I had dinner in Manhattan the other night in a beautiful restaurant. It had a chic and witty look, with huge green glass chandeliers, uneven wooden floorboards, a large communal table, and twinkling views. The lighting was flattering and the hum not unbearable. My dining companion ordered the chicken pot pie and, going by my country friend’s instructions, there should have been nothing to object to in this albino-sauced pie with its thin sheet of dark pastry stretched like a drum skin over the dish’s fine white ceramic rim and undoubtedly glued into place with a slosh of beaten egg. But this lackluster pie with its aerial pastry and pale sauce, brought to the table at a tense 450 degrees (“Do NOT touch the dish!”) was just wrong.
When I first started catering in Manhattan in 1982, fifteen lifetimes ago, I was introduced to a powerful and infamous hostess whose meals were served at an audaciously laid table (silk rugs for the cloth and books for place mats), and whose apartment was one jaw-dropping antique and objet trouvé after another. As for the food, she preferred intense flavors (garlic was her middle name) and if there was any one thing that defined a dish—porcini, olives, Cognac, orange zest, mint—she wanted twice as much of it as normal. She liked to grab the ingredients by the balls and enslave them in the cause of a drop-dead dinner.
To a certain extent, I adopted her take on things—I couldn’t help but adore her and she was everything I aspired to be, and to have. So when the hostess asked me to make a chicken pot pie—though it sounded like such a simple dish to present to her cognoscenti, I knew the pie would be in for a major overhaul. And sure enough, per her directive:
Chicken became capon
Button mushrooms became morels
Onions became whole caramelized shallots
Store bought stock became an intensely flavored, home made stock
Wine became Armagnac
Get the picture? The saying, “there’s more than one way to skin a cat” comes to mind.
The other genius thing about a pie like this is that—served with a salad of soft lettuces and a sharp vinaigrette—all you need is a fork. Her guests could lounge around, elbows on the carpet, forking the food into their patrician mouths. Conversation could be fluid with lots of eye contact and badinage since their brains were free to work on finding fun things to say, rather than occupied in negotiating quail bones or fretsawing through steaks to avoid the gristle.
There can hardly be a better reason to learn how to make pastry than to be able to roll out a pretty oval (for an oval dish) and to lay it on the cooled filling, to cut a ribbon of pastry for the perimeter of the dish and to “knock up” the edge with a knife. To re-roll the scraps, cut out the letters P I E (for instance), and set them in place; to brush with egg and scatter with salt, then post into the oven to bake. Heaven.
This particular recipe for chicken pot pie is no more elaborate than my country friend’s version, but the ingredients have been changed to up the ante and educate the innocent.
FANCY CHICKEN POT PIE
You could always roast your own chicken but once, in a hurry, I used a store bought rotisserie chicken and it was great.
INGREDIENTS:1 rotisserie chicken, skinned and de-boned, the meat cut into 1-inch chunks
1 tablespoon olive oil
8 shallots, peeled and left whole
3/4 stick unsalted butter
1 large yellow onion, diced
2 large carrots, peeled and sliced diagonally
3 sticks of celery, sliced diagonally
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon herbes de Provence
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 ounces dried morels soaked in 1 cup warm water for 15 minutes
1/2 cup all purpose flour
3 cups hot chicken stock
3/4 cup white wine (sauvignon blanc is good)
1/4 cup Armagnac, or cognac
1/2 cup minced parsley
- Put the oil and shallots in a large heavy-based pan over medium high heat. Sauté for 15 minutes, shaking the pan occasionally, until starting to brown. Add the butter, onions, carrots, celery, bay leaves, herbes de Provence, salt and pepper. Stir to coat, turn up the heat to high, and sauté for 10 minutes or until all the vegetables start caramelizing.
- Line a sieve with a paper towel and set over a bowl. Tip in the morels and their liquid, gather the morels up in the towel and squeeze out the water; rinse them, chop roughly, and add to the vegetables.
- Add the flour and stir to incorporate. Add a cup of stock, stirring well, then gradually add the rest of the stock, the wine, Armagnac, and the morel liquid. Bring to a brisk simmer to thicken the sauce. Off the heat, fold in the chicken and parsley.
- Taste for seasoning, it should be strongly flavored, and pour into an ovenproof dish. Set aside to cool before covering with pastry.
INGREDIENTS FOR THE PASTRY:
Position a rack in the upper third of the oven and preheat to 400°F2 1/2 cups Hecker’s or King Arthur flour
2 sticks cold unsalted butter, cut along each stick once then cut across four times
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup iced water
1 egg beaten, for the egg wash
INSTRUCTIONS FOR THE PASTRY:
- Put the flour in the bowl of a food processor, scatter on the butter and the salt.
- Pulse 10 times then add the iced water through the feed tube, while you pulse another 10 times. Tip the mixture into a plastic bag and let it sit for 10 minutes then quickly and lightly (but firmly) compress the crumbs into a block.
- Leave the dough in the refrigerator, ideally overnight or for at least 2 hours. When you come to roll out the pastry, allow enough time (roughly 30 to 40 minutes) for the pastry to become pliable.
- Roll the pastry to about 1/4-inch thick, brush the rim of the dish with the egg wash, and drape the pastry over the dish making sure it is not stretched and rests easily on the filling.
- Trim off the excess pastry, brush egg over the surface and scatter with a little extra salt. Re-roll the scraps into a long rectangle and cut into 3/4-inch wide strips. Lay the strips around the edge of the dish and press the tines of a fork all around decoratively. Brush the strips with egg and a little more salt. If you can be bothered, you could cut out something artistic for the middle of the pie, leaves, letters etc.
- Bake for 40 to 50 minutes, or until the crust is golden and the filling is bubbling up in places around the edges.
The recipes in this story have not been tested in the Gourmet kitchens.