A Winter's Night with Ris
Across the Cutting Board with Ris
Tis’ the season to be fat and happy. Let’s just face it.
There are endless news articles that come out this time of year warning the helpless public of the looming holiday season and its devious inclination to burden us all with blubbery baggage around our midsections. Then they will proceed to assure us that if we just follow some odd number of holiday eating tips, we can make it through to spring as bright and trim as a daisy.
Or we can be honest with ourselves and accept our fate.
I have always done what I can to keep fit, but despite my most diligent efforts, I never fail to pack on a few cold-weather pounds. That’s just how it goes. Squirrels do it and so do bears, and they seem fairly content on the whole. So I’m just not going to burden my conscience with a five-pound margin of error.
It’s frigid outside. There is less light. Our body’s natural reaction to these harsher elements is to cushion itself with a bit of insulation to keep warm. That’s surely one of the reasons we start craving heavier, thicker, more nourishing foods in the wintertime.
Foods like chicken potpie. There are few dishes that so instantly activate our receptors for things rich and savory, says Ris. A buttery, flakey crust enveloping a gluey union of chicken and softened vegetables in a milieu of thick gravy that binds all the parts together like an idea giving form to the words of a sentence. Like many of the dishes Ris chooses to cook with me, potpie is a time-honored, traditional food that can be endlessly incarnated. It is one that takes kindly to experimentation and exploration. And as I have found with Ris, her concern isn’t always what she puts in these dishes, but how to handle the preparation and the ingredients in use to bring out as much natural flavor as possible. Whether you add kielbasa or andouille sausage, parsnips or carrots, peas or broccoli is not vital to the essence of the dish. Each substitute will add a different dimension.
What matters is that you put in the herbs first thing to season the melted butter, and make sure the vegetables are all nicely aromatic before mixing in the stock, releasing the flavors of each ingredient which fuse together as they simmer. Pre-roasting the pearl onions and mushrooms will ensure that much more flavor. Deglaze them with sherry for even more.
Ris prefers grainy roux for use in potpies. The proportions are roughly equal parts butter to flour, but adjust to preference, she suggests. Slowly whisking the flour into the melted butter keeps it from forming clumps. And cook it well, says Ris, “to avoid that raw flour taste and bring out the nuttier side of the four.”
Another point she stresses is to never add salt and pepper to the dish until after you have combined all the ingredients into the pot (added the stock and the roux and the potatoes to your vegetables) and your filling has had time to reduce. The reduction process intensifies the salt of the stock, and you run the risk of over-seasoning if you’re not patient. Also keep in mind that diced potatoes only take about five minutes to cook, so once you add them you should be nearly finished.
When the filling is looking like it’s ready, I watch Ris pick up a spoon and dab the underside against the filling in the pot. She is “napping” the back of the spoon, she explains to me as she reveals the gooey film that has adhered itself to the spoon’s belly. This tests the consistency of the filling and lets you know if it’s ready. Upon running a finger across the sticky spoon, if the gap you created in the gravy does not fill itself back in, your filling is at the right consistency. You are now ready to ladle it into its bed of pie crust and stick it in the oven.
Again, like many of the dishes Ris and I have cooked together, chicken potpie is a great vehicle for leftovers. “Just like borscht is a kind of Eastern European method for dealing with leftovers,” she says, “potpie is a very British way to use them.”
Use turkey, sweet potatoes, salmon, asparagus or anything in between, says Ris. A Shepard’s Pie, potpie’s Irish relative, is traditionally made with lamb or beef with a mashed potato topping in place of the pie crust. But a true potpie demands a pie crust, and it’s important that it be done the right way. “You should always cook the crust with the potpie filling,” Ris tells me. “The crust should never be cooked separately. It must bubble together with the filling.”
Ris recommends 100% pure butter puff pastry, which you can buy frozen from the grocery store if baking isn’t your strong suit.
Don’t let cold weather get the better of you. Put on the burner, heat up the oven and bring some warmth into the winter months ahead. A few extra winter pounds have never been more worth it.
RIS’ Chicken Pot Pie
“In my humble opinion, there should always be plenty of light, flaky crust in a chicken potpie. At my house we would fight over my mother’s flaky pastry lining the bottom of the pyrex baking dish.
Make plenty of your favorite pie dough or buy 100% butter puff pastry, rolled to 1/6” and cut to cover and/or encase individual ramekins or larger casseroles.”
For the roux
4 ounces butter 1 cup flour
For the filling
makes 3-4 quarts, 6-8 servings
8 oz mushrooms, quartered if large and roasted until golden, seasoned with S&P, fresh thyme and olive oil.
1 cup pearl onions, peeled and roasted until golden seasoned with salt, pepper, fresh thyme and olive oil.
2 Tbsp butter
1 large onion, diced, about 2 cups
2 large stalks celery, large dice, about 1 cup
2 carrots, large dice, about 1 cup
2 Tbsp chopped fresh thyme
2 Tbsp chopped fresh sage
2 qts chicken stock
1 bay leaf
1 large potato, large dice, about 1 cup
1-2 cups or to taste root vegetables that are available: parsnip, celery root, sweet potato, or all of the above, large dice
1 cup frozen English peas
2 cups roasted chicken meat, or to taste
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Roll out your pastry to suit your needs and keep covered in the refrigerator until ready to use.
Make the roux: Melt the butter in a heavy based saucepan. Whisk in the flour stir constantly, spreading the paste over the bottom of the pan to lightly color and cook the flour, for about 5 minutes. Set aside in a warm place until ready to use.
Roast the mushrooms and pearl onions. Set aside when done until ready to use.
In a heavy based 2-gallon soup pot or Dutch oven, melt the 2 Tablespoons of butter and add the diced onions, celery and carrots. Sprinkle with the chopped thyme and sage and cook until the onions are barely soft, stirring occasionally, just enough to release the aromatics from the vegetables, about 5 minutes. Add the chicken stock and bay leaf and bring to a boil. Let simmer for another 5 minutes to meld the flavors and season the stock.
Add the potatoes and any additional root vegetables. Season lightly with salt and fresh cracked pepper. Bring just to a boil and add the peas, roasted mushrooms, roasted pearl onions and chicken meat. Bring back just to a boil again, keeping in mind that you have about 5 minutes to finish from this point before the potatoes are overcooked.
Thicken with the roux, whisking in a bit at a time and dissolving each bit, not to leave lumps. Taste for seasoning and adjust with salt, pepper and a dash of sherry vinegar for brightness. Remove from the heat.
Prepare your pastry to accommodate your vessel. Fill with the potpie filling and cover with more pastry. Filling can be hot if put in the oven immediately or chilled and can be kept in the refrigerated until ready to use. Cooking time will be in a 350 degree oven, but will depend on size of pie and whether or not filling was hot or cold. Individual portions take 20 minutes or so. Larger casseroles may take up to 1 hour.