My schedule has calmed down, some – not as much as I'd hoped, but at least I'm finding time to cook. For a variety of reasons, my workload is going to be fairly heavy for the foreseeable future. Not a bad thing in this down economy.
Back around and before the holidays, when TJ and I were both flat out and nobody had time to cook, we relied heavily on a number of local prepared food outlets, and ate through many pots of beans – Rancho Gordo's, of course. Fior D'Italia in Manchester makes a variety of excellent frozen ravioli – quick to cook and easily sauced, even if it's just with garlic, butter, and Parmesan. Al Ducci's Italian pantry (also in Manchester) makes a number of heat & eat dinner items – lasagna, eggplant parmigiana, chicken Florentine – all of them delicious.
And then there were the chicken pot pies from Grandma Miller's – not half a mile down the road. Good as homemade. Or...are they? It occurred to me midway through a slice one dinnertime that I've never made a chicken pot pie. I found myself with some free time on Saturday, and a hankering for chicken pot pie got me busy.
Like many American cooks, my go-to for standards is Joy of Cooking. No surprises in the recipe there – cooked chicken, carrots, onions, celery, and peas, bound with bechamel and topped with pie crust or biscuit dough. But it sounded just as bland as holiday creamed onions, and I've already had my way with those.
So I improvised, and made the following upgrades:
- Instead of poaching the chicken, I roasted it: a whole bone-in breast, rubbed with olive oil, salt and pepper, laid on a bed of thyme sprigs and cooked for about 45 minutes at 425°F.
- No more boiled onions! Small white onions, peeled and roasted until lightly caramelized.
- No celery, please. I used asparagus (cut on the bias in 1.5" pieces, blanched in salted water with a thyme sprig and a split clove of garlic), carrots (fancy bias cut, blanched as the asparagus were), shiitake mushrooms (sliced and sauteéd with a finely minced shallot until lightly browned and dry), and little tiny peas (frozen ones, thawed).
- For the bechamel, I started by simmering a cup of white wine with a halved shallot and some thyme sprigs in it and letting it reduce to about a quarter of a cup. I added this as the liquid along with the milk.
- This last upgrade is merely a personal one: I overcame my fear of flaky pie crust. Silly, I know, since I can make a flawless pâte brisée in my sleep and have gotten in the rut of using it for any kind of pie or tart. I followed Marion Cunningham's instruction to rub the fat into the flour with my fingers, and I used some of my hard-won rendered leaf lard (about which I will post at some point).
The smell of the pie baking had every creature in the house in a state of delirium. It took great discipline for us to wait until the pie had cooled sufficiently not to scorch our precious mouths.
I could possibly say it was a little dry, but I was being careful not to make a soupy filling; I'm happy to have erred on the dry side, but I might make the bechamel a little runnier next time, and perhaps use a bit more of it in the mix.
I daresay that roasting the chicken was a stroke of genius. The texture was soft and unctuous for having let it bathe in its own fat. I've never been a big fan of poached chicken – it seems dry to me even if it's undercooked slightly.
The biggest surprise? I made a stellar pie crust. Tender, flaky, and so delicious for the addition of a little lard. It was a challenge not to scavenge and devour all the crust off the top and leave nothing but tasty vegetables for another day's lunch.
I see a lot of pies in my future.