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October 8, 2009 - Kathie Evanoff
There’s a chill in the air, and when that happens, there is nothing like warm, comfort food to make us feel a little better about what is coming over the next few months. No one is ever ready for winter, but when it looms, those recipes we cherish from our memory. In most cases, those memories stem from food.
In my house, warm memories are stirred by steamy windows from a Sunday roast and vegetables in the oven with football on television in the background, but that’s not what this blog is about. This blog is about pie. For some reason, pie seems to be this autumn’s go-to comfort food. Perhaps it was from my Tribune Cooks article last month on one of my mother’s signature recipes that stemmed my desire to make pie crust. But the fun thing about pie crust is you don’t have to use it just to make desserts. It can be used to make plenty of savory main dishes too. I made up a couple recipes of the crust, divided the portions and put them in the freezer. With one of the portions, I was able to make this family-size chicken pot pie.
When my children were young, one of their favorite meals was not only easy for me because it required no preparation. It was frozen pot pies from the grocery store. They each chose their flavor, limited to beef or chicken. Depending on the brand name of pie, we might end up with one that had both top and bottom crusts, or just a top crust, but the inside was always the same; thick gravy with a bit of meat, small diced potatoes, and peas and carrots. My daughter, who despises peas in any form, would pick them out of her pie, but my son didn’t seem to mind.
It never occurred to me then that I could make my own homemade pot pies, either one large or individual, personal size with whatever filling each person wanted inside. I don’t know if I still would have taken the time, life seemed so hectic then and tossing a frozen pie in the oven was so easy, but after making my own pot pies years later, I realized that they aren’t all that time consuming. Especially since the homemade piecrust can be made in advance and frozen.
So here’s how I make a homemade chicken pot pie and I can assure you, it is much better than any frozen pie you can buy in the store.
First, take the piecrust out of the freezer and leave it on the counter to thaw. While that is thawing, in a four or six quart saucepan, boil chicken thighs in water. I like to toss in a couple boneless, skinless breasts as well, but the thighs with the skin on gives the broth a good chickeny flavor. To the water and the chicken thighs, add a couple washed celery stalks (toss in the leafy tops if you have them); a large quartered onion; a few smashed cloves of garlic; and a couple scrubbed carrots. Don’t worry about chopping them up small as these will be used to flavor the broth and will be strained out afterward. Other herbs will come later.
While the broth boils and the crust thaws, you can work on peeling and dicing potatoes. Yukon Gold, red Kennebec or any waxy or medium waxy potato would be good. Russet potatoes, such as those used for baking, tend to fall apart if cooked too long, but if you like them, use them. There are no hard and fast rules here. You also have the option of peeling or leaving on the peels. It’s your pie.
I also clean carrots and dice them. The size of the dice, once again, is your decision. Some like big chunks and others like smaller, bite-size pieces. Do it however you like. I prefer fresh or frozen peas over canned. Canned peas tend to get mushy. My husband, who hated peas because they “pop” open when he bites them, would prefer mushy. You can leave out the peas if you want.
In this recipe, you can pretty much add whatever vegetables to the pie that you like, even broccoli, squash, brussel sprouts, corn kernels or green beans. If you add beans, I would suggest fresh, because like peas, beans get mushy if they are overcooked. But if you like them that way, then go for it .
If you like you can add a bit of chicken flavor granules to the broth for more flavor, but I find it isn’t necessary. But if you like it, put it in. I prefer the jarred granules over bouillion cubes.
If you have the veggies chopped and the crust still isn’t thawed enough to roll, go check your e-mail or watch Cash Cab or Golden Girls reruns on television. It won’t be much longer.
Roll out your crust and lay it aside. I don’t use a bottom crust on my homemade chicken pot pie. If you want a bottom crust, by all means, have one. Prepare the crust and have it waiting in the wings while you create the filling.
First strain the broth over a large bowl, saving the chicken parts. Make a roux in a large skillet with deep sides. Mix equal amounts butter with flour and stir them to mingle and simmer a bit until the flour taste cooks off and the roux turns a golden brown. I usually use two tablespoons butter to two tablespoons flour. Slowly pour the strained broth into the roux, stirring constantly (now is the time to use those wooden spoons your family put in your stocking last Christmas), and watch it magically blend and thicken without any lumps. Roux is a wonderful thing.
Pull the meat off the bones and cut it in small pieces before adding it to the thickened gravy you just made. Now you can add the vegetables, toss in substantial amounts of marjoram, thyme, salt and pepper to taste. Here’s my favorite little added touch: a few grindings of fresh nutmeg. You can buy whole nutmeg at most mega-mart grocery stores. I use one of my favorite kitchen utensils, a micro-plane but you also can use any type of hand-held grater. Yeah, I know you’ve seen Rachel Ray do this and no, I didn’t get it from her. I’ve been buying whole nutmeg for more years than I care to admit. It gives many dishes a unique flavor that can’t be described. Let it simmer for just a bit while your oven preheats to about 375 degrees.
Pour your mixture into your deep-dish pie plate, a large casserole dish or individual oven-safe casserole dishes and top with your crust. Be sure to cut a few slits in the top of the crust to allow steam to vent. Brush a big of beaten egg on the crust to give it a nice, crispy brown top. Put your pies on a large cookie sheet when they go into the oven for easier maneuvering and to catch any drips that might instead fall onto the oven floor causing a baked on mess to clean later. No one needs that.
It usually takes about 30 to 40 minutes for the crust to puff up and nicely brown. Let the hot pie sit for about 15 minutes before scooping into it to avoid mouth-burns. It is very hot when it comes out of the oven and is still likely bubbling for a while. But it is wonderfully tasty and great served with hard rolls or French bread. Put a small salad on the side to round out the vegetables and you have a great, healthy meal for a cold, fall night.
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Homemade chicken pot pie is a stick-to-the-ribs comfort food for cool, fall nights.