Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Make Time for Pot Pie

Spring is tickling Charlestonians' senses with warm weather, a blush of pale green, and bouquets of blooming beauty. It's all so intoxicating, it's almost easy to forgive the brutality of this past winter.

But not so fast! No matter where you live, winter has a nasty way of roaring back with raw cold and wind in the fickle month of March, and that's the perfect time to make pot pie.

Pot roast, that soul-warming classic, gets all dressed up with a flaky pastry lid in this dish. By braising the meat with the vegetable aromats until the meat's tender and the vegetables have dissolved into the sauce, you're ensured layers of flavor. A jolt of red pepper flakes provide a little flavor surprise that will take the chill off any cold, dreary late winter day. If you can't find collards, substitute kale, spinach, or arugula.

This takes a little time the day before, but the taste and aroma dividends are well worth a little slow-cooked effort and handmade, buttery pastry.

Pot Roast Pot Pies
(Makes 6 - 8 individual pot pies)

Equipment needed: Six to eight 8 - 10 ounce oven-proof ramekins or bistro bowls
One 6" round pastry cutter

For the pastry:

2 1/2 cups White Lily All Purpose flour (use only 2 1/4 cups if using another brand)
2 teaspoons kosher or sea salt
2 sticks (or 1 cup) best quality, AAGrade unsalted butter, cold and cut into 1/4" cubes
Ice cold water - about 3 tablespoons or enough to just hold the pastry together

For the pot roast filling:

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 pounds pot roast
1 onion, peeled, quartered and sliced
3 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
2 stalks celery, trimmed, sliced into 1/4" rounds
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon herbes de Provence
1/2 cup red wine
2 1/2 cups coarsely chopped tomatoes
2 cups beef or vegetable stock (or enough to cover the roast just over half-way)
1 teaspoon red chili flakes
1/4 cup chopped, fresh parsley

To finish:

2 cups baby carrots
3 cups collards, washed, tough stems removed, and cut into 1" squares
3 cups baby, fresh potatoes, scrubbed and pierced with a fork
1 - 2 tablespoons ketchup
Salt and fresh ground pepper to taste

1 egg wash - yolk, pinch salt, splash of water, blended together.

The day before service, prepare the pastry. In the bowl of a food processor fitted with a plastic blade, pulse together the flour and the salt. Add the very cold butter and pulse rapidly, 40 - 50 times, or until the butter is the size of very small peas. Gradually, drizzle in the water in drops, while running the machine. Add just enough until the pastry forms a clumsy ball. Pour it out onto a lightly floured surface. Form a flattened disc and wrap with plastic wrap. Refrigerate over night.

Next, prepare the braised stew filling. Heat a large, heavy bottomed pot or Dutch oven over medium high heat. When it's hot, add the olive oil and butter. Season the pot roast, generously, on all sides, with salt and freshly ground pepper. When the fat is sizzling (but not burning!) add the roast to the pan. Brown,undisturbed, for about five minutes. Turn the roast and repeat on the second side. Remove the browned roast from the pan and set aside. Add the onion, garlic, celery, salt, pepper and herbes de Provence to the pan. Stir to coat and pick up any brown bits. Cook until softened, about five minutes. Deglaze with the red wine, stirring to pick up all the brown bits, and reduce the wine by half.

Return the roast to the pan. Add the tomatoes and stock. Reduce heat to a simmer and cover, leaving the lid slightly ajar. After about four hours, add the red chili flakes and parsley, stirring in to blend. Remove the meat from the pan and allow to rest and cool. Meanwhile, using a shallow ladle, skim any excess fat off the surface. When the meat is cool enough to handle, chop it coarsely, removing any excess fat or sinew, which should be discarded. Return the beef to the pot and add the baby carrots, collards, baby potatoes and ketchup. Taste and adjust seasonings as needed. If too much water has evaporated, add enough water to thin to a stew consistency. Simmer, covered, another forty minutes, or until the vegetables are just tender. Remove from heat, cool, and refrigerate overnight.

The following day (or the day of service), roll out the prepped pastry into a large circle (about 1/4" thick) on a lightly floured surface. Cut into 6" rounds, using your pastry cutter. Return the rounds to the refrigerator to chill for about twenty minutes. Meanwhile, remove the stew from the refrigerator and skim off any remaining fat which may have coagulated overnight. Arrange the ramekins or bistro bowls on a baking sheet. Fill each with 1 1/4 cups of the stew. Top each with a prepped pastry round, sealing the excess pastry down around the rim of the bowl (it should be about 1/2" deep). Cut three slits into the top of the pastry and brush the top and sides of each lightly with the egg wash using a pastry brush. (Note: The pies can be compiled and refrigerated for several hours before baking, or go directly into the oven at this point).

Preheat the oven to 375F and bake for 35 - 40 minutes until bubbling, golden and beautiful. Set aside to cool for ten to fifteen minutes before eating.

March never tasted so good!

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Culinary Cost-Cutting 101

Coupon Crazy

When I was a little girl, I marveled while watching my Great Aunt Frances sitting at her linoleum-topped kitchen table, cutting coupons from the daily newspaper in the tiny Kansas town she lived in until she was nearly 100 years old.

It seemed like such a waste of energy in order to save a few pennies on, what I thought, were probably things she wouldn't normally buy anyway. But, I was naive. She, a thrifty survivor of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, had her coupon system down pat and it's probably one of the reasons she made it through a long life of hard times, many of them spent alone.

The latest bout of monetary unpleasantness, however, has created a market for New Age couponing systems. The internet now has a number of hot coupon sites (I like couponmom.com) which provide free, brand-name coupons and more if you select to register as a member. They're just a click, a printer, and five minutes away. In addition, many grocery stores' websites offer lists of daily specials. And, here's the kicker. Many provide selections from the kind of items you usually purchase, anyway. That was it for me. The last straw supporting my long-standing anti-coupon mindset finally broke its resistant back.

Harris Teeter's online specials shopping list became this list-hater's new best friend. I dipped into it with reckless abandon. With a little practice and increasing knowledge, I'm slowly forming my own semi-profitable coupon system. By combining the free manufacturer's coupons from sites like couponmom.com with a daily special shopping list constructed from Harris Teeter's web site (harristeeter.com) , my handy VIC card, and an extra dose of concentration at the grocery store, I have scored some serious savings.

The best yet happened last week. Granted, it was a big sales day at the downtown Teeter. The store was offering buy one get one, two or even three, all over the place on big ticket items like beef, coffee and wine. Since I'm expecting company in a couple weeks, I decided to stock up on these and other staples. The net result was a whopping $67 total savings. In essence, I bought three weeks-worth of groceries for less than I usually spend in one week!

My heart raced with anticipation as I watched the basket cave with the weight of my cache and the numbers creeping slowly higher on the cash register. Then, as the cashier started calculating in the selected coupons, the numbers amazingly started going down. It was like getting on the scale after a week of gorging Haagen-Dazs only to find you'd lost five pounds. I was beaming. She was beaming and said, "You did good today!"

Admittedly, a follow-up trip to replenish the fresh vegetable drawer just one week later only yielded $10 in savings, but next time I'll do better. I'm on a coupon-crazed mission. Intelligent use of coupons and smart shopping add up to saving a lot more than pennies. And, I'm not in Kansas anymore.

One Plucky Chicken, Four Marvelous Meals

With grocery costs rocketing to the stratosphere, it’s imperative to save wherever you can at the supermarket without eliminating taste. In addition to reaching for reduced daily specials, what you buy and how you put it to use in your kitchen can happily translate to huge savings with bodacious bite.

In this era of grocery gouging, chicken can become your new best friend for just pennies per four ounce serving when paired with practical pantry staples like pasta and veggies. Low in fat, high in protein and exceptionally versatile, chicken marries equally well with the exotic (think truffles or saffron) to the humble (think roasted potatoes and rosemary).

For these reasons, it’s a regular menu guest at my house, where I pride myself on transforming a single, four pound chicken (preferably organic and purchased at a reduced rate) into four fabulous feasts for a group of four. That’s sixteen meals, folks! A four pound chicken runs anywhere from $6-$10 (depending on where and how you shop), throw in a little change for ingredients to flesh it out into a meal (4X), and you’re looking at less than $20. A night out for a family of four at any fast food favorite will set you back the same amount or more faster than you can say “heart attack”.

Gotcha? Let me tell you how it’s done!

Meal #1: This is the launching pad for the meal plan event(s) – a whole roasted chicken. Since it’s going to be transformed several times, keep the seasoning simple – ground pepper, a nice crust of coarse salt and a rub down with olive oil. Roast at 425 until done (about 20 minutes per pound) and top it with a few love pats of butter to sink deeply into the bird. Allow the roasted chicken to rest and re-absorb its juices. Cut the both legs and thighs away from the chicken (reserving warm). Cut the breasts away from the rib cage, cool and store in your refrigerator for later use. Serve both legs and both thighs with steamed vegetables and roasted potatoes for a satisfying, nutritional meal. Go ahead and prepare a pan gravy with a little roux, white wine, chicken stock, Dijon mustard and fresh tarragon to dress things up, but hold on to the carcass!

Meal #2: Start this after the roast chicken dinner to prepare for tomorrow’s old-fashioned and DELICIOUS chicken noodle soup. With a sturdy chef’s knife, cut up the reserved carcass remnants – the rib cage and spine – into four or five coarse chunks and put them in a two quart soup pot with a quartered onion, carrot, celery stalk and a clove or two of garlic to make an impromptu stock. Add a few peppercorns, a bay leaf and fresh thyme for added flavor. Bring it up to a boil, reduce to a slow simmer over low heat and forget about it for three to four hours. Allow to cool and refrigerate, covered, overnight.
About thirty minutes before you’re slotted to serve dinner, skim off any accumulated fat off the top of the stock, strain it, discarding all solids except any bits of chicken flesh. Finely chop an onion, carrot and celery stalk and sauté them in the same pot with a tablespoon of olive oil until softened. Season, return the strained stock to the pan and bring up to a boil. Add reserved chicken and about ¼ pound of dried pasta (flat noodles, spaghetti, linguini – your choice) and cook until tender. Serve with a drizzle of fresh herbs (parsley, tarragon, or thyme will do) and freshly grated Parmesan cheese. A small, fresh salad and warm baguette make this a meal.

Meal #3: Chicken Salad Deluxe! This is where you can really have fun with chicken’s flavor/texture marriage versatility. Cut one of the reserved breasts into chunky, ½” cubes and toss in a bowl with coarsely chopped dried cranberries (or another dried fruit like figs or currants), coarsely chopped roasted almonds, fresh herbs, a dollop of Dijon, a dash of mayo and vinegar, salt and pepper and you’ve got a meal in minutes over a bed of greens. Other flavors that work in tandem with chicken include curry, paprika, cinnamon and almost any fresh herb imaginable. Make this your own!

Meal #4: Chicken Sandwiches Supreme! Again, versatility and imagination set the stage for show-stopping chicken sandwiches prepared with freshly roasted chicken breast. Go for the best quality bread you can find, from baguette to whole grain, and fill it with thinly cut slices of the remaining breast and toppings. One sliced breast will handily complete four sandwiches. Zip up mayo with fresh basil and Dijon mustard for a fresh, personalized sauce, top with a slice of red onion and crisp romaine. Go whole hog and add a few pieces of browned bacon and a slice of avocado if the mood moves.

Chicken never tasted so good for so little.