Slow cooked shepherd's photographed by Stuart Ovenden

The dark arts of are much whispered about. It’s often assumed that magazines deploy most of B&Q to get their meals looking as scrumptious as they do. The chicken is varnished, the lasagne is blow-torched and the steam rising from the soup is actually a boiled tampon lurking below the croûtons.

Mostly, this isn’t true. I’ve never seen a food stylist crack open the Ronseal when faced with a chicken that won’t roast. There are tricks, of course – the big trick being time. If you want to make your spaghetti bolognese look just like the ones in the glossy magazines, then spending half an hour arranging the pasta on the plate should do it. Eating cold food is something you get used to when you’re working at a shoot (that’s right, the food gets eaten. The food publishing industry isn’t completely profligate).

I’ve worked at shoots for about 5 years and recently decided to brush up my food styling skills by doing a course at Leiths, lead by Sarah Cook. The culmination of the course was a day spent styling a dish of your choice and having it photographed by Stuart Ovenden. I picked a slow-cooked shepherd’s pie. It’s a recipe that had been milling about in the back of my brain for a few weeks and offered me the opportunity to practice my ‘scoop out’ technique.

Fluffing a shepherd’s pie
I’d made the filling the day before. When it was cool, I stirred in the peas and an extra half a carrot, diced. The vegetables in the filling had lost their colour during slow-cooking, so adding the peas and some fresh carrot at the end ensured there’d be a few bright spots in amongst the brown slurry of the .

The filling went into a dish slightly smaller than the actual serving size, leaving me a few spoonfuls of filling in reserve, just in case the scoop out needed padding later (it did). I topped the pie with mash and gave it a rough swirl with a fork, then dotted extra butter on the bits I particularly wanted to brown. Then I spent 45 minutes nervously hanging out by the oven and waiting for the pie to splurge over the sides (a good splurge is a wonderful thing) and trying to make sure the top browned beautifully.

The potato, however, wasn’t co-operative. Bits had browned really nicely and other bits were as pale and moody as a Camden goth. I covered the edges and brown streaks with foil, brushed the rest of the pie with butter and grilled it to get a nice shade of rustic tan.

The scoop was my big moment. My first scoop out was too shallow. My second too steep, resulting in a cliff edge of potato disappearing into a canyon of gravy. Not good. With my fingers, a teaspoon and some tweezers, I piled the reserved pie filling back into the dish. I teased it into a casual tumble of meat and vegetables, blurring the line between the potato and filling to make it look natural.

Then I dipped my fingers in oil and rubbed them around the edge of the pie, where the splurge had dried out, to make it look wet and fresh – as if the pie had just been taken out of the oven and not spent 20 minutes being fiddled about with.

And that’s how I fluffed my shepherd’s pie. We ate it tepid at the end of the shoot, but I think hot from the oven, unglossed and untampered with is probably the best way to eat it at home.

Slow cooked shepherd’s pie
Serves 2 by itself or 3–4 with vegetables

1 tsp ground coriander
2 tsp ground cumin
1 tbsp plain flour
500g boneless lamb shoulder, chopped
Olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
350ml hot lamb stock
1 clove garlic, crushed
100g carrots, peeled and diced
2 sticks celery, trimmed and finely sliced
2 tbsp pomegranate molasses
½ tsp paprika
4 cardamom pods, split open and the black seeds ground
1 bay leaf
100g frozen peas
750g floury potatoes, peeled and chopped

Mix the coriander, cumin and flour together and season with salt and black pepper. Add to the lamb and toss to mix.

Heat a spoonful of olive oil in a heavy-based pan and add the lamb, in batches if necessary. Fry, turning, until browned. Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon.

Turn down the heat, add the onion with a splash of the lamb stock and give it a good stir to scrape up the bits from the bottom of the pan. Cover with a piece of greaseproof paper or a butter wrapper and the pan lid and cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes.

Stir in the garlic, carrots and celery and re-cover. Cook over a low heat, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes or until the vegetables are just tender. Add the lamb back to the pan with any juices and leftover flour. Stir in the stock, pomegranate molasses, paprika, cardamom and bay leaf. Season, cover and gently simmer for 4 hours or until the lamb is falling apart. Fish out the bay leaf and adjust the seasoning. Stir in the peas.

While the lamb is cooking, boil and mash the potatoes with enough butter to flavour it, seasoning with a little salt. Preheat the oven to gas mark 4/180°C/fan oven 160°C.

Spoon the lamb into an ovenproof dish and top with the mash. Bake for 30–45 minutes or until the potato is golden brown. Serve immediately, either by itself (serves 2) or with enough vegetables to make it stretch to 3–4 peoples.

Tagged with: BritishFood stylingLambPie

12 Responses to Slow cooked shepherd’s pie and some notes on food styling

  1. Matthew says:

    So *that’s* how it’s done! Fascinating. I hope you don’t mind, but I do find it mildly hilarious to think of a dish of food being treated and prep’d like a glamour model prior to a fashion shoot. I suppose my own photos of dishes I’ve taken out of the oven and shoved on a plate ready for eating are effectively “reportage”. ; )

    • ginandcrumpets says:

      You may think the pie prepping is funny, but if you heard the demands that pie was making – outrageous isn’t the word.

  2. Roswen says:

    Excellent post, brilliant styling tips – looks delicious and could easily grace the pages of BBC Goodfood magazine.

    Very brave doing a Hot dish – the Leith’s kitchens scared me a little when I did the course and I went for the safe option of a Cake that most of the prep could be done at home. Some of the dishes my group came up with were very elaborate, unsurprisingly they were mostly done by the Leith’s dipolma students!

    My cake & picture from my day with Stu are on my blog –

  3. KSalty says:

    Oh I’d love to do this course – my food styling attempts are woeful. Will definitely look into future dates. Ps your shepherd’s pie is a full-blown stunner, with or without fluffing.

  4. Blimey that’s fascinating.The rustic style of photo seems to be ever popular,old cutlery and tea towels etc.
    The pie looks lovely,good enough to eat.
    BTW thought you might like to know when I type Gin and Crumpets into the iPad it always corrects it to gin and Drunkard:0

    • ginandcrumpets says:

      Entertainingly, I’d bought several tea towels with me – most of them box fresh (if a tea towel can ever be box fresh). The tea towel that got used, the one that lit up Stuart’s eyes, was the ratty, ragged tea towel that’s been washed several times with a yellow duster and that I used to wrap the glasses in to transport them. Rustic still rules OK.


      Gin and Drunkard.

  5. Ben says:

    Fascinating. A food-styling course?? A cross between a make-over and a cookery class? And it takes seven weeks?! I had no idea. The end result does look nice, though, I have to say – but I would definitely choose unglossed and untampered as well…

    • ginandcrumpets says:

      Yep, food styling is a little industry that makes sure all the ads and editorials you see are good enough to make you want to buy the product/ingredients. It’s a tough job, but someone has to gloss those sausages and plump those chickens, and I think I’m the girl for the job.

  6. Kavey says:

    Ooh, your finished image looks great and the inside info is very interesting. Course looks fab but too expensive to consider just now…

  7. Carrie says:

    To make a humble shepherd’s pie look so delectable and attractive is no easy task! But it deserves the limelight, such a reliably comforting dish.

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