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Comfort in Pot Pie

Ultra-comforting pot pies are seeing upgrades in fillings, toppings and presentations, like this salmon-and-veggie shepherd’s pie served in a pie tin. Photo courtesy of steve lee / alaska seafood marketing institute. No matter the size, filling or topping, this down-home favorite serves up satisfaction

By Karen Weisberg

Say “comfort food” to chefs and guests alike, and chances are pot pie quickly comes to mind. The phrase sends them back to Mom’s or Grandma’s kitchen, anticipating that first steamy, aromatic break through a “perfect” crust to reveal the melt-in-the-mouth hearty goodness beneath.

Today’s pot-pie versions can be served up with various “crusts”— pie dough, phyllo, mashed potatoes, etc. — and savory fillings limited only by a chef’s imagination and/or seasonal availability. The size of the presentation now ranges from bar-menu minis to the pie pan, filled with ample proteins and veggies and broth or sauce to feed four very hungry guests.

What they all provide is a sense of security — that all’s-right-with-the-world respite — served up with a sense of history while nourishing body and soul.

For purists, there’s traditional chicken or beef pot pies, but many chefs, while sure to menu these tried-and-true favorites, find that guests welcome variations, albeit within the familiar format.

Eighteen years ago, chef Jake Linzinmeir opened the 75-seat Excelsior Cafe in Telluride, Colo. He was all of 22 years old at the time, but having been exposed to regional cuisines and cultures of America, Asia and Europe as the son of an internationally traveling family — and having attended Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration — he figured (as a skier himself) he knew what a ski-country menu should offer. Today, Linzinmeir owns and operates a number of restaurants in Telluride in addition to Excelsior Cafe, including The Bluepoint Grill & Noir Bar and X Cafe, where his Ski Country Shepherd’s Pie is an extremely popular take on a classic beef pot pie, but with lamb, which is abundant locally. It also boasts a corn-flake topping inspired, he admits somewhat sheepishly, by a ready-mix recipe.

“Several years ago, a girlfriend at the time served me a wonderful pot pie topped with corn flakes; a year later, although we were no longer together, I called her up to get the recipe,” Linzinmeir recalls. “After much hesitation, she admitted it was a ready-mix recipe. Since I have a collection of pre-WWII cookbooks, I’ve backtracked to find the fresh ingredients for everything, but the one thing I can’t find is a substitute for corn flakes!”

To prepare his Ski Country Shepherd’s Pie, he browns diced American lamb in vegetable or olive oil, then sautés carrots, celery and onions, deglazing the pan with a local beer. He adds tomato paste, lamb stock, chicken stock, rosemary, thyme, salt, pepper and sugar, simmering until reduced.

For the topping, he mixes shredded Yukon Gold potatoes with sharp cheddar cheese, cream of chicken soup, crème fraîche, salt and pepper, spreads the mixture into a hotel pan and covers it with a layer of corn flakes and a drizzle of butter. He bakes 35 to 45 minutes at 325 degrees F.

To assemble, Linzinmeir heats the stew and places it in an oven-proof bowl, then covers it with a portion of potato-corn-flake topping and puts it in the oven or under the broiler to warm.

“We might make those out-of-the-package-inspired dishes, but we make them lighter, brighter, fresher and more love goes into it than pulling something out of the bag,” he says.

Another Linzinmeir creation, Lobster, Scallop and Shrimp Pot Pie with puff pastry dough laminated with fresh tarragon, is featured at the Excelsior Cafe venue. Since the seafood ingredients all cook at different temperatures, the dish is truly prepared á la minute with a “lid,” or disc, of puff pastry laid on top of the crock just prior to service.

“We roll out the puff pastry dough really thin and lay tarragon sprigs upon it,” he explains. “We fold it in layers over itself, then cut out discs the shape of the container; we put the discs of dough on parchment, brush with butter and bake separately from the seafood filling.”

Chef Jake Linzinmeir’s vintage-inspired Ski Country Shepherd’s Pie is a lamb-and-vegetable mix topped by a potato-and-corn-flake “crust.” Photo courtesy of american lamb board. DISHING UP HISTORY
On balance, Linzinmeir finds that “people are looking for comfort food — and it’s so much healthier now. Pot pies were perceived as loaded with fat, but now we’re using local and seasonal ingredients. Plus, everyone is looking for ‘vintage’ dishes with more ‘history’ to them.”

History is certainly served up center-of-the-plate at City Tavern in Philadelphia, where the focus is on 18th century-style gourmet cuisine. Opened for business in 1773, it was a stylish dining venue for many of the country’s founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson among them. It was indeed the city’s social, political and economic hub of the day.

Since 1994, Walter Staib has served as chef/proprietor of this unique 225-seat, three-story historic location, his selection having been duly approved by Congress.

Pursuing his mission to recreate the culinary heritage of City Tavern, Staib soon discovered how close to “home” 18th century food was for him.

“Having grown up in the Black Forest region, where everything was done the old-fashioned way, most of the original City Tavern recipes could have come from my own grandmother’s kitchen,” he says.

In fact, since taking the helm 17 years ago, Staib claims he has never changed anything on the menu he developed — and certainly not Colonial Turkey Pot Pie.

“It’s one of our hallmarks. We probably sell three or four times more of this dish than any other,” Staib notes. “It was known to be Ben Franklin’s favorite dish.

“I follow the recipe exactly as presented in “The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Simple” (1745, revised 1796) by Hanna Glasse, who was the Escoffier of the 18th century. There’s no pie dough on the bottom, only on the top, but everything else is exact.”

Staib and staff roast turkeys each morning and then prepare all other ingredients from fresh. Pennsylvania Dutch noodles are served on the side.

“Yes, the dish is rich in calories [including butter and heavy cream], but it will make you remember your grandmother,” he says.

Beef Pie, though not exactly “pot pie,” is another extremely popular menu item at City Tavern and, folded into puff pastry triangles, is prepared exactly as it was in the 18th century, Staib asserts. Beef tenderloin is twice cooked; first it’s roasted in the oven, cooled and cut into pieces, then cooked again in a pot on the stove with thyme, onion, garlic and red-wine sauce. After it’s cooled again, it’s folded into the pastry, then baked in a 425-degree F oven until golden.

Since refrigeration was nonexistent in the 1700s, “cooking leftover meat a second time in a pie eliminated any bacteria which might have developed since the first roasting. The process of roasting, then cooking and finally baking was a great way to ensure that the meat was tender and flavorful as possible,” Staib notes in his 392-page treasure trove, “The City Tavern Cookbook, Recipes from the Birthplace of American Cuisine” (Running Press, 2009).

A gutsy, tres moderne Montreal, Quebec, version of pot pie, can be savored in a 50-seat 1950s-era diner (the real thing) in Long Island City in Queens, N.Y. Here, at M.Wells, chef/owner Hugue Dufour prepares his $30 Tourtiere. With its 10-inch diameter encompassing 3 pounds of protein — an assortment of three types of meat that varies from day to day — enrobed in pie dough top and bottom, it easily serves four but can be ordered by the quarter-pie slice for $10.

“The crust is like an apple pie, so it’s visually old-fashioned, but inside, the meat pie sometimes includes wild game, roasted pheasant, braised brisket, rabbit, chicken or perhaps fois gras, but you get the same consistent flavor with ground pork since it’s always one of the three meats used,” Dufour explains. Just so the diner’s regulars know what’s in store, placemat/menus list the day’s unique combo of ingredients.

“You start by sweating out onions while the duxelles cooks separately with wine,” he explains. “Add the spices, the meat and add the mushroom mixture to the ground-pork mixture, plus grated potatoes over all to bind it together, then cook and chill down.”

The following day, Dufour places pie dough in the pie tin and adds the ground pork and chunks of the other two meats, all in equal amounts to fill over the bottom dough.

“Then place on the top dough before setting it in the oven to bake until golden brown,” he says. “Typically, we put one whole Tourtiere, along with a bottle of our house-made ketchup, in the center of the table to share. Our ketchup — made with love and a lot of good stuff — has a cranberry base and goes perfectly with the pie; it has the right amount of acidity to cut through the fat.”

At Philadelphia’s City Tavern, the iconic Colonial Turkey Pot Pie is reported to have been a favorite of Benjamin Franklin. Photo courtesy of national turkey federation. BOWLED OVER
Grill Concepts, parent company of The Daily Grill (with 21 locations) as well as Grill on the Alley (with seven venues) has been known for its pot pies since 1984, when the company first opened for business. According to Phil Kastel, vice president of research and development, the “enormous” chicken pot pie, served in a soup bowl and filled to the brim with chunks of chicken, peas and carrots and a rich béchamel sauce within a puff pastry topping, debuted as a special once or twice a week.

“But it was so popular it had to go on the menu all the time. It’s baked to order and filled with steam; the guest cuts it open, and there’s steam everywhere!”

Now a rotation of pot pie selections includes turkey; lobster; or steak pie filled with chunks of filet mignon, roasted potatoes, carrots and other vegetables in a Bordelaise sauce.

Since a mini version of the classic chicken pot pie recently proved a successful Happy Hour addition, this past winter, Grill Concepts started offering a mini pot pie with a mixed green salad on the lunch menu in most locations.

Menuing mini pot pies is a trend that addresses cost and portion control for operators and customers alike; the message has been duly received by Nick Saba, vice president of food and beverage/research and development for the Marie Callender’s chain of 132 locations. Although dessert pies are its claim to fame, chicken pot pies, topped with the same dessert pie crust and brimming with chunks of all white-meat chicken, have long been a guest favorite, as well. But in late 2010, a combo promotion featuring a mini signature chicken pot pie met with great success, Saba reports.

“Marie’s Perfect Pie Trio offers the mini pot pie, a Caesar salad, plus a slice of one of our famous dessert pies, of which there are usually 32 to 35 selections,” he explains.

Although shepherd’s pie is not part of the core menu, it was added for the mini pot pie promo. Instead of a pastry top, it features fresh mashed potatoes crusted with a combo of Jack, cheddar and Parmesan cheeses. The minis, like the regular-size pot pies, are made from scratch throughout the day in each location, Saba says.

Customers of Dave’s Specialty Foods in Mount Prospect, Ill., know that chef/owner Dave Esau always stocks his scratch-made chicken or beef pot pies. Most orders are to-go — with heating directions packed along with the frozen pies — but seating is provided for about 20 guests.

By request, Esau prepares mini pot pies for catering orders; recently he suggested and then provided several hundred for what he describes as “a kitchy, ’50s-style wedding reception” to be held in a Moose lodge, no linens on the table. “So I suggested mini pot pies in 4-ounce aluminum tins, and they loved the idea,” he recalls. “We tucked the pastry down into the edges, and the pies just bubbled up. We set out 50 of them in each chafing dish. It had that rustic but really gourmet look. It was awesome!”

Although Esau is a French-trained chef who prides himself on using only the highest-quality ingredients — even the red wine sauce for his beef pot pie is cooked down from a Pinot Noir he’d choose to drink — he aims to keep it simple.

“That’s what people are looking for; they want it simple, like what they’d cook themselves if they knew how,” he says. “It’s the ultimate comfort food!”


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