoons of sour cream, if you so desire. Be sure to salt and pepper the potatoes.
Once the stock has reduced down, pour in the can of corn. Spread the mashed potatoes over the top of the elk mixture, making sure to reach all the corners of the pot, and sprinkle on a cup of the cheese of your choice. I tend to use cheddar cheese when I make shepherd’s pie, but I went with a Monterey Jack for this recipe, thinking it would pair better with the red wine. If you are cooking over coals, remove about half the coals, leaving behind 12-14 on the bottom. If you cooked your meat over a camp stove, set out 12-14 coals for your oven to now sit on. Place 15-20 coals on the top of the oven. Let the shepherd’s pie cook for fifteen minutes, giving enough time to melt the cheese, heat the mixture thoroughly, and soften the corn.
Shepherd’s pie is comfort food at it’s best, and this dutch oven version allows you to bring comfort food straight to the outdoors. Perfect for sharing around the campfire, this meal is hearty with fluffy cheese covered mashed potatoes, and a little bit sweet from the carrots, corn, and touch of red wine. The elk definitely shines as the star of this dish! Enjoy!