Apples, pears, plums, blackberries, mushrooms, game... the list is endless and the opportunities for the cook, equally so! In particular, I equate autumn with comfort food; food that is warming to the belly, body and soul – food that is…well… just comforting to eat! I love the freshness and vitality of the foods that are available in spring and summer, but these are not really the seasons of comfort food.
Pies are perfect food for this time of year. I often prepare the filling in advance and then, just before it is required, I top it with buttery pastry and then bake it so that it emerges golden brown from the oven with some of the gravy or sauce juices bubbling up around the edges of the pastry and the savoury aromas tempting you to sample its glories. I defy anyone to exercise restraint when presented with such a wondrous thing!
Pies don’t have to be fancy things… and really, any casserole or stew mixture can be tumbled into a pie dish, topped with pastry and called a pie. Pies can be made from the leftover meat from roast dinners or can be made from scratch. Often when I’m making a stew, I make double the quantity so that I can make a pie for the next day’s dinner.
In this recipe I have poached a whole bird as I prefer the meat cooked this way rather than roasted in advance when making a chicken pie. Poaching the chicken also has the added advantage of creating a beautifully flavoured stock, some of which is used to create the gravy for the pie and the remainder can be used as the basis for a well-flavoured soup either a chicken noodle soup or my favourite when I have a good homemade stock – minestrone!
Classic chicken pies combinations are chicken and mushroom or chicken and leek pie, but here I wanted something that included something a little bit more substantial. I toyed with the idea of adding some parboiled potatoes, but felt that these would probably disintegrate when completely cooked and make the overall pie very stodgy and a little laborious to eat. I also didn’t want a very thick creamy sauce but wanted the intense flavours of the stock to come through without the addition of cream.
In the end I decided to make little stuffing balls or dumplings as I have called the. I made these out of breadcrumbs, sweated onions, lemon zest, herbs and sausage meat and browned them lightly before adding them to my pie mixture. They were absolutely delicious and struck a perfect balance between giving the pie a little more substance but without being heavy to eat.
The pastry that you top your pie with is very much a matter of choice and preference. Shortcrust pastry can be used but I favour the use of puff pastry. Although, I do make puff pastry every now and again and despite the fact that it is not difficult, it is time consuming, so for something like this pie and for convenience I would recommend using store-bought puff.
Ingredients:To poach the chicken:
1 whole free-range, ‘oven-ready’ chicken
2 onions peeled and halved
3 or 4 sticks of celery chopped into large chunks
3 large carrots, peeled and chopped into large chunks
3 garlic cloves, peeled and bruised
2 bay leaves
1 large sprig of thyme
1 small onion, peeled and chopped finely
150g fresh white breadcrumbs
½ tblsp fresh sage
1tblsp fresh thyme, finely chopped
1tblsp fresh parsley
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
1tblsp vegetable oil
1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
125g smoked lardons or smoked bacon sliced into lardons
400ml stock in which the chicken was cooked
A squeeze of lemon juice
Salt & freshly ground pepper
2 carrots, peeled and sliced into rounds about ½ cm thick and parboiled for 10 minutes
300g puff pastry
1 egg, beaten
Method:To poach the chicken:
1. Place the chicken along with all the other poaching ingredients into a large saucepan and cover with cold water to just cover. Place on the hob and bring up to the boil. Place a lid loosely on top of the saucepan and reduce the temperature so that the chicken is simmering gently. Allow to simmer for an hour.
2. Once the chicken is cooked remove from the stock and set aside to cool slightly before picking off the meat. Try not to break up the meat too much, but rather cut it into bite-sized chunks. Set aside.
3. Meanwhile throw the carcass back into the stock that you have created and allow everything to simmer away whilst you get on with making the stuffing balls. Do not cover saucepan this time as you want to intensify the flavours, by letting them reduce slightly.
4. Heat the butter in a frying pan and sweat the onion for about ten minutes until soft and translucent in colour. Do not allow to colour. Add the breadcrumbs and stir gently with a wooden spoon so that they take on the buttery pan juices and the onion is well mixed in.
5. Transfer to a mixing bowl and add the chopped herbs and mix through again. Set the mixture aside and allow to cool slightly. Add the sausagemeat and mix in. I find it easier to use my hands to do this. Once everything is thoroughly mixed together, use your hands to roll little balls of the mixture, about the size of an unshelled walnut.
6. Heat the vegetable oil in a small frying pan and gently fry the stuffing balls on all sides until they are a light golden brown colour. Remove from the frying pan and place on some absorbent paper to mop up any excess oil.
7. Heat the butter in a small saucepan and once gently bubbling add the bacon lardons and allow to cook for 4 to 5 minutes over a moderate heat before adding the chopped onion. Continue to cook for a further 5 minutes.
8. Sprinkle over the flour and stir in using a small wooden spoon. Add a ladle of the chicken stock and allow to bubble before adding another ladle of stock, mixing all the time. Gradually add the remainder of the 400ml of stock. You will have quite a light sauce. Finally add in the cooked carrots add the lemon juice and season well, adjusting to taste.
9. Preheat oven to 200C/Fan Oven 180C/Gas Mark 6.
10. Place a large pie dish on a baking tray. Place the reserved chicken and stuffing balls in the pie dish and pour over the sauce, making sure that everything is well coated. Brush the rim with a little beaten egg and set aside.
11. Roll out the pastry into a rectangle about 25cm x 20cm and approximately ½ cm thick.
12. Cut a thin strip the width of the rim of your pie dish from the edge of the pastry. Place this strip, bending it to shape around the rim. Place the rest of the pastry sitting on this rim, covering the top of your pie encasing the filling. Trim around the edge and crimp the edges if you wish. You can also use pastry off-cuts to decorate the pie if you wish. Brush the top of the pie with a little of the beaten egg and bake in the preheated oven for 35-40 minutes until the pastry is well risen and golden brown. Remove from the oven and serve.