Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Chicken Pot Pie

Chicken pot pie.  Warming....filling....the quintessential nostalgic dish for the cold months of the year.  Unfortunately it also has a reputation for being complicated and labor intensive to prepare.  And of course it can be this way.  But it doesn't have to be.  In its original incarnation, chicken pot pie...or any pot pie, for that matter...was probably just a leftover:  A clever way to reheat a rich stew by ladling it into a casserole, topping it with a pastry crust or a biscuit and placing it in a hot oven until the pastry or biscuit was golden and the stew bubbling hot.  So delicious in and of itself that today the by-product has become the goal.  When you consider it in terms of its origins, the process of preparing it becomes a little less daunting. 

The style of stew-like filling that most Americans associate with a chicken pot pie is similar to a classic French white stew—variously called a blanquette or a fricassée, depending on whether the vegetables and meat are tossed in hot butter (so as to sear without browning) or simply poached in hot broth...and on whether you thicken with a roux (a cooked mixture of flour and butter) or a liaison (a mixture of egg yolk and cream).  To avoid wading into the definition wars I'll simply state that the filling I make for my pot pie is a hybrid of all of these methods.  I poach the chicken...but if I had leftover roast chicken, I wouldn't hesitate to use it for a pot pie.  And I would most definitely add any leftover drippings or pan deglazings—a source of amazing flavor—even though their presence would produce a stew that was not so white.  As for the vegetables, I poach them....except for the mushrooms, which I sauté in butter simply because that's the way I like them.  To bind the stew together I thicken the chicken and vegetable poaching liquid with a roux.  This type of thickening is standard for any pot pie.  Since a pot pie is baked until the filling is bubbling you would never use a liaison as the thickener.  (Once a liaison of egg and cream is added to a stew,  the stew may not be boiled.  Doing so will produce a thin liquid filled with scrambled egg....).        

The filling I make nowadays for my chicken pot pie is really not too different from that of the first one I ever made.  My first chicken pot pie was from The New Good Housekeeping Cookbook—at the time, one of only two cookbooks that I owned.  The other was The Fanny Farmer Cookbook.  I was just beginning to learn how to cook and I had acquired a bee in my bonnet to make chicken pot pie.  Both books had a recipe, but for some reason the Good Housekeeping recipe looked more interesting to me.  Maybe because it was more complicated?  Incorporated both a bottom and top crust?  It's hard to say at this distance, but I remember that it did turn out to be quite a process.  It took me all of an afternoon.  More importantly though, I remember that it was one of the first labor intensive things I ever made that seemed totally worth it when I finally sat down and put some in my mouth. It was really delicious.  I couldn't believe I had made it. 

One of the things that had set the recipe apart was the inclusion of baby lima beans.  Before this pot pie, I don't think I had ever had them served in a way that I liked them.  But after that pot pie I was hooked.  If you have never had baby lima beans in cream sauce, you are missing out.  I can't imagine making my pot pie without them.  However,  if you have a childhood aversion to lima beans...and just can't bring yourself to try them...you can of course use peas instead. 

In fact, you can make chicken pot pie with any combination of vegetables that you like.  Carrots, onions of some kind, and celery are standard.  Peas are quite common.  Mushrooms too are typical, being a classic element in the aforementioned blanquettes and fricassées.  You will occasionally find potatoes, which are an obvious addition to a chicken stew.  Personally I would find just about any root vegetable to be a delicious addition.  Parsnips and celery root sound particularly appealing. 

Of course the more vegetables you add, the more complicated and drawn out the preparation of your stew becomes...depending on how you choose to cook each of the vegetables.  But if you do a little planning and advance preparation, even a stew with a complicated mix of vegetables can be prepared without too much stress.  As with any complicated recipe, breaking it down into its components is the key to success.  This is probably what made the process so difficult for me that long ago first time:  I didn't really have a handle on the big picture and how to break it up into manageable parts. 

For a pot pie, the components are the crust, the meat, the vegetables, and the thickened liquid.  The process consists of preparing the components and building the pie.  If you make the crust and poach the chicken the day before, the work that remains to ready the pie for the oven can be accomplished in an hour or less.   If you are using leftover chicken and vegetables (or leftover stew!), your work will be even more streamlined. 

Not only will the process itself be less stressful if you break it down into its parts, you will find that you are empowered to create your own version of a chicken pot pie, filled with a combination of vegetables that you love.  When making your pot pie, simply consider that for the size recipe I am posting, you will need two cups of cooked chicken, a generous four cups of cooked vegetables, two cups of sauce and about a half pound of pie dough...perhaps more if you have a very wide and shallow baking dish.  The choice of vegetables, ratio of cream to stock, inclusion of any herbs or other flavor elements is entirely up to you.    

Whatever vegetables you choose to include, when you are done you will have an unbelievably good,  rich and creamy stew—chock full of tender chicken and tasty vegetables—crowned with a flaky crust.  And no matter how much time and effort it took, I'm fairly certain you will think it was totally worth it.  

Chicken Pot Pie

2 c. rich chicken stock or good quality low-salt broth
1 c. (4 oz.) cipollini onions, peeled and quartered (halved if smaller)
1/3 lb. carrots (2 large), trimmed and peeled and cut on a short diagonal 1/4-inch thick (1 cup)
1 stalk celery, trimmed and cut on a short diagonal 1/4-inch thick (1/2 cup)
4 oz. crimini or white mushrooms, halved or quartered
3 T. butter, divided
2 c. (8 oz.) shredded cooked chicken
1 c. (5 oz.) frozen baby lima beans, thawed
3 T. flour
1/3 c. heavy cream
Freshly Ground Pepper

Chilled Pâte Brisée "Lid" (see below)

1 egg, well-beaten

Place 2 cups of chicken stock in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer, season with salt to taste and add the onions, carrots and celery.  Simmer gently until the vegetables are tender—about 15 minutes.  Strain the broth into a two cup measure.  Add water (or more broth) to make 1 2/3 cup total liquid.  Place the drained vegetables in a bowl and set aside.  Return the broth to the saucepan and keep hot.

While the vegetables poach, melt a tablespoon of butter in a medium sauté pan.  When the butter is melted, increase the heat to medium-high.  Add the mushrooms and sauté until browned and tender.  Season with salt and add to the bowl with the onions, carrots and celery.  Add the lima beans and chicken to the bowl and toss to combine.

Return the pan the mushrooms were cooked in to the burner and melt another two tablespoons of butter over medium heat.  When the butter foams, whisk in the flour.  Cook stirring constantly for a few minutes—the roux will be bubbly and straw yellow.  Remove from the heat and pour in half of the hot broth, whisking constantly until smooth—it will thicken immediately.  Add the remaining broth and the cream.  Return to the heat and stir constantly until the sauce returns to a simmer.  Taste and season as desired with salt and pepper.  Scrape the sauce into the bowl of chicken and vegetables and fold in.  Taste and correct the seasoning.

Turn the chicken/vegetable mixture into a buttered 1 1/2 quart casserole. 

Place the prepared sheet of dough over the casserole.  Either fold the edges of the dough under and crimp the edge, or simply allow the dough to hang over the edge of the dish.  Brush the dough with a thin film of egg wash.  

If you have not already cut round vent holes in the dough, use the tip of a sharp knife to make several decorative slashes in the dough to serve as vents.  Place the pot pie on a baking sheet and place in a pre-heated 400° oven.  Bake until the crust is golden brown and the filling is bubbling—about 30 to 40 minutes.  Let the pie cool for a few moments before serving.  Serves 4.

Variations & Substitutions:
  • Substitute 1 cup 1/2-inch diced onion for the cipollinis.  Instead of poaching them in the broth with the carrot and celery, soften them in the 2 T. of butter before adding the flour. 
  • Use one large leek instead of the cipollinis.  Trim away the root and dark green.  Halve the leek lengthwise and cut each half cross-wise in 1/2-inch wide pieces.  Rinse in several changes of water to remove all soil and grit.  Poach with the carrots and celery.
  • Replace the lima beans with peas.
  • For the cooked chicken you may use any type of cooked chicken you like...leftovers, or freshly poached or roasted (even purchased "rotisserie")....white or dark meat (I prefer dark).  If you choose to poach your chicken, add a wedge of onion, a chunk of carrot, a short piece of celery, and a sprig or two of thyme to the poaching liquid—you may use water or broth for the poaching medium.  Use some of this strained chicken poaching liquid (essentially rich homemade stock) as the base liquid for the pie (for poaching the vegetables and making the sauce).  If you are using a roast chicken, deglaze the roasting pan with stock and add the deglazings to the vegetable poaching liquid.  If you are starting from raw chicken (as opposed to using leftovers or purchased) you will need about a pound of parts to produce the half pound of meat needed for the pie.
  • If you like, add some fresh herbs—minced thyme or flat-leaf parsley—to the filling mixture.
  • You may use any combination of cooked vegetables you like for this pot pie as long as you have four cups total of cooked vegetables.
  • This recipe makes enough of the filling to fill a 1 1/2 quart baking dish and serves four.  Divide or multiply the recipe as you like to feed 2, 4, 6 or 8—adjusting the size of the baking dish accordingly.  The quantity of dough in the recipe is sufficient to cover a 13- by 9-inch baking dish (which will hold a double recipe of filling). 
  • Working ahead:  You can of course make the filling, immediately turn it into the casserole, top it with the chilled crust and bake.  But you may also make the filling ahead.  To do so, pour the warm filling into the prepared casserole, cool and chill.  An hour or so before you are ready to bake the pie, pull it out of the refrigerator and allow it to come to room temperature.  Top with the crust and bake as directed, extending the cooking time as necessary.  As before, bake until the crust is golden and the filling is hot and bubbling.  
  • You may prepare individual pot pies.  Choose four oven proof casseroles with a capacity of 1 1/2 cups each.  Cut the dough in rounds with a diameter that is at least 1 inch larger than the opening of your chosen casseroles.  When making individual pies, cool the filling completely before topping with the crust (a warm filling would cause the butter in the crust to soften too much  in the amount of time it would take to  top all four pies).

Pâte Brisée:
1 1/2 c. all-purpose flour (6 oz.)
1/2 t. salt
9 T. cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch thick slices (4 1/2 oz.)
3 to 4 1/2 T. ice water

Combine the flour and the salt in a medium-sized bowl.  Rub the butter into the flour until the butter is in small pea-sized pieces. Drizzle 3 T. ice water over the flour/butter mixture.  Using your hands, fluff the mixture until it begins to clump, adding more water if necessary.  Turn the dough out onto a counter and form into a mound.  Using the heel of your hand, gradually push all of the dough away from you in short forward strokes, flattening out the lumps.  Continue until all of the dough is flat.  Using a bench scraper, scrape the dough off the counter, forming it into a single clump as you do.  Form the finished dough into a thick disk.  Chill for at least 30 minutes.

To roll out, let dough warm up for a moment or two.  Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface into a rectangle, round, oval or square (depending on the shape of your casserole) that is about 1/8- to 1/6–inch thick.  Take the casserole you will be baking the pot pie in and invert it onto the dough.  Following the shape of the casserole, cut the dough so there will be a 1/2- to 1-inch overhang of dough all the way around.   Brush off the excess flour and transfer the dough to a baking sheet.  Chill until ready to build the pot pie (it should chill for at least 30 minutes).  If you like, you use a small smooth or fluted round cutter to cut out two or three vents in the sheet of dough.

Printable Recipe


Anonymous said...

Can't wait to try this. Looks delicious!

Eric Stoffer said...

We made this last night and it was fantastic. Your instructions are detailed and complete. We even used the baby lima like you said and I may have overcome my childhood aversion.


Paige said...

Eric, Thanks so much for taking the time to let me know you tried--and liked!--the pot pie. And I'm so pleased you used the baby limas...they really are delicious!