This is one of those dishes that is home to me. It comes out all piping hot and bubbling from the oven and you present it simply to your guests. You cut the flaky, tender crust into wedges so everyone gets a good piece and dish out the aromatic, creamy filling. The result is warmth and nourishment to the belly — pure rapture — and a dish that makes everyone feel like royalty.
Pot pies originated with the savory meat pies and pasties of the English. In the American colonies a similar savory pie was made in a pot — hence, pot pie. In the early stages of the colonies when food was scarce, these pies were a way of stretching food to feed more hungry mouths. The crusts were often heavy affairs made of coarse grain and suet. In would go the meaty filling — game, sometimes even bear, or poultry, held together with a heavy sauce. Clams, oysters or lobster were used for those coastal dwellers, but no peas, carrots or mushrooms studded these hearty pies until much later.
As food in the colonies improved, butter was substituted for the suet, vegetables were appropriated along with the meat and a variety of sauces were used. By the 19th century pot pies were so popular that some spoke of eating one pie per person per day! Even though the ingredients available to the general population improved over time, pot pie has always been a vehicle for using leftovers. The genius of leftovers is mostly lost on us modern-day cooks. These meals were many times the richest and most innovative in a common cook’s repertoire, having had time for the ingredients to meld together and then being combined with yet more leftovers for the ultimate in flavor.
I often think of pot pie in the winter at the end of the holidays. There are lots of exotic leftovers in my fridge calling out to me. So I make a crust and a creamy sauce just for the occasion and in go all sorts of goodies. I select a pot and pop it all into the oven for 45 minutes until the crust is golden brown and the filling is bubbling through its little air hole. If you were to make each component from the beginning, it would be a ton of work. With leftovers it takes about 45 minutes of prep.
Now, the nature of leftover dishes is there is no recipe to follow. I can teach you the basic technique but then you must be resourceful — go look in your fridge! I approach a pot pie by picturing what is in the fridge and imagining those things combined together and, most importantly, whether I would like the combination. I only include what sounds good together to me. If you feel inclined, plan ahead and develop a pot pie over a week of dinners. Of course, stretch the dollar as far as it will go. Sometimes I start with a whole chicken at the start of the week and end up with a pot pie toward the end — a dish in celebration of using everything. Better yet, rouse some friends, roast a chicken and have a pot luck one night and then the following evening make a collective pot pie.
Any way you decide, pot pie necessitates both planning and improvisation. I will give you the recipe for a delicious crust that’s flaky and tender in all the right places and that doesn’t gum up or get soggy after a day in the fridge. As for the filling, I can only offer guidance and incentive. The trick is to pull out all those leftovers, heat them up in a frying pan, and make a creamy gravy or sauce in a separate pan, then mix them together and put them into your casserole. They need to fill your pot/dish right up to the brim so you can nestle your crust on top.
This is the pot pie I made yesterday. It served 4 people. Since I already knew I wanted to make one I started by making the dough for the crust (recipe below) so it could go in the fridge and get cold while I thought about my leftovers.
We had made a roast young chicken — seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic and rosemary — gravy and roasted kabocha squash for Anjuli’s birthday dinner on the 29th. The squash was roasted with ghee, a little maple syrup, salt, pepper, cloves and some cinnamon. On Christmas I had made a roast ham — seasoned with Madeira, mustard, cloves and a little maple syrup — and cubed and froze the remainder. I also had ten shrimp left from a tapa we made for New Year’s Eve. So in went the chicken, shrimp, some thawed peas and carrots I always keep on hand and diced onion leftover from a dish the night before. I thinned my leftover chicken gravy with water (it had become very thick) and then squashed the squash (ha ha) with a fork and added it to the gravy. I whisked it until smooth. The result was three cups of velvety sauce.
I cooked my pot pie in a two quart casserole dish. I would say as a general rule of thumb that you need one cup of sauce for each two cups of filling. Below is a recipe to get you going…
2 cups cooked chicken, cut in bite-sized morsels
1 cup very thick gravy
1 cup water
1/2 kabocha squash
10 cooked shrimp
1 cup cubed, cooked ham
1/2 cup minced onion
2 cups of peas and carrots
Crust for 1 9” pie (recipe below)
Make the sauce. I put the gravy and 1 cup of water in a small sauce pan at medium low, stirred it and let it come to simmer. I squashed the squash with a fork and added it to the sauce, whisking until smooth and creamy. I let it come back to simmer, tasted for seasoning and turned it off. I put a lid on it. Less than five minutes. Sauce done.
Make the filling. I heated a medium frying pan to medium low and added 2 tablespoons olive oil. I fried the onion until soft, 1 minute. Then I added the frozen ham first. After 1 minute they were thawed so I added the frozen peas and carrots. In 1 minute I added the chicken. When everything else was heated through I added the shrimp. After 30 seconds I turned the heat off. Less than 5 minutes. Filling done.
Mix filling and sauce. I put the filling into the sauce and stirred to combine. I spooned everything into the casserole dish. Now I was ready for the crust.
This crust is great for savory pies. It’s flaky and tender and yet will hold up to hot liquids without getting soggy. There are many ways of incorporating the fat into the flour — a pastry blender, a food processor, two sharp knives or your finger tips. In Colonial America it was finger tips. I am a tactile person. I like to knead my own bread, I often grind my own flour and I also use my finger tips to incorporate the butter into flour. I feel much more control over the process, whether it is true or not. And it feels good.
Ingredients Enough for 2 9” disks
Note: This was enough crust for two pot pies in two quart-size dishes. I saved the other crust, wrapped it in wax paper in the fridge, and made a vegetable pot pie two days later for Austin.
2 cups all purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup, 2 sticks, cold unsalted butter
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar (preferably Braggs)
3 – 5 tablespoons ice water
Mix ingredients and cut in butter. Add the two flours to a large bowl. Add the salt. Cut the sticks of butter into little pieces. Cut the butter into the flour with the method of your choice, until the mixture resembles coarse meal.
Tip: For the butter, it’s easiest if you cut lengthwise into 4 strips and then cut into ½ inch dice.
For the hand method: If you want to try out the hand cutting method, toss all the butter pieces in the flour and make sure they’re broken up. Then, moving swiftly and only with your fingertips pull the butter bits through your thumb and fingers – using only fingertips! Continuously turn the bowl and every 30 seconds or so fluff up the mixture by turning it through open hands. Never smoosh, press down or use any other part of your hands. Once the mixture looks evenly clumpy like coarse meal all over, you’re done. Don’t overdo it.
Incorporate egg, knead and refrigerate. Mix the egg and vinegar together with a fork. Tossing lightly with a fork, add the egg mixture to the flour. Once it’s evenly incorporated, start adding the ice water, a little at a time, until the mixture barely holds together. It should not appear wet. Dump the dough out gently on your counter and gather it together, kneading two or three times. Form it into a disk on wax paper and refrigerate for 20 minutes to 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 375F.
Roll the dough. Measure the diameter of your pot pie dish or pot. Roll out a circle that is 2” larger than the diameter and 1/8” thick directly on your wax paper. Turn over onto the dish and carefully peel off the paper. Trim the edges to 1 inch all the way around the pot. Fold the edges under so they are tucked in over the edge of the rim. Crimp the edges by pinching together with thumb and index finger. This sticks the dough to the pot and also gives a decorative edge. Cut a 1/2” circle in the center of your crust to release steam as it bakes.
Bake the pie. Bake for 45 minutes until the crust is flaky and brown and the filling is bubbling. Serve each person a piece of crust and filling, although you may have to do these things separately!
Samples for inspiration…
Leftover cream-based soup (e.g. of broccoli or mushroom)
Mashed potatoes thinned down with milk
Roux made of stock, butter and wine
Cream sauce of any kind
Meat, poultry or seafood of any kind, cut in 1/2 to 1” dice
Frozen diced or small cut veggies
Roasted root vegetables
Broccoli, cauliflower or other cruciferous veggies (steamed, sauteed, roasted, etc)
Dark, leafy greens (steamed or sauteed)
Diced onion, garlic, shallots
Herbs like oregano, tarragon, rosemary, thyme, basil, cilantro, parsley
Spices like paprika, black pepper, coriander, cumin
So, here’s dreaming…
- Roasted vegetables, broccoli, chestnuts, edamame and a cream sauce
- Beef, onions, carrots, potatoes in a roux-based sauce made from leftover gravy and seasoned with rosemary and thyme
- Cooked chicken, dried apricots and currants, leftover cabbage, slice, cooked mushrooms and cream sauce made with flour, butter, chicken stock and giblets, seasoned with shallots, parsley, and tarragon