Eric Akis: Making a better shepherd’s pie with lentils

Umami, from variety of sources, is the secret ingredient that helps replace meat’s flavour

Eric Akis

A reader named Gwyn sent me a note saying that, because of the new Canada Food Guide, she was trying to incorporate more vegetables and less meat into the food she cooks. One dish she recently made was a version of shepherd’s pie where lentils replaced the ground meat normally used.

Gwyn said it was not bad, but it was missing something that’s in the meat-based recipe. She thought that something was the meat’s umami and asked me what she could use for the flavour boost it provides.

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In Michael Rulman’s culinary guide The Elements of Cooking, he writes that umami is a Japanese word that roughly translates to the essence of deliciousness. It’s a taste sensation first scientifically identified in 1908 by Japanese chemist/professor Kikunae Ikeda.

According to Harold McGee’s book On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, Ikeda found that kombu, a type of kelp used to flavour soup stocks, was an exceptionally rich natural source of monosodium glutamate (MSG). In fact, when kombu is dried, it forms crystals of it on its surface.

Ikeda found that glutamate provided a unique savoury taste sensation he called umami and noted that it was different from the other basic tastes — sweet, sour, bitter and salty.

When many folks think about MSG, though, they think about a processed white seasoning powder. It was developed not long after Ikeda’s discovery and for decades was widely used as a flavour enhancer in Chinese or other cuisines. It eventually fell out of favour, however, because of a misconception that consuming it had negative health effects, despite studies proving otherwise.

That form of MSG is making a bit of a comeback, but Gwyn does not need to use it to infuse umami into her meat-free style of shepherd’s pie. That’s because, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration website (, and as Ikeda discovered, monosodium glutamate is the sodium salt of the common amino acid glutamic acid, and it’s naturally present in our bodies and in many foods and food additives.

Protein-rich meat, such as beef, is one of those foods, but there are many others with umami. I can’t list them all here, but they include such things as asparagus, sweet corn, avocadoes, tomatoes and tomato products — such as tomato paste, sundried tomatoes and ketchup — carrots and other root vegetables, potatoes and potato products — such as potato chips — cheeses, such as Parmesan, fresh and dried mushrooms, balsamic vinegar, seaweed products — such as nori and dashi powder — nutritional yeast flakes, and fermented foods and sauces, such as olives, Worcestershire sauce, fish sauce, soy sauce and miso.

So Gwyn, you have lots of options for adding umami to a dish. I suggest you make a list and decide which ones are best suited to enhance the meat-free dish you’re making.

With regard to a meat-free version of shepherd’s pie, I cooked up a recipe for you to try and added umami-rich flavourings that bolstered its savouriness.

When making it, or any other dish, it’s really important that you taste the dish as you go along to ensure it’s seasoned properly. Just adding a touch more salt, for example, could further enhance the umami effect.

Lentil Vegetable Pie

This is an umami-rich, meat-free style of shepherd’s pie. The mix of vegetables and flavourings used enhance the pie’s savoury deliciousness.

Preparation time: 30 minutes

Cooking time: 35 to 40 minutes

Makes: Four to six servings

1 Tbsp plus 1 tsp olive oil

1/2 cup finely diced onion (about 1/2 small to medium onion)

1/2 cup grated carrot (about 1 small carrot)

50 grams (about six to 10, depending on size) fresh shiitake mushrooms, tough stems removed and discarded, caps finely diced (see Note 1)

1 tsp chopped fresh rosemary or thyme

2 Tbsp tomato paste

1 large garlic clove, minced

1 cup tomato sauce mixed with 1 1/2 tsp cornstarch

1/4 cup vegetable stock or vegetable cocktail, such as V-8

2 tsp Worcestershire sauce

2 tsp soy sauce

1 tsp balsamic vinegar

• pinch granulated sugar

1 (19 oz./540 mL) can lentils, drained well, rinsed, and drained well again (see Eric’s options)

• salt and pepper, to taste

1/2 cup frozen peas

1/2 cup frozen corn kernels

2 lbs yellow fleshed potatoes, peeled and halved or quartered lengthwise, depending on size

2 Tbsp butter, melted

1/2 cup milk, warmed (see Note 2)

2 to 3 Tbsp freshly grated Parmesan cheese, or to taste

Heat the oil in a skillet set over medium heat. Add the onion, carrot, mushrooms and rosemary (or thyme) and cook and stir until onions are light golden, about five to six minutes. Mix in the tomato paste and garlic and cook and stir one minute more.

Add the tomato sauce/cornstarch mixture, vegetable stock (or vegetable cocktail), Worcestershire, soy sauce, vinegar and sugar and mix well to combine. Stir in the lentils, bring mixture to a simmer, cook one minute, and then remove from the heat. (The mixture will be thick, which will ensure portions of the pie will better hold together when served.)

Taste lentil mixture, then season with salt and pepper, as needed. Now mix in the peas and corn. Spread the lentil mixture into a 10-inch wide, four-cup capacity pieplate (see Eric’s options).

Place potatoes in a pot, cover with cold water by at least two inches and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat until the potatoes simmer gently (small bubbles should just break on the surface). Cook potatoes until very tender, about 18 to 20 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Drain the cooked potatoes well, very thoroughly mash, then beat in the milk and butter. Season the potatoes with salt and pepper. Spread the potatoes over the lentil mixture in the pieplate, swirling the top to give it a decorative look. Sprinkle the top of the potatoes with the Parmesan cheese (see Eric’s options).

Bake the lentil vegetable pie in the middle of the oven 35 to 40 minutes, or until golden on top and bubbly. If desired, for a richer golden top, broil the lentil vegetable pie a minute or two, and then serve.

Note 1: Fresh shiitake mushrooms are sold in the produce section of most supermarkets.

Note 2: You can warm the milk and melt the butter by zapping them in a bowl in the microwave, or by placing them in a small pot and heating them on the stovetop.

Eric’s options: If don’t wish to use canned lentils, and want to cook your own, you’ll need about 1 3/4 cups of cooked brown or green lentils for this, drained well.

If you don’t have a 10-inch wide, four-cup capacity pieplate, you could use an eight-inch square baking dish.

You can make the lentil vegetable pie oven-ready a day before baking it. Once it’s topped with the Parmesan cheese, cool it to room temperature, tent with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to bake. When you bake it, add a few minutes to the cooking time, as you’ll be starting from cold.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks, including seven in his Everyone Can Cook series. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.

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