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My mother made extraordinary pastry as did my father’s sister, Mary Frances.  Their skill intimidated me and, until I decided to make pot pies commercially, I never made pastry, I would always ask mom to make it for me.  So, when I decided to open my pie shop MOM in the 1970s, I had to spend many, many hours carefully watching her make her famous pastry.  She worked with me and my dear friend, Hu Pope, who would be making the pastry daily in the bakery, torturing us with her skill and our ineptitude.  Of course, the fact that she never measured anything and kept telling us that it was all in the feel didn’t help either.  We eventually got it, but I still believe that it was mainly the use of a big Hobart mixer and a commercial pie shell press which kept our hot hands from touching the dough that gave our acclaimed pastry the same flaky texture of her homemade dough.  However, the years in the bakery eliminated all intimidation and I began fearlessly tackling pastry making.  I usually do a fine job but I still miss my mom’s touch.  Since I made chicken pies every day for 10 years, I now generally leave their preparation to the kids, except for those chilly days when I miss my mom.

When I was a child, chicken pie was often made from leftover roast chicken and gravy.  It is one of those homey dishes that can be made in almost any way – the chicken can be dark and white meat, all white meat, chopped, shredded, cubed, or turkey; the vegetables can be cubed, diced, sliced (Chris’ method,) chunked; mushrooms added.  You get the picture.  This recipe is the basic – it’s up to you to make it your own.

I share photos of my individual chicken pie.  I usually make these as an introduction to people dining with us for the first time.  I think they are homey, delicious, warming and do all the things you want to do to bring people to your table.  I also share a recent photo of one of Chris’s West Coast famous chicken pot pies.  How proud my mom would be of him.

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Serves 6 to 8

One 4 pound chicken, rinsed and cut into pieces (or 2 pounds boneless,

skinless chicken breasts cooked in about 3 cups canned, fat-free, low-

sodium chicken broth)

Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Nana’s Flaky Pie Crust (recipe follows)

4 organic carrots, well-washed, trimmed, and cubed

3 medium organic potatoes, well-washed and cubed

1 organic onion, peeled and diced

1 cup frozen petit peas, thawed

2½ tablespoons chicken fat or butter

2½ tablespoons sifted all-purpose flour

Place the chicken in a heavy saucepan, cover with cold water, and season with salt and pepper to taste.  Place over high heat and bring to a boil.  Lower the heat to a simmer, cover, and cook for about 1 hour or until the chicken is cooked through.  Remove from the heat and strain through a fine sieve, separately reserving the chicken and cooking liquid.  Set aside to cool.

While the chicken is cooking, make the pastry.  Divide the dough into two equal pieces, wrap each piece in plastic film and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes to chill before rolling.

When cool, remove and discard the chicken skin.  Pull the meat from the bones and, if necessary, cut it into bite-sized pieces.  Place the meat in a heatproof bowl and discard the bones.  Set the meat aside.

Preheat the oven to 450ºF.

Pour 3 cups of the reserved cooking liquid into a large saucepan.  Place over medium-high heat and bring to a boil.  Add the carrots, potatoes, and onion and again bring to a boil.  Season with salt and pepper to taste, lower the heat, and simmer for about 12 minutes or just until the vegetables are barely cooked.  Remove from the heat and stir in the peas.  Strain the vegetables, separately reserving the vegetables and the liquid.

Place the chicken fat or butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat.  When melted, stir in the flour.  When blended, whisk in 2 cups of the hot broth, cooking for about 5 minutes or until the broth has thickened.  Pour the thickened gravy over the chicken meat.  Add the vegetables, gently folding the mixture together.  If the mixture seems too thick, fold in some of the remaining unthickened cooking liquid.

Remove the dough from the refrigerator.  Unwrap and, working with one piece at a time, roll the dough out as directed in my NOTE.  Fit one piece into a 10-inch pie plate and prick the bottom with the tines of a fork.

Pour the mixture into the prepared pie plate.  Fold the remaining top crust in half over the rolling pin, lift, and place over the filling.  Unfold to cover the filling and attach to the bottom crust by pressing the excess dough from the edge of the top and bottom crust together with your fingertips.  Fold the pressed dough edge up and inward, making a rim around the edge of the pie.  Starting at the edge opposite you, pinch the dough between your thumb and index finger around the edge of the pie at about ¾ inch intervals, forming a fluted design.  (The pie may be made up to this point and stored, well-wrapped and frozen, for up to 3 months).

Place the pie on a baking sheet in the preheated oven and bake for 15 minutes.  Lower the heat to 350ºF for an additional 20 minutes or until the crust is golden and the filling is almost bubbling out.

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Nana’s Flaky Pie Pastry

Enough dough for one double-crust 10-inch pie

            2½ cups all-purpose flour, sifted

            ¼ teaspoon salt

            Pinch sugar

            ¾ cup plus 1 tablespoon vegetable shortening, chilled

            ½ cup unsalted butter, cut into cubes and chilled

            ½ cup ice water

Combine the flour, salt, and sugar in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade.  Process to aerate and blend.

Add the shortening and butter and, using quick on and off turns, process just until crumbly.  With the motor running, add the water and process just until the dough begins to ball.  Scrape the dough from the processor bowl and divide it into two equal pieces.   The dough may also be frozen; thaw before using.

NOTE:  My mother never used a food processor to make her dough but I think it makes great pastry, particularly because the processor allows you to make quick and easy work of the job without handling the dough too much.  However, if you over-process, the heat created from the speed of the machine will toughen the dough.

Some pastry recipes give an approximate measurement for the water, but that always scares me.  How do you tell when enough is enough if you’re not a seasoned cook?  Most approximates are based on flavor so it really becomes a matter of taste but, with pastry making it is all up to the kitchen witch.  Rainy days, humid days, hot days, warm kitchen, glutenous flour – all of these play in how much water will be enough water to create a dough that just holds together and does not toughen.  I’ve found that the ½ cup of water is nearly always the correct amount.  Add the water slowly and watch carefully.  The incorporation moves much quicker with the food processor than it does when making dough by hand.

If you have never made pastry before, the rolling out is usually the most frightening task.  I have found that Wondra flour is terrific for flouring the work surface and the rolling pin as it only adds a light coating of flour to the dough.  Then, don’t panic; use a light hand, pushing the dough out from the center, lightly coating it and the rolling pin with Wondra if it seems to hang onto the rolling pin.  Lift the pin gently as you near the edge of the pastry to prevent breakage.  When the desired size is reached, lift the pastry by gently folding it in half over the rolling pin and slip it, still folded, into the pie pan.  Carefully unfold it to cover the bottom of the pie pan and remove the rolling pin.  Do not stretch the dough or it will shrink when baked.  If the pastry tears, not to worry, just gently pinch it back together.  Smooth the pastry down into the pan with quick pressing movements.

A further note:  If you can find an excellent quality lard and you aren’t concerned about fat in your diet, use it in place of the vegetable shortening and butter when making a savory pie.  It adds a wonderful meaty flavor.

From my son Chris:  Longing for home on a chilly, foggy San Francisco afternoon, I decided to make a chicken pie.  I was feeling a bit challenged as I wasn’t sure that I could live up to my pot pie heritage.  Nana, mom’s mom, made the flakiest pie crust you have ever tasted and I had spent my teenage years living off of the acclaimed chicken pies that mom made at her bakery.  I called mom and got the basic recipe, did my shopping, and announced to Canada that we were going to have a MooMoo dinner.  I was worried that I had overestimated my skill but forged ahead.  I was aiming for Nana’s flaky crust and a pie that could be cut into nice even pieces with just a calm oozing of gravy.  But although the finished pie looked terrific, the crust wasn’t as flaky as I had hoped and the filling ran all over the place once I cut into it.  Didn’t matter – Canada loved it and so did I.

Determined to master the craft, we added chicken pie to our favorite menu list.  After a good many tries, I like to think that mine is now equal to Nana’s.  I always use organic vegetables, but conventional can easily be substituted.

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Like the rest of America, we eat a lot of boneless, skinless chicken breasts. Not because they are my preference, but because those of us on a cardiac-health diet are told to eliminate the skin. To make mine look as though they still have that delicious crisp skin, I lightly coat them in seasoned Wondra flour and sear them in a very hot nonstick (Scanpan, usually) pan with just a hint of olive oil for about 3 minutes per side or until golden. I then transfer to a very hot oven for about another 5 minutes or until just barely cooked through. I allow the breast to rest for another 5 minutes to finish cooking and to hold the juices in before slicing it, crosswise, on the bias. Because they are so large, one chicken breast serves both my husband and me. In this photo, I have transferred the cooked breast to a pan of warm old-fashioned creamy chicken gravy that I had saved (and froze) from a roast chicken dinner. I think if you try my method, you will find that you will end up with juicy meat with a slightly crisp exterior.

 

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Some years ago – perhaps with the advance of “upscale” Italian restaurants – everyone was cooking chicken under a brick (or pollo al mattone as Tuscan’s call it).  It became so popular that it was no longer cooked under a brick, but under a heavy cast iron implement made specifically for the job.  Traditionally, the chicken is not split into 2 pieces, it is simply opened up by cutting out the back bone.  But I prefer to cut it in half for quicker and easier cooking.  I use Cornish game hens as even a half of those little guys is more than I can eat.  I cut out the back bone and split the bird in half along the breast; then, I marinate for about 30 minutes in some olive oil, lemon zest, herbs (usually rosemary and oregano, but you can use whatever you have on hand), and just a little lemon juice.  I put my grill pan on high heat and when it is glowing I quickly season with a good dose of salt and pepper and pop the meat in, skin side down, top with my cast iron “brick” and wait a few minutes until they get nice and golden brown and crusty.  Give them a turn, cover again, and in another few minutes we sit down to moist, lemony chicken with crisp, salty skin.

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For some time I have been promising my friend Deena (of tamale lady fame) to make mole for her.  I got to be a self-proclaimed expert at it when I was doing a lot of consulting – advising large companies on how to introduce new products into an ever-expanding marketplace.  I will admit that I’m a bit lazy these days and don’t use the mortar and pestle like I should, so mole making is not quite as time consuming as it once was.  Steve, my wonderful photographing husband, loves nothing better than the time he spends in Oaxaca, Mexico, an area known for its great moles so he has come to really appreciate the authentic dish.  A long story to say I spent the day making mole in preparation for a Mexican celebration of chicken in mole sauce, pinto beans, rice, and guacamole for Deena.  We’ll probably down some cerveza or cerveza preparada (tomato juice, beer, and hot sauce mix) or margaritas to toast the many wonderful cooks south of our borders.

Here’s my recipe for Mole Negro Oaxaqueño (Chicken in Mole Sauce, Oaxaca-Style).  Tradition says cook the chicken first and then proceed with the recipe, but I always have plenty of chicken stock in the freezer so I use that to prepare the sauce.  I make the sauce and when I want to serve it I sear the chicken pieces (I usually cut up 2 whole chickens, but you could use any parts you like – if you use skinless, boneless breasts, don’t overcook), add them to the sauce, and cook for about 25 minutes just before serving.  You can garnish with toasted sesame seeds or chopped cilantro if you like.  Tradition also says “use lard” but I opt for the healthier olive oil

2 ounces guajillo chiles, seeds and stems removed

4 pasilla chiles, seeds and stems removed

4 ancho chiles, seeds and stems removed

5 tablespoons olive oil

Two ½-inch thick slices French or Italian bread

1½ cups canned diced fire-roasted tomatoes with green chiles with juice

1 cup chopped onion

¼ cup diced dried apricots

¼ cup black raisins

¼ cup unsalted peanuts

¼ cup slivered almonds

¼ cup cilantro leaves

2 tablespoons minced garlic

1 tablespoon sesame seeds

1 teaspoon cracked black pepper

1 teaspoon dried thyme

1 teaspoon dried oregano

¼ teaspoon ground cloves

¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon

3 cups chicken stock or canned nonfat, low-sodium chicken broth

2 bay leaves

2½ ounces unsweetened chocolate

Salt to taste

Break the chiles into pieces and place in a small, heatproof bowl.  Cover with very hot water and set aside to soak for 1 hour or until very soft.

Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a medium frying pan over medium heat.  Add the bread and fry for about 4 minutes or until the bread is turning brown and the olive oil has been absorbed.  Remove from the heat and set aside.

Drain the chiles, separately reserving the soaking water.

Combine the chiles with the tomatoes, onion, apricots, raisins, peanuts, almonds, cilantro, garlic, sesame seeds, pepper, thyme, oregano, cloves, and cinnamon in a large mixing bowl.  Add the reserved bread pieces and toss to blend.

Working in batches, puree the mixture in a high-speed blender or food processor fitted with the metal blade, adding the reserved soaking water as needed to make a very thick paste-like puree.

Heat the remaining ¼ cup of olive oil in a large frying pan over medium heat.  Add the paste and fry, stirring frequently, for about 7 minutes or until the paste has taken on some color.

Scrape the paste into a large saucepan.  Add the chicken stock and bay leaves and place over medium heat.  Bring to a simmer, stirring frequently.  Add the chocolate and continue to stir until the chocolate has melted into the sauce.

Season with salt to taste, lower the heat, and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 25 minutes or until the flavors have blended nicely.  (You can make the sauce up to this point; then cool, place in a nonreactive container, cover, and refrigerate for a few days or freeze for up to 3 months).

 

 

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Some weeks ago I got it in my head to try to find what used to be normal-sized chickens – those about 2 to 2½ pounds.  An impossibility!  You can find a chicken breast half that weighs almost that much but no delicate little birds are to be found anywhere.  So, my best buddy Lynn and I cornered Chrissy Chiacchia from Gaia’s Breath Farm (for mail orders try mtoro@wildblue.net) at the Cooperstown Farmers Market and she agreed to produce 3 small chickens for me to try.

This past weekend the chickens came home to roost and, although by now I had forgotten exactly what I had planned to do with them, they found their way into a spur-of-the-moment on the grill dish.  I had a container of Kalamata olives and a small jar of 3 preserved lemons from Kalustyan’s (www.kalustyans.com). The combination of the smoke from the grill (we only use hardwood charcoal) and the wonderful farm-fresh flavor of the chicken wedded to the punguent, salty lemons and olives made for a very memorable meal.  It didn’t hurt that we had a chilled bottle of Veuve Clicquot to toast our good fortune.

This recipe should serve 6 people unless you are used to giant pieces of chicken – it would then feed 4 amply.  And, if you don’t have a grill handy, it would work just fine in the oven.

            Three 2 to 2½ pound chickens, rinsed and patted dry

3 small fresh spring onions

1 cup white wine

 ⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil

3 preserved lemons with their preserving liquid

1 cup Kalamata olives

About 2 to 3 tablespoons torn fresh mint leaves

About 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves

About 1 tablespoon torn fresh sage leaves

About 1 tablespoon torn fresh basil leaves

   Whatever chicken giblets that came with the chickens except the livers

About 2 pounds small new potatoes, cut in half

Freshly ground pepper

Preheat the grill.  If using charcoal as we do, build a hot fire on one side of the grill and place the grill racks on.  I don’t have any real experience with gas grills but would imagine you could heat one side of a gas grill as well.

Place an onion in the cavity of each chicken.

Place the chickens in a large baking dish – I used my largest cast iron skillet.  Pour in the wine and olive oil.

Slice the lemons, crosswise, and randomly place the slices around the chickens and into the liquid.  Add the olives and herbs to the pan along with the giblets.

Nestle the potatoes around the chickens.

Pour whatever preserved lemon liquid that remains in the container over the chickens and then liberally sprinkle pepper over all.

Place the pan on the grill away from the fire.  Cover and roast, adding coals to keep the fire at about 400ºF for the first hour.  Continue to roast for about another 30 minutes or until the chickens are golden brown and cooked through.  The fire can be less hot for the final 30 minutes.

Remove from the grill and let rest for a few minutes.  Cut each chicken in half and serve with the potatoes, lemon slices, and olives and any pan juices.

 

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