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Carb Solution: Irish Shepherd’s Pie

By Dennis Linden

Over half of the U.S. adult population, some 154 million, qualify as being overweight or obese. Another 29 million of us have Diabetes, many as a direct result of being overweight. Then there are the 23.9 million overweight children who are dutifully following the example of their XXL adult role models. Diabetes and these extra pounds cost this country billions annually in both medical and economic resources; not to mention the affect these weight-related maladies have on a person’s overall mental well-being and happiness. However, both diabetes and being overweight are very manageable, even preventable, with a few lifestyle tweaks. By maintaining a sensible diet in conjunction with some consistent exercise, no matter how minimal, we can all be in total control of our own weight. One easy way to start taking that control is to make decisions about the foods we eat based on the glycemic index [GI] and glycemic load [GL].

Simply put, our bodies convert all foods into sugar calories that provide energy to the body via the blood stream. The Glycemic Index assigns a score of 1 to 100 to all foods based how speedy the body converts that food into sugar. Foods that break down slowly enable the body to assimilate theses calories of energy more efficiently without overwhelming the body with more sugar than it can process. While this is especially important for diabetics who process sugars much slower than others, everyone can benefit from eating foods that have low glycemic scores since they also reduce appetite and encourage the metabolism to burn body fat. Conversely, a diet of foods high on the glycemic charts have been proven to actually increase appetite and impede effective fat oxidation.

A Quickie Glycemic Primer:
  • The glycemic index of a food compares its effect on blood sugar level to that of pure glucose, which has a score of 100. White breads, which are made of processed white flour, are at the top of this scale, scoring a “perfect” 100 on the glycemic index. For perspective, a score of 55 or below denotes a low-glycemic-index food; 70 or above is considered very high. Serving size is not a consideration in arriving at a food’s Glycemic Index number.
  • The glycemic load, on the other hand, focuses on how much digestible carbohydrates (sugars) a food contains in a typical single serving, which is defined as approximately 3.5 ounces. For glycemic load, a score of 20 or more is high, while 10 or less is low.
This being the month of shamrocks and green beer, here’s a carb-friendly remake of one of Ireland’s most iconic comfort food dishes. From what I could glean from the ‘net, the origins of Shepherd’s Pie seems to have been a delicious way to use up leftovers in 16th century Ireland. It is basically a lamb stew topped with mashed potatoes and then baked. Of course the potatoes are a problem for those of us watching carbs, but there’s a great substitute ingredient that became very popular in Ireland during the great potato famine – rutabagas. In Europe these tubers are also known as “yellow turnips” to distinguish them from their much whiter-colored cousins; the word “rutabaga” itself has its roots [no pun] in a similar-sounding Swedish word for this tuber and is certainly so much more fun to say than yellow turnip!

Rutabagas have a slightly sweet aftertaste compared to the more astringent turnip and can be prepared much like a potato. That is, rutabagas can be baked or mashed easily once cooked; the vegetable is also a common ingredient in soups and casseroles, though, in my opinion, the rutabaga has a more defined flavor compared to the bland potato. Glycemicly there is no comparison: one cup of cooked rutabagas has 12 net carbs and 66 calories, while one cup of cooked potatoes has 30 net carbs and a whopping 135 calories!

To keep the recipe uncomplicated for demo purposes, I used just a simple combination of ground lamb, onions and assorted flavor enhancers for the meat mixture. However, since the origins of this dish began with leftovers, feel free to raid the vegetable crisper to add in maybe carrots, celery, mushrooms, green peas or anything else that appeals. BTW, my Internet research also found that when beef is used instead of lamb in this recipe, this dish’s nationality becomes English instead of Irish and it is called Cottage Pie.

And speaking of leftovers, the flavors of this simple dish definitely improved with age, aka leftovers! I experienced this phenomenon first hand after my first taste test. The leftover shepherd's pie was even more delicious the next day and even better the day after that! So much so that, in hindsight, I wished I had refrigerated the entire casserole at least twenty-four hours before tasting it the first time around. In fact, on the third day’s serving I tried scrambling the two separate layers of the “pie” into one, slathered the mixture with butter and few extra drops of Worcestershire sauce, then popped the mash in the microwave for quick reheat. Wow! best describes the results. So if you want to really enjoy this low carb dish to its fullest on St. Patrick’s Day, my advice would be to make it on March 15th or 16th and refrigerate.

One final note about that green beer. It is true that beer is made using a form of sugar called maltose that has even more carbs in it than regular refined white sugar. However, the fermentation process breaks this sugar down so efficiently that the carb content in beer is so insignificant that its measure cannot be rated glycemicly. And that’s no blarney – so feel free to toast St. Patrick carb-lessly! Cheers!

Irish Shepherd's Pie with Rutabaga
Serves: 4 servings
Image of Rutabagas

For the rutabaga layer:

3 medium rutabagas, peeled and chopped into 1-inch chunks
1/2 teaspoon sea salt, plus extra for salting the water
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 TBS olive oil
¼ cup heavy cream (option, coconut milk)
1 egg yolk
1 egg, beaten (to brush on dish during baking)

For the meat layer:

2 TBS cooking oil
½ organic yellow onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
2 lbs. ground lamb
½ teaspoon sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 TBS Worcestershire Sauce
¼ cup water or vegetable stock

Image of Rutabaga in Food Processor
To make the rutabaga topping: Place the chopped rutabaga in a large saucepan, just cover with salted water. Bring to a boil and then simmer, covered, for about 30 minutes, or until fork tender. Drain the rutabaga, add all the remaining ingredients, except the egg yolk, to a food processor. Blend until very smooth. Taste and adjust seasonings as desired. Then add in egg yolk, and process again.
Image of Cooking Rutabagas
While the rutabagas are being cooked, sauté the onions in a large skillet over medium heat, stirring occasionally until translucent. Then add the garlic and cook another minute or two, careful not to burn. Then raise the heat slightly and add the ground lamb, stir frequently to break up any clumps until no longer pink. Add in the remaining ingredients and continue cooking until mixture begins to bubble, then reduce the heat to low and simmer until most of the excess liquid is gone, about 10-15 minutes.
Image of Spreading Mixture
Spread meat mixture evenly across the bottom of a baking pan. Layer the mixture with the mashed rutabagas, spreading with a spatula to form a seal at the edges of the pan. Bake for 30 minutes at 400° until hot and bubbly. Then set the oven on broil, brush the beaten egg over the top of the casserole and return to broiler for a few more minutes until the mash begins to brown in spots, check frequently and do not leave unattended. Let sit for 10-15 minutes before serving.
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