In the grammar of cooking, leftovers are linking verbs: I am, I was, I had been, I became, I will become. They can link cultures, travel across geographies, and transform frozen or barren landscapes. In the economy of the imagination, they can spend foolishly like a drunken sailor on a 3-day leave or prudently like a spinster aunt holding on to her original IBM stock. When I say leftovers, I don’t mean having enough to reheat a second meal. I refer, instead, to spoonfuls or handfuls—agents of flavor to puree or scatter. Leftovers can hug the corners of pots or climb out of bowls. I often transform last night’s grain into hot cereal the next morning or add it to a pot of soup in the afternoon. Sauces and salsas are like fitness instructors waking up broth and energizing sandwiches. And potatoes are the handymen of leftovers: they can be as noisy as small town gossip or as innocent as a child forming a snow angel. I recently used a baked potato as an excuse for making potato focaccia and a tortano. This week after a friend sent us off with leftover sweet potatoes from dinner at her house, my wife and I conspired on the ride home. I don’t think either of us wanted to be stuck with the hot potato of deciding what we would have for dinner the following night. Our son has been ravenous lately. This translates into “he will want meat.” But then there was the problem of our non-meat eating daughter. “How about shepherd’s pie?” my wife murmured. “We can have one with meat and one without.”
My shepherd’s pie is an easily adaptable, versatile, always changing recipe that is usually inspired by leftover potatoes of any kind. The version below is like picadillo with a toupee.
1 lb. ground turkey
2 large carrots, diced
2 celery stalks, diced
2 red bell peppers, diced
a handful of frozen peas
4 cloves of garlic
a handful of raisins
a handful of pecans (for the vegetarian one)
cooked sweet potatoes
cumin, cayenne, chili powder, oregano
salt to taste
Caramelize onions in olive oil. Add garlic and vegetables . Sauté until soft. Add ground turkey and stir, breaking up clumps, until cooked. Add raisins, pecans, if using, and spices. Cook for a few additional minutes. Transfer to a baking dish (or keep in a cast iron skillet, if used) and cover with a layer of mashed sweet potatoes. Dot with butter. Bake at 350° in a pre-heated oven until heated through.
A warm blanket of sweet potatoes that covers a cozy bed of vegetables and ground turkey, not a bad way to shepherd in dinner on a winter night.