As the holidays wind down and a new year begins, many of us have a look at our feast-rounded profile and make a resolution to take off those extra pounds. These rash promises rarely get very far: by the end of January—often sooner—we’ve fallen off the wagon.
There’s comfort in knowing that this backsliding has little to do with willpower. The trouble with New Year’s diets is that they come just as the bitterest cold is setting in when, even down South where the chill is relatively mild, our souls and bodies need something a good deal more comforting and hearty than salad.
What we need is that old-fashioned favorite, chicken potpie, its golden, buttery-flaky crust encasing fat chunks of tender, slow-cooked chicken and oozing with creamy gravy. Our ancestors well knew that there was nothing like a savory pie for bringing warmth and comfort to a cold winter’s night. And while beef, pork, and fish all found their way inside the pastry, chicken has remained the enduring favorite, especially here in the South.
You might think the extra calories weren’t a worry for our great-grandparents, who didn’t have cars and were a lot more physical in their work. But cookbooks and household dairies from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries suggest otherwise. They often contained recipes for special diet bread and an occasional slimming regimen that was surprisingly like many that we follow today.
Nobody knows whether those diets were any more successful back then than they are now, but one thing is certain; when it came to potpie, nobody worried about calories. There was no such thing as a low-fat, carb-smart version: they knew enough to leave perfection alone.
When there’s a chicken pie in the oven, the diet can wait.
Chicken Potpies with Country Ham and Leeks
The original chicken pies were encased in sturdy pastry that, while edible, was really more of a preserving wrapper that wasn’t meant to be eaten. Here in the South, the filling was simply cooked chicken in a simple cream gravy seasoned with little more than salt and pepper, and—occasionally—a grating of nutmeg. In the last century, however, onions and, later, carrots and celery found their way into the filling, and the pastry is tender, flaky, and not only edible, but an important part of the experience.
While it’s best when made with a home-poached bird, a quicker version can be made with leftovers or a market-cooked rotisserie chicken. Allow about 3 cups of diced, cooked chicken and 3 cups of rich chicken broth, and omit steps 1 and 2.
For the chicken:
1 3½-pound chicken, cut up as for frying
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 medium onions, trimmed, split lengthwise, and peeled
3 large ribs celery, 2 thickly sliced, 1 trimmed, strung, and diced
2 large carrots, peeled, 1 thickly sliced and 1 diced small
4 cups chicken broth
For the pie filling:
1 thick slice dry-cured country ham, diced
1 medium leek, washed, trimmed, and thinly sliced
1 tablespoon chopped fresh or 1 teaspoon crumbled dried sage
1 tablespoon chopped fresh, or 1 teaspoon crumbled dried, thyme
2 rounded tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup cream or half and half
Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
Whole nutmeg in a grater
1 recipe Chicken Pie Pastry (Recipe Follows)
1 large egg white, beaten with 1 tablespoon of water
1. Wipe the chicken pieces dry. Put the butter in a wide 5 quart Dutch oven and turn on the heat to medium. When it is melted and hot, add the chicken and brown it well on all sides, turning occasionally, about 5-10 minutes. Remove but reserve the fat.
2. Cut 1 onion into quarters and add it to the chicken with the thick-sliced carrot and celery. Add the broth and bring it to a simmer. Reduce the heat to a slow simmer, loosely cover, and cook until the chicken is tender, about 30-45 minutes. Remove the chicken, let it cool, then skin, bone, and cut it into bite-sized pieces. Strain and reserve the broth, discarding the solids, and wipe out the pot.
3. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 375° F. Put 3 tablespoons of the reserved fat and the ham in the pot where the chicken was cooked. Sauté, stirring often, until it loses its raw red color, then add the diced onion, celery, and carrot. Sauté, stirring, until softened and beginning to color, about 5 minutes. Add the leek, sage, and thyme and sauté until the leek is wilted but not colored, about 2 minutes.
4. Sprinkle in the flour and cook, stirring constantly, until bubbly and smooth. Slowly stir in 3 cups broth and simmer until thick, about 4 minutes. Stir in the cream and bring it back to a simmer, seasoning with salt (if needed), pepper and a fresh grating of nutmeg.
5. Bring to a simmer and simmer until thickened, then add the diced chicken. Bring it back to a simmer and turn off the heat. Taste and adjust the seasonings and transfer to a 3-quart casserole, or 4 individual potpie dishes or 10-ounce ramekins.
6. Put the dough on a lightly floured work surface and roll it out 1/8-inch thick. Cut the dough into a round or rounds a little larger than the casserole or dishes that you are using, then cut out vent holes with a knife or small decorative cookie cutter and put the pastry over the filling. Excess pastry can be cut into decorative shapes for ornament; brush the bottoms brushed with water before placing them. Brush the pastry with the beaten egg white and water. Bake in the center of the oven until the pastry is risen and golden and the filling hot through, about 30 minutes.
Chicken Pie Pastry
Makes enough to make 2 9-inch pie shells, 1 double crust pie, or to cover 4 individual potpies
1¾ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 level teaspoon dried ground sage
2 tablespoons chilled lard or shortening, cut into bits
8 tablespoons chilled unsalted butter, cut into bits
¼ to ½ cup ice water or chilled chicken broth
Sift or whisk together the flour, salt, and sage. Cut in the shortening and butter with a pastry blender until the flour resembles coarse meal with random lumps of fat no larger than small peas. Stir in ¼ cup of ice water and work it in. For a more distinctive chicken flavor, use cold broth rather than ice water. Continue adding water/broth by spoonfuls as needed until the dough is holding together but not wet.
Gather pastry into two balls, press each one into a 1-inch thick flat disk, and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate at least 30 minutes or for up to 2 days. Let come to room temperature before rolling out.
Damon Lee Fowler is a culinary historian and author of six cookbooks, including Classical Southern Cooking, Damon Lee Fowler’s New Southern Baking, and The Savannah Cookbook. His work has also appeared in Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, and Relish. Damon lives and eats in Savannah, Georgia.
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