This week, there will be many boxes of chocolates given in the name of love; we'll also see a lot of stuffed teddy bears and bouquets of flowers. And although I would never turn any of these down (well, maybe the teddy bears, but definitely not the chocolates), when I want to tell my family I love them -- whether for Valentine's Day or any other time - I cook. And, at least as far as I'm concerned, nothing quite says I love you like a homemade pot pie. After all, this relative of the savory meat pasty contains the homiest comfort food ingredients: butter crust and gravy (oh yeah, and chicken too).
As I mentioned last week, making a pot pie is a great way to use leftovers from a roasted chicken. But you shouldn't only think of this dish as a method for getting rid of that dark or white meat no one wanted the night before. After all, pot pies -- with gravy bubbling out of the cracks of its buttery crust -- are so good that I often roast a chicken simply so we can have pot pies the next day. And, unlike other dishes, this meal tops the favorites list for both kids and adults alike, which means everyone is happy on chicken pot pie night.
There are various ways to make chicken pot pie, but I think the easiest (and tastiest) is to use leftover chicken with its drippings and a bit of fat. As my Italian Catholic mother would say, it's a sin to throw away those lovely pan juices after roasting a chicken. Those drippings contain a chicken essence that is impossible to replicate with butter and store bought chicken stock. No, the most richly-flavored gravies are always made with the source material.
But it's not enough to make a great gravy; the key to a fantastic pot pie is making enough gravy to fill your dish. Your chicken and vegetables should be swimming in brown gravy goodness, because really, who wants to eat a dry pot pie. This is why saving all the ingredients from a roasted chicken is so important. In addition to the drippings, you should also save the carcass and wings, which you'll use to make a rich chicken stock that is essential for producing a hearty supply of gravy. I usually have some store-bought broth on hand, but trust me, use this only in case of emergency as your gravy will have more nuanced flavors and a fuller taste if you make your stock from scratch.
Now don't shake your head and mutter something about not having the time to make that stock, because – yes I know I say this all the time – it's easy and fast. Really. It is. You just add some water to the carcass along with a half onion and some celery, carrots, and a bay leaf and you're done. Truly. That's it. Plus you only need to cook it for around 20 minutes – okay so that's not super fast, but it's also not so time intensive that you can't do it. How often do you spend 20 minutes digging around your refrigerator and pantry trying to find something easy and fast to cook? By the time you've finished searching, your stock could be made.
As for the fillings, they are really up to you. In addition to your chicken, you can add anything you like. I personally like potatoes, mushrooms, peas and carrots in my pot pies (I'm a savory pie traditionalist, at heart), but my daughters hate the carrots, so I only add them to my own serving. If broccoli and zucchini sound appetizing, add them in. Hate mushrooms? Leave them out. Wondering what to do with those turnips you bought? Just use them instead of the potatoes. It's your pot pie, so make it the way you like it.
When it comes time to throw everything together, you can make one big casserole in a porcelain or glass dish, or, if you have individual casserole dishes (mine look like large ramekins), you can use those instead. If you are big on crust, feel free to line your casserole dish(es) with crust (and then prebake so it's not soggy) and then also top the pies with another layer; I, however, think one layer on top is usually sufficient (and less caloric – not that I'm counting calories after using chicken fat).
So this year, forget the flowers and express your love with a chicken pot pie.
Chicken Pot Pie
Makes: One large or four individual pot pies
Leftovers from a roasted chicken (around 3 cups meat plus the carcass, wings, pan drippings and 1 Tbsp chicken fat)
5 cups water
½ large onion
1 stalk celery
1 bay leaf
1 Tbsp butter
1/4 cup flour
½ tsp dried thyme or 1 tsp fresh thyme
1 cup cubed potatoes or turnips
6 brown or white mushrooms sliced
¾ cup frozen peas
1 round of pie crust (recipe below) or puff pastry
Butter for greasing your casserole dishes
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees
2. Set the chicken carcass (stripped of meat), wings, and neck in a large saucepan and cover with water. Include your pan drippings, which should have settled in the bottom of your container overnight. Leave out the fat for now. You may have to break up the carcass so it's fully submerged. Add in 2 chopped carrots, the chopped celery stalk, the half onion (also chopped) and the bay leaf. Simmer for 20 - 30 minutes or until you have a decent chicken stock.
3. While your stock is simmering, chop up 3 cups of chicken meat. You can use dark or white meat or a combination of the two (which I think tastes best). This is also a great time to peel and chop up your potatoes or turnips, slice your mushrooms, and chop that last carrot (or whatever vegetables you're using).
4. Once the stock is ready, strain the liquid and set aside. You should have about five cups.
5. In a large pan, heat up 1 Tbsp chicken fat plus another Tbsp butter. When bubbly, add in the flour and thyme and then mix to create a roux. Whisk in 4 cups of your chicken stock slowly, stirring constantly to avoid lumps. Salt and pepper to taste.
6. Add in the potatoes or turnips along with the carrots and cover. Simmer for 7-10 minutes or until the vegetables are al dente.
7. Add in the chicken, mushrooms and peas. Mix in more stock if the gravy is too thick, or if it's too thin, create a slurry in a separate dish with a tablespoon of cornstarch and enough water to create a thin paste and then mix in as much as needed to thicken. Taste again to see if you need more salt, pepper or thyme.
8. Turn off heat, cover pan and let sit while you roll out your pie dough or puff pastry. If using small individual casserole dishes, cut the dough to fit each dish.
9. Butter the inside of each dish and then fill with your chicken and gravy mixture. Top each dish with your pie dough or puff pastry. Cut a hole or slit into each piece of dough so the casserole can breath in the oven.
10. Bake for 30 minutes. When crust is golden brown and gravy is bubbling out of the cracks, remove pot pies from oven. Let sit for five minutes and then serve with a big salad.
Flaky Pie or Tart Dough
Adapted from a recipe by Kim Laidlaw
Makes: Enough for one 10-inch tart
1 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
6 tablespoons very cold unsalted butter, cut into cubes
1/4 cup ice water + 1 tablespoon
1. To make the crust, in the bowl of a food processor, stir together the flour, and salt. Sprinkle the butter over the top and process for a few seconds, or just until the butter is slightly broken up into the flour but still in visible pieces. Sprinkle the water over the flour mixture evenly, then process until the mixture just starts to come together.
2. Dump the mixture out of the bowl onto 2 large sheets of plastic wrap. Press the dough together into a mound and then wrap with plastic and press into a flat disk. Refrigerate the dough until chilled, about 30 minutes or up to 1 day, or freeze for up to 1 month.