In this modern-day-take-it-out-of-the-freezer-and shove-it-in-the-microwave world, we often lose sight of what real food tastes like. Not too surprising, when you look at the ingredient lists on most prepared foods. Many so-called foods have more chemicals than food ingredients. I figure if you can’t even pronounce half the ingredients, you shouldn’t rely on it as a major food source. On the other hand, just think about beef stew or chili simmering slowly through the day, ready to warm the cockles of your heart – not to mention your cold hands – come dinner time. Or home-made breakfast burritos or Cornish pasties, stored in the freezer for those mornings when you can barely find the kitchen, let alone think up a menu.
I enjoyed the “Little House” books by Laura Ingalls Wilder when I was a kid. As an adult, I learned that her daughter Rose was an unofficial collaborator who probably made the books readable. I did not read “Farmer Boy” — her story of husband Almanzo’s childhood — until I was an adult. Those of you who read Wilder’s books may remember that she spent a considerable amount of time describing food: growing it, cooking it and eating it. Not too surprising in a pioneer girl who probably often had only some beans and bread to eat when times were tough. Almanzo, however, grew up on a prosperous farm and ate considerably better than his young bride.
One of the dishes Laura describes in “Farmer Boy” was chicken pot pie. Here’s what she wrote:
“He felt a little better when he sat down to the good Sunday dinner. Mother sliced the hot rye ’n’ injun bread on the bread-board by her plate. Father’s spoon cut deep into the chicken-pie; he scooped out big pieces of thick crust and turned up their fluffy yellow under-sides on the plate. He poured gravy over them; he dipped up big pieces of tender chicken, dark meat and white meat sliding from the bones. He added a mound of baked beans and topped it with a quivering slice of fat pork. At the edge of the plate he piled dark red beet pickles. And he handed the plate to Almanzo. Silently Almanzo ate it all. Then he ate a piece of pumpkin pie, and he felt very full inside. But he ate a piece of apple pie with cheese.”
The chicken in Almanzo’s pie would have been an older hen or cockerel, which needed to be aged and stewed to make it tender. Rye and injun bread is a form of cornbread made with rye flour and molasses, very similar to or even exactly like Boston Brown Bread, depending on the recipe. The beet pickles were probably fermented. Salt pork is made from the same cut of meat as bacon, but is heavily salted and not smoke cured. It is typically fried crisp.
Most modern recipes for chicken pot pie suggest using chicken breasts or thighs (if that’s your only choice, use 1 ½ pounds and simmer it for about 10 minutes), but this is an original and uses the whole chicken. You will probably find it easiest to cook the chicken a day ahead and shred the meat once it is cool. You can also use your favorite biscuit or puff pastry recipe instead of a pie crust topping.
Chicken Pot Pie
1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon table salt
8 tablespoons unsalted butter (1/4 pound), chilled and cut into 1/4-inch pieces
4 tablespoons lard, chilled
1 chicken, plucked, gutted and aged up to three days in the refrigerator, cut into pieces (I’ve also made this with pheasants, treated the same way)
1 1/2 tablespoons or lard
1 large onion, chopped fine
3 medium carrots, peeled and cut crosswise 1/4-inch thick
2 small ribs celery, cut crosswise 1/4-inch thick
Salt and ground black pepper
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup whole milk
½ cup cream
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
3 tablespoons dry sherry (optional)
3/4 cup frozen peas, thawed
3 tablespoons minced fresh parsley leaves
1. Brown the chicken slightly in lard, then cover with cold water and bring to a boil. Turn heat down to a simmer and cook until the chicken is tender. Set aside to cool, then strip meat from bones and cut in bite-sized pieces.
2. Mix flour and salt in work bowl of food processor fitted with the steel blade. Scatter butter pieces over flour mixture, tossing to coat butter with a little of the flour. Cut butter into flour with five one-second pulses. Add shortening; continue cutting in until flour is pale yellow and resembles coarse cornmeal, keeping some butter bits the size of small peas, about four more one-second pulses. Turn mixture into medium bowl. Sprinkle 3 tablespoons ice-cold water over the mixture. Using rubber spatula, fold water into flour mixture. Then press down on dough mixture with broad side of spatula until dough sticks together, adding up to 1 tablespoon more cold water if dough will not come together. Shape dough into ball, then flatten into 4-inch-wide disk. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate 30 minutes while preparing pie filling.
3. Cook onions, carrots, and celery in about 1 tablespoon of lard or coconut oil; sauté until just tender, about 5 minutes. Stir in chicken and let it heat through. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Transfer cooked vegetables to bowl with chicken; set aside and keep warm.
4. Heat butter over medium heat in again-empty skillet. When foaming subsides, add flour; cook about 1 minute. Whisk in 2 cups of chicken broth left over from cooking chicken, milk, cream, any accumulated chicken juices, and thyme. Bring to simmer, then continue to simmer until sauce fully thickens, about 1 minute. Season to taste with salt and pepper; stir in sherry.
5. Pour sauce over chicken mixture; stir to combine. Stir in peas and parsley. Adjust seasonings. Heat until it just starts to bubble. (Can be covered and refrigerated overnight; reheat before topping with pastry. You want this hot when you put on the pastry, as otherwise the pie and crust won’t cook evenly and the crust will get soggy.)
6. Roll dough on floured surface to approximate 15-by-11-inch rectangle, about 1/8-inch thick. If making individual pies, roll dough 1/8-inch thick and cut 6 dough rounds about 1 inch larger than pan circumference.
7. Pour chicken mixture into 13-by-9-inch pan, any shallow baking dish of similar size or individual pie pans. Lay dough over pot pie filling, trimming dough to 1/2 inch of pan lip. Tuck overhanging dough back under itself so folded edge is flush with lip. Flute edges all around. Or don’t trim dough and simply tuck overhanging dough into pan side. Cut at least four 1-inch vent holes in large pot pie or one 1-inch vent hole in smaller pies. If using biscuit dough, cut eight rounds and space evenly on top of pie.
8. Bake at 400 degrees until pastry is golden brown and filling is bubbly, 30 minutes for large pies and 20 to 25 minutes for smaller pies. Serve hot.