This vegetarian version of shepherd’s pie, from A Modern Way to Eat by Anna Jones, proved to be perfect for dinner on an autumnal day when neither of us felt like cooking anything too demanding. This was partly because I was having a bake-in, making brownies and a fig and blackberry tart, inspired by one I’d eaten at Allegra McEvedy’s wonderful wine bar Albertine (only thing wrong with it is that it’s not round the corner from my flat!).
So I cooked this comforting pie, fragrant with thyme and spices but requiring only some chopping, stirring and mashing, alongside the baking. It was a substantial dinner: I made a half quantity, and have almost two portions left, so the full recipe below would feed six generously and eight more politely, especially if you were serving a starter and dessert. I have slightly reduced the quantity of sweet potato, but feel free to add an extra sweet potato if you like lots of mash. Next time, I might try adding a bay leaf and some mushrooms to the lentils, as I think they would go well and ring the changes.
4 medium sweet potatoes
2 tbsps olive oil
4 spring onions
grated zest of 1/2 lemon
2 sticks celery
2 red onions
2 clove garlic
slug of olive oil
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground allspice
half a small pack of thyme
1 400g tin tomatoes
400g puy lentils
Cook the sweet potatoes until tender either by baking in the oven at 200ºC/fan 180ºC/gas 6 for 30-45 minutes (depending on size; remember to pierce the skins so they don’t explode), or boiling them in a pan of boiling water for about 15-20 minutes. I baked mine because I wanted some for making brownies too, and I had the oven on for pre-baking a pastry case. Heat the oven to 220ºC/fan 200º/gas 7 for the pie.
Peel and chop the carrots and onions, trim and chop the celery and finely chop the garlic. Put a large frying pan over a medium heat, add a slug of olive oil and, when hot, add the vegetables. Cook, stirring occasionally for about 10 minutes until they are softening. Roughly crush the cumin, and add all the spices and the leaves of the thyme to the pan. Stir and cook for a few more minutes. Then add the tin of tomatoes, the lentils and two tins full of water. Crush the tomatoes a bit with your spoon and turn up the heat to bring everything to a brisk simmer. Give it a stir from time to time, and add a little extra water if necessary. After 15-20 minutes the lentils should be just cooked and the sauce thickened. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Warm a little olive oil in a medium pan, chop the spring onion and cook it gently in the oil for a few minutes. Add the sweet potato and mash. Check the seasoning and add the lemon zest. Tip the lentil mixture into an oven dish and top with the mashed sweet potato, roughing up the surface with a fork. I added a few knobs of butter on the top, because that’s what I do with shepherd’s pie to get a nice crispy top, but obviously don’t do this if you’re cooking for vegans.
Bake for 25 minutes until the top is golden and the pie is sizzling hot. I followed the recipe in adding some thyme to the top of the mash, but I don’t recommend this – the thyme just crisps up without adding much flavour and makes it look disconcertingly as if the pie is covered in dead flies!
Serve with steamed green, such as cavolo nero, kale, spring greens or cabbage. And don’t blame me if you feel very full afterwards.