Shepherd's pie is a slow-cooked combination of minced meat, vegetables and gravy topped with a mound of buttered mashed potatoes, then baked. While green beans are not traditional, they can be swapped out for an even more modern ingredient -- okra -- to give this classic dish a new twist. Since cooked okra acts as a natural thickener, it will work to your advantage in creating a creamy gravy for the pie.
Cottage pie originated as a means to use leftover meat and potatoes, which were introduced in the late 1700s as an affordable crop for the poor, or "cottage dwellers." Almost 100 years later, people started referring to the dish as shepherd's pie because it was common to use mutton instead of beef, and a shepherd's herd was lamb, not cattle. When ordering at a restaurant, you might still see cottage pie on the menu, but it will probably be made with lamb since over the years both the names and ingredients in this dish have become intertwined.
The gravy in shepherd's pie derives its taste from browned meat. Once the meat has cooked, wine and tomato paste are typically used to remove the brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Adding onions and carrots is a standard way to up the flavor ante. Peas are sometimes included in the pie or served alongside it. As recipes have evolved, baked beans, green beans and corn have been incorporated. As long as cooking methods are taken into consideration, almost any vegetable will work in a shepherd's pie.
When you add okra to shepherd's pie, it will develop a gooey, glutinous, texture as it cooks. The goo comes from mucilage, which oozes out when the vegetable is heated. This compound makes for an excellent thickening agent in soups, stews, and the gravy in shepherd's pie. If you want to use fresh okra here, look for bright green, blemish-free, pods when shopping. Larger, tougher, pods contain more mucilage, so they work well in this recipe. Slicing the raw pods into small rounds creates extra surface area and allows more mucilage to be released as your pie bakes.
If fresh okra is out of season, you can use frozen. Buy a pre-sliced variety that can easily be added to your gravy. Read the cooking instructions carefully since frozen okra is usually blanched before packaging and will require less cooking time than raw would. The longer frozen okra sits, the more flavor it will lose, so use it within 10 to 12 months of purchase for optimum quality. Pungent spices like chili powder and cayenne pepper pair well with okra, so consider adding a dash of each for extra flavor, and a truly original shepherd's pie.
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