Thursday, October 04, 2007

Chicken Pot Pie

Let me extol the virtues of chicken pot pie. First, the crust. How ingenious is it to use pie crust in savory dishes, so you don't even have to wait for dessert. Of course, that's assuming you've had good pie crust and know what you're constantly missing out on everyday there's not a pie waiting for dessert.

Second, who doesn't like stew in cold fall temperatures? That starchy, mellow goodness that warms your whole body and satisfies every bit of your hunger. It just feels like you're home when you're eating a stew.

And third, it's a one-dish meal. Kind of. It actually takes a few dishes to prepare it, but you only need to put one serving dish on the table when you're sitting down to eat. Everyone gets some protein, everyone gets a few vegetables, and everyone gets a little incentive to eat the dish, since it's topped with a delicious homemade crust.

Okay, now I'll tell you what I really think, usually, of pot pie. All the ingredients taste pretty good, but then you stick them all together and there are no clean flavors left. The result is that harmony of nothingness. Creamy, stewy, whatever. I like making chicken pot pie, but by the time I serve it, I don't want another bite. I'm over-stewed. Except this time.

One of the problems is that nothing has any distinct flavors in a stew. This is really okay, but to make it interesting, you can't just add all your average components and expect to have an above-average flavor in the end. You also can't add exciting flavors and expect them to stand out above everything else; well, if you add a whole lot of them, they will, but the pie will be best when you have achieved a good balance of complementary flavors.

I like mushrooms in my pot pie, and I like the way that Sherry tastes with mushrooms. I prefer crimini to white mushrooms because they have an earthier flavor. That was a good starting point for me. I considered the rest of the basics: shallots over onions and/or garlic, red potatoes (definitely) boiled or fried, how much chicken, roasted or poached, and seasoning.

I thought shallots would make a difference here, since I didn't want onions or garlic taking over the flavor of the dish. Boiled potatoes, a very watery starch, would only dilute the other tastes and textures, but frying the potatoes in an oil-free non-stick skillet would not only give the potatoes texture, but also enrich the flavor of the rest of the dish. However, I thought the more delicate texture and flavor of poached would make a better meal. I'm not crazy about overdoing the chicken flavor in chicken pot pie, which I guess sounds really ironic.

As far as other flavors go, I decided to start with bacon to give it a little smokiness, which really mellowed out by the end, but I'm happy with the amount I had. You could opt for more if you want that flavor to stand out, but as I've said, it's not about anything standing out, but coming together. I also added an apple and a touch of Dijon for just a bit of acidity to balance everything else out. Now, you might think, "Oh, yum, this recipe sounds really good, but I think I'll leave out the Dijon. I'm not crazy about that part." At least, if you're like me, you'll be thinking of how to alter the recipe before you start. Don't leave out the Dijon. There's just a teensy weensy bit in there, and it's so perfectly a part of it. Don't leave it out. I'm not kidding. Just leave it in. Please. You'll be so happy you did when you taste it, except you won't really taste much of it at all, and it will be just right, and you'll realize how absolutely brilliant I am. And that I'm always right.

Of course, the crust is extraordinarily important, so make your crust. It doesn't take long, and you can just quickly use your fingers to smash the mixture to pieces if you don't have a stand mixer, but an all-butter crust will make the dish, since butter goes so well with stew, but shortening does not. Oh, and also (which is a phrase I think my daughter uses), I only make a top crust, since otherwise it's not so much about making a dinner as it is about eating crust.

This was so good that I thoroughly enjoyed my dinner, even after tasting everything so much along the way. In fact, I wanted to eat a lot more, but, well, it's not the healthiest meal out there. But it is delicious. (Do I sound torn? I was very torn.)

By the way, this does fit in with my diet. It's all about portion control, after all. And exercising 60 minutes today. And having nothing else but V8 the rest of the day (I'm drinking one right now and it's delicious). See, I can make it work.

Chicken Pot Pie
makes 2 pies (one for you, one for me)

1/2 lb. bacon, chopped (I prefer thick, maple-cured bacon)
1 lb. shallots, sliced
2/3 lb. crimini mushrooms, chopped
1 lg. apple, diced (I used Honey Crisp, but any would be fine)
2 1/2 lbs. red potatoes, 1/2" dice
2 large chicken breasts (about 1 1/4 lbs.)
2 T. butter
1/3 c. flour
1/4 c. sherry
3 c. chicken broth
3 T. cream (because I had it around, milk would be fine)
1 t. Dijon mustard
1 c. peas
Kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
One recipe pie dough, divided into two equal portions, rolled out (you can roll them out, wrap them in plastic wrap, and set them in the fridge while you do all this)

First, poach the chicken. In a small or medium saucepan, add water to about 3 inches, the core from the apple you diced, a few baby carrots, and 1/2 t. salt. Add the two chicken breasts, set over medium heat, and bring nearly to a simmer. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook for 15 - 20 minutes. Remove from the heat and let the chicken sit in the poaching liquid for another 15 minutes or so, cooling, until you're ready to cut it up.

In a large non-stick skillet, set the bacon over medium heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until done. Remove to drain on paper towel, then pour off all but 4 T. of the bacon grease. You can eyeball this. If you're concerned about saturated fat, keep the bacon but substitute olive oil for the bacon grease.

Turn the heat up to medium-high, then add the shallots with a few pinches of salt. Cook, stirring, until they're nice and soft, then add the mushrooms.

(Just a note here, in case you haven't heard this already: it's important to salt food as you make it, in the layers that you're putting it together, to bring out the flavor of each layer. Also, sometimes it's important to draw out the liquids in each food to help them cook faster, as with onions, mushrooms, and potatoes.)

Cook the shallots and mushrooms until the mushrooms are starting to brown a bit and have given off a lot of their liquid. Add the bacon and apple, stir a few times, and remove to a bowl for later.

Preheat the oven to 400°.

To your skillet, add the potatoes and about a teaspoon of salt. Cook, stirring, covering with the lid for a minute or two here and there to help them along (this will steam them a bit, then they'll dry out after the lid is removed, which helps them to cook without browning too much), adding a bit more salt here and there as needed for taste and to draw out more liquid. If they seem to be browning quickly, turn the heat down to medium and keep stirring. This takes about 20 minutes. Remove the potatoes to a large bowl.

Dice the chicken into 1/2" cubes.

Add the mushroom mixture back to the skillet along with the 2 T. butter. After that has melted, stir in the flour completely, then stir in the sherry. After cooking for a few seconds, add the broth, cream, peas, and chicken. Bring to a simmer, where it should thicken up a bit. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Stir in the Dijon. Add the whole mixture to the bowl of potatoes and stir.

Divide the stew between two pie pans and top each with the pie dough. Cut a couple of slits in the top. Bake for 20-30 minutes, until the crust is just done. Cool 10 minutes and serve.

Now, doesn't that sound easy?


DTR said...

I recommend adding 1 t. crushed marijuana leaves. After all, what's a chicken pot pie without any pot?

Rachel said...

You're funny. Have you tried it this way?