Chicken Pot Pie, Deconstructed

I know I promised to get to May’s favorite meal next, but the BFF asked for my chicken pot pie recipe this morning and I started thinking about pot pies.

There are reams of recipes out there for pot pies, and some of them are quite good. But they are usually long recipes and can be a bit exhausting to read. I find myself getting annoyed and losing track when I’m cooking from a long recipe, especially if I’m improvising as I go. Instead, I prefer to mentally break down the recipe into structural components that I can fiddle with individually. Pot pies are really four parts: the meat, the veg, the crust, and, vitally, what my daughter calls  “the goop.”

Of course, they aren’t that neatly divided. You can use the fond from the veg to build flavor in the sauce. You can use rendered fat from the meat to make the crust. But to start with, let’s look at the four components.

The Meat

This is, in many ways, the easiest part of the meal. It’s simply cooked chicken. You can use leftovers or just buy a rotisserie chicken on the way home from work. You can also cook some specifically for the meal. This can be as simple as tossing some boneless thighs into chicken stock and simmering them for 11 minutes. It can also be as complicated as taking apart a whole chicken and individually browning pieces to crisp the skin and render the schmaltz  and then braising them in gelatin-enhanced  broth that you made with the leftover bones. But in the end, what you’re left with is… cooked chicken. Hell, I’ve been told you can buy canned chicken. (Please don’t do that unless you must. Or, at least, please don’t tell me about it.)

Myself, I’m likely to poach skinless thighs in stock. It’s fast and simple, it enhances the chicken stock that is the base for the goop. It’s also easier to shred boneless thighs. If I really want rich deep flavor, I’ll sear bone-in thighs until the skin is crisp and there’s a nice fond on the skillet. Then I discard the skin, pour off the fat, deglaze the pan, and poach the thighs.

I have never ever done the whole-chicken rigamarole for pot pie.

Many recipes swear by shredding the chicken into long slender pieces so that the velvety sauce can cling to the fractal edges. I am happy to do this if I have the time. I am also happy to run my chef’s knife through the cooked meat until it is chopped. My sauces cling just fine either way.

One hard and fast rule about the meat: Pot pie benefits from dark meat instead of white. It would make my Southern Belle ancestresses flutter a bit, but in the end, white meat will usually wind up stringy and overcooked. The thighs are very hard to screw up in this application and they add a lot more flavor to the sauce.

The Veg

A basic mire poix — onions, carrots, and celery — is the best place to start here. Dice and sweat them in the fat of your choice, with a big pinch of salt. You want them soft and well cooked. After that, it’s really not specific. I like mushrooms and peas. Some people like red bell peppers and corn. It’s up to you, really, and what you have in your crisper drawer.

Watery veg — things like mire poix, peppers, mushrooms, zucchini, hearty greens — should be sweated down before you put it into the pot. All of them get cut up into easy-to-fit-on-a-spoon size, salted generously, and then cooked slowly in fat until tender. This is vital because otherwise the vegetables will render your sauce watery.

Potatoes and the like should be boiled or otherwise cooked. You could do this with the chicken. I’ve been known to add roasted vegetables to my pot pies for an autumnal flair.

Herbs are veg and should be added with a generous hand. I love dried thyme and fresh parsley. If you prefer a more Mediterranean flavor, consider oregano and marjoram. Regardless, the rule of thumb is this: dried herbs go in early (my thyme goes into the pot when I’m poaching the chicken) and fresh herbs go in last (the parsley goes in right before I put the crust on).

Frozen peas are vital to pot pie in my kitchen and I commend them to you. Some people like corn, too. Dump them in, still-frozen, to the stew and stir to defrost.

The Crust

The holy wars around pot pie crust are long and bloody, with casualties on all sides. I’m not doctrinal about the issue. Puff pastry, pie crust, biscuits…  I’m not going to tell you that you’re right or wrong. And if you want to use store-bought, go for it.

I like to use Dufour Puff Pastry. I pull it out of the freezer to defrost before I even start cooking. If I don’t have that, I’ll whip up some cream biscuits. You can do whatever you want.

I’m going to spin off on a tangent here, if you’ll indulge me. (If you won’t, please skip to the next section.) Comfort food is in the mind and the memory of the eater. What evokes fond sighs of nostalgia from you may make me cringe in horror. And vice versa. If you’re making chicken pot pie, it’s probably because you want some comforting. And I totally understand that for you, it’s not really chicken pot pie unless you’ve got your Meemaw’s flaky buttermilk biscuits on top. But the key phrase here is not “buttermilk biscuits” but really it’s “for you.” If you want to eat your biscuits, that’s fine but don’t go preaching your One True Pie to other people. Because, for them, it’s all about the tender crust or the mile-high puff or even (I say this with a wince, but I still say it) the sound of a cardboard tube of Pillsbury dough getting popped open.  In food, as with everything in life, fundamentalist orthodoxy is the enemy of good.

The Goop

The goop is what makes or breaks a pot pie. It’s the heart and center of the dish. It’s deep magic and alchemy. It takes a pile of disparate cooked bits and turns them into soul-satisfying bowl of perfection.

The thing is, it’s just flavorful stock that you thickened with a roux.

Take your fat and add an equal amount of flour. How much fat and flour depends on how thick you want your sauce. Probably you have some vegetables that have cooked in the fat, but that’s all to the good. You’ll have chopped cooked bit of veg covered in a paste of fat and flour. Cook them, stirring, until the flour and the veg brown a bit and leaves a fond. Deglaze the fond with your Highly Flavorful Liquid of Choice. I like sherry, but you can use wine or the liquid from rehydrating dried porcini, or just plain ole chicken stock. Once you’ve scraped up the browned bits, now is an excellent time to add minced garlic and cook for a half minute. And then you whisk in your liquid.

The liquid is up to you. When I want a rich sauce, I use about three parts chicken stock (in which I’ve previously poached the chicken thighs) to one part heavy cream. If that seems too heavy for my mood, I’ll use all stock with just a splash of cream. I’ve used all milk some days. Regardless, consider something to brighten the flavor — as I said before, I usually deglaze with sherry for this reason, but wine or even lemon juice is excellent. I’ve splashed in cider vinegar in a pinch. (Just a splash, though.)

You need to whisk it in slowly at first, to avoid lumps. This is always cranky-making to me because all the vegetables already in the roux look like lumps, damnit. But I persevere and I’ve never had a problem. Once it’s a loose paste, I just dump in the rest and stir until it’s even and smooth. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and wait for it to be slightly thinner than the perfect consistency.

Dump in any shredded chicken, frozen peas, chopped herbs, what have you. Stir until they are all combined and warmed through.

Now you need to taste.  

There is nothing more important than this step. Because you need the sauce to taste right. Right is different for you than it is for me so I can’t help you here, I’m sorry. Hell, it’s different for me in January with a cold than it is in November when I’m healthy. But don’t be afraid to add salt and pepper and more of your favorite dried herb. Maybe a splash more sherry. Stir. Taste again.

If it’s too thin, add a cornstarch slurry to thicken it. (Don’t add raw flour at this point. It won’t cook and it will leave you sauce tasting awful.) One time, I found myself with a thin sauce and no cornstarch and I bloomed a little unflavored gelatin in cold water and whisked that in. It was very very good.

It it’s too thick, add more stock. If it’s dull, add acid and then more salt. (But acid first.) If it’s too brown-tasting, add more parsley.

Only once it’s very good, should you put it into your favorite casserole dish, top with crust, and bake.

But even that is unnecessary.

I’m perfectly happy to dollop out this stew and top each bowl with a biscuit or a square of puff pastry that I baked separately while I was cooking. Baking the crust while cooking the stew makes it a much faster dinner.

If you have energy to spare and want to preserve comfort against the coming winter, you can also freeze this stew in individual portions. It’s important to get the portion size just right so that each individual mason jar has just enough to not quite fill the ramekins you keep in your house. Defrost overnight in the fridge, dump into the ramekin and top with one square of puff pastry (still stiff from the freezer) or one frozen cream biscuit and pop into a hot oven.

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