In any other year I would have traveled home to visit my family in Trinidad and Tobago. But of course 2020 was not any other year, and the borders of my twin-island home still remain locked as tight as a drum—to me and to millions of other immigrants who are being sequestered from our country of origin. Since I won’t be heading to the Caribbean anytime soon, I find other ways to visit: I cook, and I put the upbeat spirit and flavor of the islands into whatever dish I’m making. Cue this Shepherd’s Pie.
A cursory glance of the ingredient list used in this recipe may elicit some questions. After all, this English dish, most often made with lamb or ground beef (mine uses chicken) typically doesn’t impart strong tropical vibes. But by embracing sunnier flavors and injecting some vibrant ingredients into a comforting cold-weather flagship, something special happens: You end up with a soothing dish of deep fragrance and uncanny West Indian warmth.
And much of that warmth can be attributed to a standout ingredient: a bottle of Angostura aromatic bitters.
With its signature oversize label and embossed yellow cap, the warming and botanical Angostura bitters is a well-regarded and well-loved standard throughout the world. Produced in a plant in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, the tincture—a secret sauce of intensely concentrated roots, spices, fruits and extracts, dissolved in alcohol—is most associated with cocktails, where it lends the final touch to, say, a classic Manhattan. As a teen on the island, I recall drinking a couple of dashes of bitters mixed in with a few ounces of hot water whenever minor digestive upsets reared its head—a swiftly made tea of sorts, which always served to soothe. But I’ve long been an admirer of the many other possibilities found in a bottle of Angostura bitters. Especially when it comes to cooking.
In a broad sense, what Angostura achieves in cocktails mirrors its function in savory applications. When used alongside lime zest, scallions, and habaneros in the shepherd’s pie, the bitters simultaneously tighten and tease out the flavor of the other aromatics. The lime zest has a cleaner, more distinct pucker; the mild grassiness of the scallions holds firm; and the proud attack of the habaneros are contested but not dulled. As such, when the other, bolder ingredients are added (in this case ginger, garlic and ketchup), the presence of the base aromatics remains affecting.
Throughout the years, I’ve also found that when cooking, bitters are best used in the beginning of the process rather than toward the end. The profile of bitters is so penetrating, it requires time to meld with the other ingredients and truly work its magic. A few dashes of bitters after-the-fact in a sweeter dish, like raspberry jam or whipped cream, adds that perfect finishing touch, but when cooking, adding bitters toward the very end can definitely backfire, because bitters can be, well, bitter.
So use them at the start: in the base of soups, or whisked into homemade vinaigrettes. Used at the right time, Angostura bitters provide the footing for varying flavors to meld together into something unified, deep, and complex. Even when—especially when—those flavors seem as far apart as England and the Caribbean.
West Indies Shepherd’s PieBrigid Washington
Originally Appeared on Epicurious