Using pastry to hold savory foods such as meat and poultry goes back to ancient Greek and Roman times. Then the pastry was more of a container to hold the food rather than an edible part of the dish. During medieval times in Europe, meat pies evolved into edible pastries with many different fillings. They might have been the first “fast food” — portable and eaten out of the hand.
The English perfected this tradition and passed it along to the American colonists. The emergence of the pot pie in America was very practical: Pie crusts use less flour than bread and are simpler to cook. They were also a way to stretch meager supplies of meat and poultry by cutting them up small and cooking them in a crust with gravy and vegetables.
Today, pot pies are comfort food that can taste pretty good on a cold winter day. The crust can be made from pie pastry, biscuit dough or puff pastry. When you cut into it, it can release delicious aromas of herbs and savory ingredients. Here are some ways to enjoy these ancient entrées:
INDIVIDUAL BEEF POT PIE
Cut into small, bite-sized pieces a boneless beef chuck steak, about 3 pounds, discarding any fat and gristle.
Cut 4 strips of bacon into small pieces and brown in a Dutch oven.
Remove the bacon, turn up the heat and brown the beef in batches, being careful not to crowd. Set the beef aside with the bacon and lower the heat.
Add 1 cup diced onion, 1/2 cup diced celery and 1/2 cup diced carrots to the Dutch oven along with 4 tablespoons butter. Cook slowly for 3 minutes and add 1 tablespoon minced garlic. Stir in 1/4 cup flour to make a roux. Let the mixture cook at medium heat for another 5 minutes. Add 1 1/2 cups red wine and let it come to a boil. Stir in 1 1/2 cups beef stock and simmer until the sauce begins to thicken.
Add back the beef, the bacon and a bouquet of 6 parsley stems, 1 sliced leek, 3 sprigs of thyme and a bay leaf tied together with string. Cover, bring to a boil and place in a 300-degree oven for 1 1/2 hours. The meat should be very tender.
While this is cooking, prepare the vegetables: Peel 2 potatoes and cut them into a 1-inch dice; peel 3 purple-topped turnips and cut them into bite-sized wedges; peel and trim 4 carrots and cut into diagonal 1-inch pieces; and thaw 1 package of frozen peas.
Bring 2 quarts salted water to a boil and blanch the potatoes and carrots for 5 minutes, then add the turnips, continuing to cook for another 5 minutes.
Add the peas at the end and cook for 30 seconds before draining. Plunge the vegetables into an ice bath and drain.
Chop 1/4 cup parsley, 2 tablespoons sage leaves and 2 tablespoons rosemary leaves. Combine the herbs in a small dish and set aside.
To make a double-crust pie dough, combine 2 1/2 cups fl our and 1 teaspoon salt in a bowl. Cut in 1 cup chilled shortening with a pastry blender and stir in 1/2 cup ice water.
Form 2 balls of dough, flatten into a disk and cover in plastic film. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.
To assemble, add the blanched vegetables to the meat mixture and divide between 6 ceramic ramekins (you may have leftover sauce). Sprinkle the herbs on the meat mixture along with some ground pepper and kosher salt.
Roll out the dough and cut pieces to fit the top of your ramekins. Lay these on top of the meat and poke a few holes in them to let out steam. Combine 1 egg with a little water and brush the tops of the pastry. Bake the pot pies in a 400-degree oven until brown and bubbly, about 25 minutes.
SEAFOOD POT PIE
Purchase 1 package of frozen puff pastry sheets and let thaw at room temperature for 30 minutes.
Purchase 1 lobster tail, 1/2 pound of large shrimp in the shell, 1/2 pound of sea scallops, 1 dozen littleneck clams and 1 pound of mussels.
Heat a shallow saucepan and add 1 tablespoon butter and 1/4 cup minced shallots. Add the clams and mussels along with 1 cup white wine and 1 cup water. Bring to a boil, cover and cook until they begin to open. Continue cooking and remove the clams and mussels as they open with a slotted spoon. Add the shrimp (in their shells) to the broth and bring back to a boil. Remove the shrimp and add the scallops and lobster tail. Remove the scallops very quickly, as they will cook fast. Remove the lobster tail when it turns opaque.
Strain the broth into a bowl. Peel the shrimp, cut the lobster into bite-sized pieces and remove the clams and mussels from their shells.
Heat a large sauté pan and add 3 tablespoons butter. When it melts, stir in 1 cup diced onion, 1/2 cup diced celery and 1 cup diced carrots. Cook at medium heat for 5 minutes and season with 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves, 1 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon ground pepper. Stir in 1/4 cup flour and continue cooking for another 3 minutes. Add the seafood broth, 1 cup heavy cream and 2 tablespoons dry sherry. Bring to a boil and add 1 package of frozen peas and 1 package of frozen pearl onions and turn down the heat. Add back all of the seafood and taste for seasoning.
Transfer to a large, shallow casserole.
Trim the puff pastry sheet to fi t the casserole, tucking it inside the rim. Combine 1 egg yolk and 1 tablespoon water and brush the top of the crust. If desired, decorate the crust with puff pastry trimmings and brush with egg wash.
Bake in a 400-degree oven for 30 minutes and serve.
TURKEY POT PIE
You will need 2 cups cooked turkey, cut into chunks. You can roast a turkey breast and use the leftovers or you can just buy a turkey cutlet and cook it as you wish.
Place 3 tablespoons butter in a saucepan and add 1 cup diced onions, 1/2 cup diced celery and 1/2 cup diced carrots. Let it cook slowly and add 1 tablespoon fresh thyme, a bay leaf and 1/4 cup chopped parsley.
Stir in 1/4 cup flour to make a roux, then add 2 cups chicken stock and 1 cup milk. Let this simmer while you blanch the vegetables.
Bring 2 quarts water to a boil and add 1 cup diced carrots, 1 cup diced parsnips and 1 cup diced turnip. Cook until tender and add to the simmering sauce. Quickly blanch 2 cups frozen pearl onions and a package of frozen peas. Add them to the sauce along with the 2 cups cooked turkey. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Make a biscuit topping by combining 2 cups flour, 1 tablespoon sugar, 2 teaspoons baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon baking soda and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cut in 6 tablespoons cold butter and 2 tablespoons cold shortening with a pastry blender or your hands.
Stir in 3/4 cup buttermilk and form into a dough.
Fill a round casserole with the turkey mixture. Roll out the dough and lay it on top. Place in a 400-degree oven and cook for 30 minutes.
John Ross, a chef and author, has been an active part of the North Fork food and wine community for more than 35 years. Email him at [email protected].