Italian Shepherds Pie Casserole
Russ and I are blessed with one wonderful son so our home has always been open to his friends. We enjoy the vitality and boundless energy that their youth brings to our life, and enjoy being a part of their growing up. Over the years we have watched them turn from children into young adults and shared with them our love for great food. We gather in our kitchen and everyone has a chore; chopping, stirring, blending, clean-up and getting the food on the table in a timely manner. We try to teach these boys the value of good, local ingredients, healthy nutrition and simply how to cook. I, in particular, love to observe the banter and endless chatter, Russ instructing at the stove, and the miracle of amazing dishes making their way out of the heart of our home. Over the years we have cooked many meals together and have developed traditions that hopefully give a sense of warmth and family to all these young adults.
Our son has since moved out of our nest but Tuesday night dinners and Sunday brunches remain here at our home for him, his girlfriend and an assortment of his childhood friends. There are the occasional guest appearances from family members or family friends that make for an even bigger party and force Russ and I to be creative with our menu choices. At a minimum we will have to come up with recipes that feed six people, of which three are growing young men.
You all know about traditional shepherds pie, which goes a long way in feeding a bigger crowd and is always well received in our home, but we wanted to do something a bit different. So Russ put his thinking cap on and came up with a version that he calls ' Italian Shepherds Pie'.
I became the guinea pig for this new recipe and absolutely loved it. So for our next Tuesday night dinner we tripled the recipe and cooked it for everyone. I kid you not when I say that they scraped their plates and finished every last bite. It was a huge success and is easy to prepare ahead of time so it fits into busy work schedules. The recipe below feeds six people comfortably and we hope you enjoy it as much as our family did.
- 1 cup dried polenta cooked to package directions (do NOT use instant polenta)
- 1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
- 2 tbsp salted butter
- 1 lb ground pork
- 1/2 lb ground veal
- 1 small yellow onion diced
- 1 1/2 tsp ground fennel
- 1 pinch of ground cloves (optional)
- 1 tsp garlic powder
- one small basket of fresh cherry tomatoes or 1 can Sicilian cherry tomatoes
- 1 small eggplant cut into 1/2 inch thick slices
- 2 zucchini sliced diagonally about 1/4 inch thick
- 1 lg red bell pepper sliced into 1/4 inch rings
- 1 lg red onion sliced into 1/4 inch rings
- 1 tbsp GOOD balsamic vinegar
- Olive oil
- Kosher salt
- Fresh ground pepper
Eggplant can be bitter, so to remove the bitter taste gently sprinkle both sides of each slice with kosher salt and layer the slices in a colander. Place a full bowl of water over the eggplant in the colander to press the juices gently but firmly. Let stand for 30 minutes.
Over medium heat gently saute the yellow onion in 1 tbsp of olive oil and sprinkle with a generous pinch of salt. When the onions become translucent and just golden turn the heat up to medium-high and add the meats. Sprinkle the fennel, garlic powder and clove over the meat and stir to incorporate. Stirring constantly and breaking up any lumps, cook just until there is no more pink meat visible and immediately remove from the heat. Gently mix in the cherry tomatoes and set the entire pan aside.
Pre-heat the oven on broil to 500 degrees.
When the eggplant is ready, brush each side with olive oil and place on a baking sheet. The remaining vegetables can be tossed in 2 tbsp of olive oil, 1 tsp salt and fresh ground pepper. This is easily done in a large bowl, use your hands to make sure they are evenly coated. Eggplant is super absorbent so it must be done separately as above.
As there are a significant amount of vegetables, working in batches, place the vegetables under the broiler for 3 minutes on each side. Watch them carefully, they can go from under-cooked to burnt in 30 seconds. Beautifully golden or a little char is perfect.
When all the vegetables have been broiled, sprinkle them with the balsamic vinegar and set them aside.
Turn the oven on to bake and drop it down to 375 degrees.
Cook the polenta according to the package directions, usually 1 cup of polenta to 4 cups of fluid. Feel free to experiment with the cooking fluid, I like to use 1 cup of chicken, veal or vegetable stock and 3 cups of water. When the polenta is fully cooked remove from the heat and stir in the butter and parmesan cheese.
Now we are finally ready to assemble. Layer each ingredient in a deep baking dish beginning with the meat, then the vegetables and topping it with a layer of the creamy polenta. I like to layer each vegetable over the meat so when it is served on a plate all of the beautiful colors are shown.
At this point you may stick the assembled casserole in the refrigerator as a make-ahead option for up to a day, I think this actually tastes better as the ingredients blend nicely.
When you are ready to heat the casserole place it in a 375 degree oven. If coming out of the refrigerator heat for 45 minutes, otherwise 20 - 25 minutes is fine, and serve immediately family style.
This pairs wonderfully with a Pinot Nero (Noir) or a Sangiovese based Super-Tuscan from the Maremma region.