The rush for autumn flavors is in full swing at our house. The cinnamon, nutmeg, clove and allspice have migrated to the front of my spice cabinet. Sweet potatoes are on my weekly shopping list in case I get a hankering for sweet potato pie or casserole. We’re buying cans of pumpkin left and right, if we need to make pumpkin brownies or pumpkin oatmeal or a quick batch of pumpkin coconut pudding. My husband is demanding pumpkin bread this week — or else. (“Or else” what, exactly? He’ll refuse to help me when I can’t get the television remote control to work? That’s a distinct possibility. That thing has way too many buttons.) And he’s dropping heavy hints that it’s high time for his favorite cold-weather dishes, such as beef stew, shepherd’s pie and pot roast.
That got me thinking: How could I put a fall twist on some of these classic, hearty meals? I decided that shepherd’s pie might be pretty with a fluffy topping of bright orange sweet potatoes. (How to fall-ize anything: Just make it orange.) And what goes better with sweet potatoes than turkey? Well, maybe many things. But turkey is one of them.
I must pause here and ask: If shepherd’s pie is traditionally made with lamb and cottage pie is made with beef, then what is a pie made with turkey? What is a person who raises turkeys called, anyway? The correct term is “poulter” (which makes me think, appropriately for the Halloween season, of the 1982 movie “Poltergeist”). Poulter pie is pleasantly alliterative, to be sure. But a poulter can be anyone who raises any type of farm poultry, like chickens, ducks or geese. Therefore, I prefer turkey herder pie, because it makes me think of a lone figure with a staff wandering with his herd — I guess that would be a flock — of turkeys over the hills and valleys of some verdant Midwestern state. (Actually, it turns out that the state that produces the most turkeys is Minnesota, with the state motto “L’Etoile du Nord” or “The Star of the North.” You learn something new every day!)
I thought about using cubed turkey breast, but I like ground turkey because it contains both light and dark meat, and the dark meat is where the flavor is. Ground turkey is also easy to find and easy to work with. And when it’s combined with fresh sage, onion, peas, carrots and a little cream, it’s delicious as all get-out.
First, the sweet potatoes. You can boil them or roast them until they’re soft and mashable. I recommend roasting two sweet potatoes, small to medium in size, skins on, at 350 degrees for at least 45 minutes because that adds a nice toasty flavor. Allow them to cool until they don’t hurt to touch, then remove the skins. (As for me, I freely admit that I peeled, chopped and boiled them because it was faster.) Put the warm sweet potato pulp in a bowl and thoroughly mash it with ¹/3 stick butter, ¼ teaspoon salt, ¼ teaspoon nutmeg and ¼ to ¹/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan. I use shelf-stable Parmesan in many recipes but, in this case, I sprung for a wedge. That mellow, nutty flavor made all the difference. Add 1/4 to ¹/3 cup milk (or cream, if you want to be decadent) and mix until creamy rather than stodgy. If it needs more cream or milk to make it smooth, go ahead and add some.
If you want to make an all-sweet-potato topping, you should do that. But my sweet potatoes were on the smallish side and didn’t make enough to cover the turkey filling. I needed an emergency infusion of more orange topping, so I grabbed one of the 5,000 cans of pumpkin in my pantry and augmented the sweet potatoes with half a can of pumpkin puree. It turned out to be a delicious combination! (Let me reassure you that the remaining half-can of pumpkin did not go to waste because I used it to make pumpkin oatmeal.)
Set the sweet potatoes (or sweet potatoes and pumpkin) aside and saute the onions in an oven-proof skillet with a little butter or olive oil and ¼ teaspoon salt. I always put in more onions than I think I need, because after plenty of sauteing or cooking, they turn invisible and melt into whatever dish I’m making, graciously lending their mellow flavor to all the other ingredients. For this pie, you’ll want to dice a whole medium onion and let it slowly soften in the skillet, stirring occasionally until the onions are translucent and lightly browned.
Now add half a pound of ground turkey and 1 tablespoon of fresh chopped sage and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. You can go for a full pound if you want, but I’m only feeding two people and we don’t eat that much meat. Brown the turkey with the onions. (To be safe, ground turkey needs to be cooked to 165 degrees.) Adding the sage at this point allows the turkey to absorb that fresh herb flavor. When the turkey is done, add 1 cup of chopped carrots. Continue cooking until the carrots are tender but not mushy, then add 3-4 tablespoons of cream with 1 tablespoon flour as a thickening agent. Take a little taste and add salt as needed. Lastly, remove the turkey from the heat and stir in 1 cup of frozen peas. The peas may be frozen now but they will cook in the oven, yet still retain their color.
Use a spatula or the back of a spoon to spread the sweet potatoes over the turkey mixture, adding a few rustic swirls as you go. You want a fairly uniform layer of sweet potatoes so that every scoop of pie has a similar topping-to-filling ratio and no one feels left out of all that sweet potato action. Put the skillet in a 350-degree oven and bake for 30 minutes. If the peaks of your sweet potato swishes get browned, that’s even better. Garnish with more grated Parmesan and a couple of fresh sage leaves.
Next week: How to make a festive Halloween yard display out of 4,999 cans of pureed pumpkin.
Turkey Herder Pie
2 small to medium sweet potatoes, either roasted or boiled until soft
1 cup pumpkin puree (optional)
5-6 tablespoons butter
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan
1/4 to 1/3 cup milk or cream or as needed
Salt to taste
½ pound ground turkey
1 medium onion, diced
1 cup chopped carrots
1 cup frozen peas
1 tablespoon fresh chopped sage
1/4 teaspoon salt or salt to taste
¼ teaspoon pepper
3-4 tablespoons cream
1 tablespoon flour
Mash pulp of sweet potatoes and pumpkin (if using) with butter, Parmesan, ¼ teaspoon salt and nutmeg. Add 1/4 to 1/3 cup milk or cream or as much as needed to create a smooth, easily spreadable texture. Set aside. Saute onion in an oven-proof skillet with a bit of olive oil or butter and ¼ teaspoon salt until translucent and slightly browned. Brown turkey with onion, fresh sage and pepper. Add carrots and cook until tender. Add 3-4 tablespoons cream and the flour. Remove from heat and add peas. Spread sweet potatoes (or sweet potatoes and pumpkin) evenly over turkey filling. Place uncovered skillet in oven and bake for 30 minutes at 350 degrees. Garnish with freshly grated Parmesan and sage leaves.