Comfort Food as a Revolutionary Act
Did you know Craig Claiborne served chicken pot pie at his birthday parties? Claiborne was the beloved and transformative food editor and restaurant critic for The New York Times from 1957 to 1986. During that time and long after, he threw lavish birthday parties for himself on his East Hampton estate. It was a coveted invite for celebrities and the New York smart set alike. And Claiborne served chicken pot pie to some of the most well-heeled people in the world.
This might not seem like a radical act these days. Wolfgang Puck serves chicken pot pie at post-Academy Awards soirees. Anna Wintour insists on it every year at the CFDA awards. Chefs now feel at ease mixing the humble with the high-flying. This was not the case in Claiborne’s heyday, however. The 50s, 60s and even most of the 70s were a time of extreme fussbudgetry and even downright snobbery in the world of fine dining. The culinary establishment saw American comfort food and regional cuisine as provincial, graceless and, frankly, embarrassing.
While the provenance of Claiborne’s birthday menu is lost to me (I have a memory of it as an anecdote told by Ina Garten on The Barefoot Contessa), I know it in my soul to be true. Why? Because all Claiborne cared about was good food. He didn’t care for its pedigree or cost; if it was made by your mama or a Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef. Not that he didn’t have a taste for the luxurious. In 1975, Claiborne and a friend infamously racked up a $4000 check (or what would be about $19,000 in 2018) at Chez Denis in Paris.
However, along with compatriots such as Marion Cunningham, James Beard and Gael Greene, Claiborne fostered an appreciation for the earthy flavors, simple ingredients and straightforward techniques of chefs like Alice Waters, Judy Rodgers and Jonathan Waxman. Those pioneers in turn influenced a generation of chefs including titans such as Thomas Keller, Suzanne Goin and Alfred Portale. Furthermore, without Claiborne’s insistence that American cuisine, chefs and restaurants mattered, I don’t know how much many of our culinary traditions would still exist let alone be lionized as they are today. Without Claiborne, I don’t think we would live in an era where people travel from all over the world to wait in line for something like Aaron Franklin’s brisket.
So, if chicken pot pie was good enough for Craig Claiborne, it’s good enough for me. It’s a dish I am proud to share with any guest at my table. The recipe I’m sharing with you today will serve eight of your friends, family or the hoitiest of the toitiest.
Chicken Pot, Chicken Pot, Chicken Pot Pie!
At first glance, it may seem like there are a lot of steps, but let me preface the recipe by saying you do not have to make this entirely from scratch for it to be delicious. Want to use store-bought chicken stock (unsalted only, please), frozen puff pastry and a rotisserie chicken? Go for it. It will still be great.
However, if you want to make it entirely from scratch, it’s easier than you think. You can make each component well in advance. Both the chicken stock and the pie dough can be made days ahead and refrigerated or, if frozen, months in advance. Likewise with the filling. Hell, you can assemble the whole dang pot pie in advance and refrigerate it for a day. Just make sure you chill the filling before topping it with the pastry. You don’t want the heat from the filling melting the butter of the dough before it’s baked. Also, if well-wrapped in plastic and aluminum foil, you can freeze it for up to a month. If freezing, make sure to use a metal baking dish that can go from the freezer to the oven without, you know, exploding like a Pyrex.
After Thanksgiving, this is a useful recipe to have in your back pocket. It becomes an ideal vessel for turkey and, instead of the pastry top, a good use for leftover mashed potatoes.
One last but important note about the seasoning: yes, this recipe uses a tablespoon of kosher salt. This probably sounds crazy and a recipe for disaster. However, the reason the recipe requires this much salt is: we’re using unseasoned chicken stock, both the chicken and the vegetables will release water during baking and dilute the flavor, and any recipe that uses dairy, in general, requires a bit more salt than you’d think.
Also, it is important to know that I use Diamond Crystal kosher salt. This matters because of the size of the flakes. If you’re using table salt, use half as much (about a teaspoon and a half). If you’re using a different kind of kosher salt, such as Morton’s, you may have to use more.
This recipe is one of my favorites and I hope you and yours love it.
Chicken Pot Pie
Chicken and vegetables in a rich, silky sauce topped with a ridiculously flaky pastry.
- 8 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 cup yellow onion finely diced
- 2 teaspoons dried thyme or 1 1/2 tablespoon fresh thyme minced
- 1 tbsp garlic minced; about 2-3 cloves
- 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 1/2 cup slow-cooker chicken stock or store-bought see link below for recipe. If using store-bought, use unsalted only
- 3/4 cup heavy cream
- 3/4 cup whole milk
- 2 pounds shredded cooked chicken
- 1 pound frozen mixed vegetables
- 1/2 recipe Foolproof Pie Dough or 1 sheet of thawed puff pastry see full recipe below
- 1 tbsp Diamond Crystal kosher salt
- 1 egg yolk, mixed with a tablespoon water
Set a rack to the middle position and preheat the oven to 350.
Melt butter over medium heat. When the butter is completely melted and foaming has subsided, add diced onion and cook, stirring occasionally for about 7 minutes. You're looking for the onion to become soft, translucent and just starting to pick up a bit of color.
Next add the thyme and garlic. If using dried thyme, crush it between your fingers as you add it to the pan in order to better release the flavor into the melted butter. Stir the onion and garlic mixture frequently and cook for about 30 seconds until the garlic is fragrant.
Add 1 tbsp Diamond Crystal-style kosher salt. (If using table salt, use less than half as much.) This may seem like a lot of salt. There may even be a moment of panic later when you taste the filling before baking. It may seem just a touch too salty. However, as the filling bakes, both the chicken and the vegetables will release water. If you don't season enough at this point, the finished pot pie will be bland.
Time to make the roux. Add flour to the pan and stir with a wooden spoon or silicone spatula to incorporate it completely into the fat and onion mixture. Set a timer for 2 minutes. It's important to cook the roux for at least that long to get rid of the raw flour taste. If you notice the flour beginning to brown, turn down the heat to medium-low. Stir continuously until the 2 minutes are up.
Bust out a whisk. While whisking with one hand, pour into the pan the heavy cream, milk and chicken stock with the other. Whisk vigorously to thoroughly combine the liquid with the roux. If needed, scrape the sides of the pan with a spatula to incorporate any errant roux. Continue whisking until the liquid is free of any lumps.
Turn heat to medium-high. Continue to whisk the sauce until it begins to bubble and thicken about 5-7 minutes. Once the sauce has come to a boil and is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, add the shredded chicken and vegetables.
If making the filling ahead, stop here. The frozen vegetables will help speed the chilling process. If using immediately, cook over medium low heat while stirring until the chicken and vegetables are heated through.
Add a a couple pinches freshly ground black pepper. Taste the filling. Again, it may taste a bit salty at this point, but I promise
When ready to bake, pour filling into a 9x13 baking dish, leveling it with a spatula. Next, brush the inside edge of the baking dish with a bit of egg wash, this will help seal the edges.
Next, on a well-floured surface, roll out the pie dough into about a 10x15 rectangle. Using your rolling pin, roll the dough around the pin so that you can easily drape it over the baking dish. Roll the overhanging dough underneath to create an edge and press the edge along inside edge of the baking dish to seal.
Brush the top of the pastry thoroughly with the egg wash. Then, using a sharp knife, cut several slits in the top. Place the dish in the oven and bake for about 45 to 55 minutes. You'll know it's ready when the top is well browned and the filling is bubbling slightly in the center.
Remove dish from the oven and allow to cool 10 minutes before slicing and serving.
Foolproof Pie Dough
This pie dough seems to do the impossible: it's incredibly tender and flaky while only take about 10 minutes to prepare.
- 12.5 ounces all-purpose flour or 2 1/2 cups or 350 grams
- 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
- 10 ounces unsalted butter, cut into cubes or 2 1/2 sticks or 280 grams
- 6 tablespoons ice water
Combine two thirds of flour with sugar and salt in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse twice to incorporate.
Spread butter chunks evenly over surface. Pulse until no dry flour remains and dough just begins to collect in clumps, about 25 short pulses.
Use a rubber spatula to spread the dough evenly around the bowl of the food processor. Sprinkle with remaining flour and pulse until dough is just barely broken up, about 5 short pulses. Transfer dough to a large bowl.
Sprinkle with water then using a rubber spatula, fold and press dough until it comes together into a ball. At a certain point, it might be easier to use your hands to bring the dough together.
Divide ball in half. Form each half into a 4-inch disk. Wrap tightly in plastic and refrigerate for at least 2 hours before rolling and baking.
Note: Dough can be stored in refrigerator for 3 days or for up to 3 months in the freezer. To use, if frozen, thaw first in the refrigerator. Afterward, allow dough to come to cool room temperature before rolling.