The Italian's Shepherd’s Pie with celery root mash
My stepfather, Gianfranco, wrote a cookbook for our family. It’s a lovely book, full of classic and inspired Italian recipes that he learned from his grandmother, mother, sister and friends in all of the countries he has lived in — including Libya, Argentina, Italy and Mexico.
While his recipe repertoire is limited to probably fewer than 100 dishes, I think that's ultimately what makes them so good. Together with all these unique influences from his life and travels, he has perfected dishes that are simple, comforting and relatively easy to make, with fresh ingredients bought daily from the nearest (and typically best bargain) store. Once in a very rare while he'll update a recipe or attempt to cook something new, but most of the time dinner is a dish that he has made a million times over by heart. He never looks a recipe. And it was a real struggle for him to write anything down for his book.
Growing up, as most of us do, I never fully appreciated the meals he made us. I was bored of pasta and minestrone soup and felt embarrassed when I was the only fourth grader taking octopus salad for lunch in my brown paper bag (even though I really loved it). Now, one of the things I look most forward to when going home is his cooking and learning his techniques in the kitchen. Even though we often argue over whether or whole wheat pasta actually counts as real pasta or the advantages of buying organic produce, in many ways I respect his stubbornness for sticking to what he knows.
I’ll be sharing more of these recipes as I go along, as the simple ones have become staples for weeknight dinners and the more elaborate ones perfect for entertaining friends.
With St. Patrick’s day this week, I thought it would be fitting to share one of my favorite Gianfranco recipes — a Shepherd’s pie that isn’t your typical meat and potatoes dish. It’s one he picked up from a friend while living in Argentina. As he does, he put an Italian spin on it with capers and olives instead of peas and carrots.
Since my family is trying to eat leaner and cleaner these days, I altered the recipe a bit to use mashed celery root in place of potatoes and cheese instead of breadcrumbs. The sweetness of the celery root with the smokiness of the paprika and brininess of the olives and capers make this dish a wonderful balance of flavors and textures. It’s truly one of my favorite meals and one that I'm thankful he passed on.
Celery root can seem challenging to prep, but all you need to do is give it a good scrub and cut away the peel with a knife. If you have chicken or beef stock on hand, you could use that in place of the water when boiling the celery root for added flavor. Also, any kind of olive works fine here, but I find Castelvetranos to be tastiest and meatiest of all olives.
3 large celery roots, finely chopped
1 yellow onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
¼ cup olive oil
1 ½ pounds ground sirloin
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 tablespoon fresh oregano (or 1 teaspoon dried)
2 teaspoons smoked paprika
1 teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
¼ cup pitted Castelvetrano olives
2 teaspoons capers, drained
¼ cup parmigiano-reggiano, finely shredded
Small bunch fresh parsley, chopped
In a sauce pot over medium heat, warm 2 tablespoons of the oil until hot. Add the celery root, half the onion, and the garlic. Season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until the celery root has just begun to soften and caramelize, 8 to 10 minutes. Stir in 1 cup water, cover, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the celery root is tender and most of the liquid has been absorbed, 20 to 25 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a frying pan over medium heat, warm the remaining oil until hot. Add the remaining onion, the sirloin, tomato paste, oregano, paprika, cumin, red pepper flakes, and a pinch of salt. Cook, breaking the meat apart with a spoon, until browned, 8 to 10 minutes. Stir in the olives and capers. Season with salt and pepper and remove from the heat. Let this cool while you prepare the mashed celery root.
Using a fork or vegetable masher, mash the celery-root until mostly smooth.
Fill individual baking dishes or one 8 x 8 baking pan with a layer of the meat. Top with a layer of the celery root mash. Sprinkle the cheese on top and transfer to the oven. Bake until browned on top, 12 to 15 minutes.
Carefully remove the baking dishes from the oven, let them cool, and garnish with the parsley.