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Monday, August 24, 2009

The Dreaded Chicken Pot-Pie

When you hear "Chicken Pot-Pie" warm sensations enter your belly, visions of buttery crust, luscious creamy sauce, tender chicken, warm potatoes, bright carrots, sweet peas all do a little dance in your mind. Well, that's you. I'm the chick that has to make the damned thing.

Chicken Pot-Pie is one of my signature dishes. Not because I love making it, but because I'm good at it. I grew up on the Marie Calendar's classic, loving the small crisp pie that fell out of the cardboard shell onto my plate, steaming when cracked open with my fork. As I grew older, I in turn served those very pies to my own kids. That's when I saw them for what they were. Compressed, tough "chicken" mixed with very few vegetables in a very salty sauce with not enough crust to please crust-hungry folks like us. I decided to learn how to make them myself, starting with how the heck pie-crust is made.

That's right, I'd never even made a pie crust before then. I googled multiple recipes, some calling for egg, some not. The basics I realized were this: keep it quick, keep it cold. Then, while reading a short-story collection, "The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted and Other Small Acts of Liberation" by Elizabeth Berg, a quote stood out. In it, a former maid and nanny says in a letter to her long grown up charge, "When making pie crust, never let it know you're afraid." (Or something to that effect.) And that was all I needed to know. I never let my pie crust know I was scared shitless of it.
The ingredients of a great pie crust are few. All purpose flour, salt, ice water and very cold butter. Not margarine. Not lard. Butter for this baby. After the initial flops, too much water, too much salt, never ever add garlic to the crust, I finally found my groove. It involved my food processor and a little something I'd found along the way, patience. After grinding the pre-crust together, you bring it into a somewhat tight ball, flatten it into a disk, wrap it up and set it in the fridge to calm-down. While it unwinds and relaxes, I do the same. I still don't know if the crust will be good at this stage, and since there is nothing I can do about it, I just let go and allow the process to happen.

Since pot-pie-procreation takes time, it's good to start on the other steps, like the vegetables. Here's another lesson I learned the hard way. Raw vegetables, no matter how small they are diced, do not cook all the way through in the oven, inside a marvelous butter crust. Par-boiling the vegetables before adding them to the pie ensures success each and every time. Also, here's another place where adding garlic ruines your pie. I love garlic, if you didn't know. I'd add it to ice cream if I could, but it really throws the creamy, rich, home-style flavor of a classic pot-pie way off the mark. Add it if you like, but I'm telling you, it wasn't good.
For the veggies I use a mix of peeled and cubed Russet potatoes (for 2, 9-inch pies, I use 2 large Russet baking potatoes) 1 1/2 cup of frozen baby sweet peas, about 5 large carrots (also peeled and cubed) and if I feel like it, about 3 stalks of celery, thoroughly washed and chopped. All my veggies (minus the peas) are cut into similar size pieces to keep the cooking even. I boil the potatoes and carrots (and celery if using it) in salted water for about 8 minutes, until just tender. Then I drain them and set them in a bowl to wait for their jacket of creamy chicken-gravy to coat them later on.
By now my crust has waited patiently for it's time to shine. I clean my counter top (with water, you don't want Lysol to perfume your crust...yuck.) and then coat it liberally with more all-purpose flour. By now I've also chilled my rolling pin to help keep the dough cold while I beat it softly into pie-submission. I divide my dough disk in half and roll the halves into balls. I flatten each into a disk and rewrap one, placing it back in the fridge to wait it's turn. The other disk, I place on my floured counter and roll from the center outwards, turning the disk 90 degrees each roll. I make sure to lift the crust repeatedly, so it doesn't form a permanent bond with the counter-top. I never, ever stretch or pull the crust either. This will cause it to shrink when cooked. For my pie, I like my crust kind of thick. At least 1/3 of an inch, maybe half an inch if I'm happy. Once it's the right size (big enough to go inside the pan and hang over the edges for that delicious edge crust we all break off and eat first) I stop rolling and put it in the pan. I place the pan in the fridge. Then, I walk away. That's right. Walk away.
Later, when I've gathered enough strength to continue, I begin the process of killing and plucking my chicken. I'm kidding. But can you imagine the poor women who did have to do that? I'm pretty sure I would not be writing this blog about chicken-pot-pies if that were the case for me. No, I unwrap my pre-cut boneless skinless chicken breasts and place them on the cutting board. For 2 pies I usually use about 4 breasts. I cut them into about 1/2 inch size cubes and get a skillet on medium-high heat. I sprinkle the chicken with a decent amount of cracked black pepper and salt and then add some olive oil to the pan. Once it smokes, I add my chicken, spreading it out so it's in one decent layer, and then I stop. I don't touch it. This is really important.
If you stir and stir the chicken, you're robbing it of flavor, and you're royally screwing the future pan-sauce. So, back up, walk away from the stove, keep your spatula down and wait. Give the chicken a good 5 minutes on one side, possibly lowering your heat just a notch so you don't burn it, and let it do something magical, carmelize. When you finally flip those little lobs of meat over, they should be a rich, woody-brown color and smell heavenly. Allow them to cook for a few minutes on the other side (3-ish) and then scoop the meat out, leaving the gorgeous brown stuck-on bits of flavor in your pan. This is where your gravy's life begins.
To the brown bits in the pan, add about 2 tablespoons of butter and 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil. Allow the butter and oil to melt. Then, add in, slowly, while whisking the butter-oil in the pan, about 4 tablespoons of all purpose flour. You are making something called a roux. This roux will create the thick creaminess needed for the pot-pie. If you did this in a clean pan, without brown chicken bits to melt into it, your gravy would be bland and boring and flour-y. I forgot to tell you, it helps if you take about 4 cups of chicken stock and bring them to a simmer on the side. You'll need to slowly whisk the stock into your roux and cold stock can make your flour lump up into little turd-balls that never go away and ruin your sauce. Yes, I said turd. Move on.
Whisk the stock into the roux, allow it to come to a boil, watch as the stock transforms from a clear-ish gold liquid to a thick, brownish colored gravy. Allow the bubbles to come faster and faster, until the sauce is so thick, it looks too thick. That's when you add the rich, velvety heavy cream. This is what turns this sauce into something other-worldly. Taste for salt and pepper. Add some more. I like a lot of cracked black pepper, but you may not. So do as you will to my sauce. But treat it kindly. Once the sauce is ready pour it over your vegetables and then stir in the chicken (and any juice that settled in the bowl with the chicken) and allow the mixture to sit. If for some reason there isn't enough sauce, well, you can make some more. But, it won't have the brown chicken bits and will be dull and boring. So maybe don't.
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Pour half of your mixture into the pan with the pie crust at the bottom. Pour the other half of the mixture into a large zip-lock and seal it up, and freeze the bad boy. Save it for another day you want to make a pot-pie and only feel like making the crust.
Take your remaining dough-disk out of the fridge and roll it into a pretty top crust. This time, make it about 1/4 inch thick. Cut a few slits into the crust, (air vents) and you can use your creativity here. I like to make a slit-flower, but for some reason that just sounds dirty now.
Place your top crust over your pie. If the innards of the pie are mounded high, that's ok. Don't be alarmed. It looks better and will taste great, so stop stressing. Pinch and squish your bottom crust and top crust together, to create the glorified "edge." Bake in the oven for about 45-60 minutes. The crust will be crusty, (no doughy wet spots) and the pie will be bubbly and hot inside, maybe even oozing a little on the sides.
Take it out, and somehow, find the courage to let it sit for about 20 minutes. If you cut right into it, your pie will be all over the place. It'll taste good, but it'll look more like goulash and less like a pie you've spent nearly three hours making. So wait. Just wait.
Now, here is the time you sit down and watch your family inhale this pie and congratulate you. Then, they'll ask for it all the time. Then, you can send me hate mail. I understand.
Today, I am making the dreaded pot-pie. Once you go homemade, it's hard to return to the freezer isle.


CHRISTY said...

LOL @ slit-flower!

I swear I'm going to come over and spend a day with you teaching me how to do this! I'll bring the ingredients... you bring the know-how!! :o)

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