Pot π

This was supposed to be a St. Patrick’s Day post.  I was all jazzed to write about, y’know, green food.  I went to the store, and there were these adorable little tomatillos, nestled cheekily in their wrinkly skins.  I wanted so badly to turn them into a gorgeous salsa verde, all hot and sharp and bright jewel-green.  But then I tried, and somewhere along the line things went wrong, and the salsa turned out mouth-searingly spicy and sour and…beige.   I don’t really want to talk about it.

So instead, let us turn our attention to another holiday entirely, and a much more pleasant and comforting subject: pie.  Or pi, as it were.

Today is Pi Day–3/14–and I have a confession to make.  Although I’ve already solidly demonstrated my willingness to bake a cake, the truth is, when push comes to shove, I lean toward Team Pie.  Pies offer a variety of textures, a homey-ness and a seasonal appeal, that even the most mouth-watering cakes are hard-pressed to match.  And, unlike most cakes, they can be savory as well as sweet, which is a welcome reprieve for my ravening sweet tooth.

I didn’t grow up with pot pies, and when I had my first taste of one in college, I understood why.  It was lumpy, leaden, almost gelatinous with milkfat and flour, a thick and joyless pie crust sagging listlessly over a mass of overcooked chicken and the occasional pea.  It bothered me, it really did: there was a great meal lurking somewhere in that mass of cream and pastry.  That first, awful pot pie sparked a craving in me, for something simple and homey, light and warming, with real nutrition and flavor nestled under a thin layer of crust.

Of course, my secret to light, flavorful pot pie came from none other than Mark Bittman.  He skips the cream altogether, relying instead on straight-up stock.  I know, snooze, right?  But here’s the kicker: start off with twice the volume of stock, and reduce it by half.  That’s it.  That’s the end of the trickery.  The result is a super-concentrated liquid, deep and dark and unbelievably rich, ready to be stirred into a roux and bubbled gently until thick. We’re talking lick-your-plate gravy, people, and I’ve only ever tried it with stock from a carton–imagine what the homemade stuff would do.  (Word to the wise: if you’re using boxed stock, make sure it’s low-sodium, or you’ll wither your tongue clear into next week.  I learned that the hard way.)

Now, this is one of those times where I just can’t stick to a hard-and-fast recipe.  I tend to think of it, instead, as a Project Runway challenge.  (Bear with me here.)  The recipe I’ve outlined below is like the sketch, the 30-minute brain dump before heading off to Mood.  Then, once faced with a vast array of raw materials, it’s all about going through and finding what sings.  Gravitating toward broccoli?  Green beans?  Zucchini?  Tomatoes?  Pearl onions?  Anything and everything goes.  Then, once you’re back in the workroom, you get to unite the sketch–the recipe–and your raw materials.

It’s not a perfect strategy–sometimes Tim Gunn comes over and purses his lips and says, “I’m worried.”  (Okay, maybe only on TV, but a girl can dream…)  And sometimes your final creation doesn’t blow the judges away, and you end up just being “safe.”  The pot pie that I photographed for this post was, in all honesty, a “safe” creation: the broccoli, while gorgeous, ended up egregiously overcooked, and I didn’t thicken the gravy enough.  But the crowd I was cooking for still wolfed it down and pronounced it Tasty, Indeed.  Which was fine by me.  And then the next time, after gazing almost-tearfully at the camera and insisting I’ve learned my lesson, I’ll come back with a pot pie that blows ’em all away.  Just you wait.

Man, Pi Day is so much better than that other green holiday.  I feel way better now.

Pot Pie (serves 6-8)

One 9-inch pie crust, store-bought or homemade

4 cups (1 32-oz. carton) chicken or vegetable stock

1 lb. protein of your choice (meat or tofu), cooked and cut into bite-size pieces

1 onion, diced

2 carrots, sliced

3-4 cloves garlic, minced

About 2 lb. vegetables of your choice, cut into bite-size pieces

1/2 cup frozen peas, if desired

3 tbsp olive oil

3 tbsp all-purpose flour

Salt and pepper to taste

1 egg

Preheat the oven to 400º F.  In a small saucepan, bring the stock to a boil.  Reduce heat to medium low and simmer for about 20 minutes, or until the liquid has reduced by about half.  Set aside.

Meanwhile, heat the oil over medium heat in a large saucepan or skillet.  Add onion, carrot, and any sturdy or long-cooking vegetables–potatoes or other root veggies, in particular–and saute until beginning to soften, about 10 minutes.  Add the flour and stir until a thick paste forms over the vegetables, then cook for about 5 minutes, until the roux is golden brown.  Add the reduced stock, bring to a boil, and simmer until it reaches a thick gravy-like consistency, about 10-15 minutes more.  Toss in any remaining vegetables, making sure everything is evenly coated.  Season with salt and pepper to taste, and then remove from heat and let the filling cool.

In a small bowl, beat the egg lightly with just a splash of water.  Pour the cooled filling into a 9-inch pie pan or an 8×8 baking dish (or other 2-quart baking dish–shape doesn’t matter, really).  Brush the rim of the baking dish with the beaten egg, then drape the pie crust over the top, pressing down gently on the edges to make sure it’s sealed.  Trim away any excess, then cut a few air vents in the crust and brush it with the remaining egg wash.

Bake for about 35 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown and the filling is bubbling.  Let cool for 5-10 minutes, and then attack.  If your eaters are anything like my friends, the pie will be gone in approximately 3.14 minutes.

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