Lighten up Shepherd’s Pie with beef and cauliflower

The weather is getting colder and we’re tucking into comfort food over in our home. Doing a recipe makeover on a tasty-but-less-than-healthy dish is one of my favorite challenges.

Today, I’m taking on a wintertime classic with my Lightened Shepherd’s Pie. Typically, shepherd’s pie is made from fatty-and-filling lamb, which is turned into a flavorful slow-cooked heady stew, and is topped with creamy, cheesy mashed potatoes, made lush by a nice-sized helpings of butter and heavy cream. The resulting marriage is divine. How close could I get to the original, while making some healthier ingredient swaps? The answer is: pretty close.

The changes were actually pretty simple, and the resulting recipe stayed quick enough to make this easily a weeknight meal. I cooked the filling in a large oven-safe skillet, so rather than bother with transferring the filling to a new baking dish, I just topped it and baked it right there in the saute pan, saving on cleanup time, too. Frozen veggies also saved both prep time and money.

The biggest recipe change: I swapped out potatoes and used cauliflower puree instead. I simmered frozen cauliflower and fresh garlic in broth (for flavor) until tender and then blended it up into a puree with just a touch of cream cheese instead of butter and cream. The cream cheese added a marvelous silky texture and a hint of pleasantly-tangy cheesiness to the topping, so just a little bit of shredded cheese melted on top of the pie felt cheesier than it actually was.

I also tweaked the filling, relying on a bunch of vegetables more than meat for heft and flavor. Onions, finely-chopped mushrooms, peas, carrots and spinach all added enough complexity and texture, so that one pound of ground meat easily stretched to eight servings. Instead of traditional lamb, I used lean ground beef, but given how little meat each serving has, I might be persuaded occasionally to use lamb, and why not — a dark ale for extra wintery comfort, since the recipe manages to have a ton of flavor even with only one cup of beer in it.

The Lightened Shepherd’s Pie is comforting, but not overly filling; a perfect weeknight meal to get us through winter.

Lightened Shepherd’s Pie

Servings: 8

Start to finish: 60 minutes


1 pound (16 ounces) frozen small cauliflower florets, about 5 or 6 cups

1 1/4 cup chicken broth

3 cloves garlic

1 ounce cream cheese

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 cup shredded gruyere or cheddar cheese


1 slice bacon, chopped

1 teaspoon olive oil

1 cup chopped celery, about 2 stalks

1 cup chopped onion, about 1 medium onion

8 ounces finely chopped white mushrooms, about 2 1/2 cups

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 pound 90 percent lean ground beef

2 cups frozen peas and carrots

1 1/2 cups chopped frozen spinach

3 tablespoons tomato paste

1 tablespoon flour

1 cup ale or beer

1 1/2 cup beef broth

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

Make the topping:

Place the frozen cauliflower floret, broth and garlic together in a medium saucepan over high heat and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat to medium low, and let simmer until the cauliflower is very tender and most of the liquid is absorbed, about 12 minutes. Pour everything into a blender and add the cream cheese and salt. Blend on low until very smooth, about 2 minutes, stopping to stir as needed. Set the cauliflower puree aside.

Meanwhile, make the filling:

Cook the bacon in the olive oil in a large oven-safe saute pan over medium heat. Once crisp, remove the bacon from the pan and reserve, keeping any fat in the pan. Add the teaspoon of olive oil, and the onion and celery. Cook over medium heat until vegetables begin to soften, about 5 minutes. Scoot the onion and celery a little to side in the skillet and add the mushrooms to cook them in the center of the pan.

Once the mushrooms are tender, about 5 minutes, add the four cloves of minced garlic and stir all the vegetables together. Scoot them again to the side and brown the ground beef, stirring, in the center of the pan until no longer pink, about 8 minutes. Add the frozen peas, carrots and spinach (no need to thaw), and reserved bacon and stir the meat and veggies together.

Add the tomato paste and flour and stir, cooking for a minute or two. Increase the temperature to medium high, and add the ale or beer, and allow to bubble for a minute. Add the beef broth and let simmer a minute or two while the sauce thickens. (If the filling is too dry, add 1/2 cup water.) Spread the cauliflower puree over the filling, top with the shredded cheese and bake until shepherd’s pie is heated and cheese is bubbling, about 10 to 15 minutes if everything is still warm. Allow to cool for 5 minutes before serving.

Nutrition information per serving: 208 calories; 64 calories from fat; 7 g fat (3 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 43 mg cholesterol; 508 mg sodium; 16 g carbohydrate; 4 g fiber; 6 g sugar; 19 g protein.


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