In a winter when Angelenos have seen such sights as a snow plow working the streets of Malibu, it’s no surprise that there’s a revival of interest in warm, rich, delicious pot pie.
It’s what diners tuck into on any given chilly evening at the 2-month-old Rustic Canyon Wine Bar and Seasonal Kitchen in Santa Monica, just 10 blocks from the beach. “We keep making more of them and every night they sell out,” says general manager and co-owner Josh Loeb. “We figured people would love the burger ... but it’s the pot pie” -- a modern, crowd-pleasing root-vegetable pot pie -- that has been a surprise hit.
Each baked-to-order pie, filled with bechamel-coated parsnips, carrots, baby turnips, pearl onions, fingerling potatoes and a bit of baby Swiss chard, is aromatic with thyme and a pinch of nutmeg. The whole thing -- enough for two -- is blanketed with a flaky crust.
Chef Samir Mohajer uses a cream cheese dough for his crust, made with equal parts butter and cream cheese. Butter gives it a melt-in-the-mouth quality, and the cream cheese makes it even more tender and flavorful. It’s a rolled-in dough (like a puff pastry, it’s folded into thirds before it’s rolled), which results in a fluffy, layered crust. “I wouldn’t think of using any other type of crust with this pot pie,” Mohajer says.
The brilliant touch is a wild herb salad that sits atop the pot pie, a tangle of spicy cress that Mohajer picks up from the Coleman Family Farms stand at the Santa Monica farmers market. Also known as upland cress or winter cress, the small, notch-leafed greens are delicate but with a peppery bite, although not quite as pungent as watercress. They’re dressed simply with olive oil and lemon juice, a sprinkling of salt and pepper, and lend a freshness and even a sophistication to the pot pie, a rustic dish suddenly made polished, surprisingly exciting even.
Like the version at Rustic Canyon, pot pies can be thoroughly modern -- and still profoundly satisfying. Update the familiar chicken pot pie with attention-getting ingredients such as chorizo and saffron, crown it with a biscuity cornmeal crust flecked with thyme, and you’ll have a sensational dish still utterly recognizable as chicken pot pie.
As modest as the dish might be, pot pie has appeared on many a high-end menu over the last decade. Thomas Keller’s forest mushroom pot pie is packed with hen-of-the-woods mushrooms and served with matignon of root vegetables. Charlie Trotter has made a version filled with veal and mushrooms. One of Michael Mina’s signature dishes is lobster pot pie made with the meat from a whole lobster under a dome of pastry. And Rustic Canyon’s Loeb says his inspiration for putting a pot pie on the menu was at least partly from a Daniel Boulud recipe he had once come across.
What transforms pot pie into a luxury dish is an investment of some time (a great luxury, of course). A sumptuous duck pot pie with a crust that relies on duck fat doesn’t cut corners, and the result -- tender pieces of duck, turnips, carrots and kale in a delicious saucy stew -- is well worth the considerable effort. Approach making it the same way you might a cassoulet: You could do it all in one day or at a more leisurely pace over two. Roast the duck, render the duck fat (alternatively, you could buy duck fat) and make the stock the first day and then assemble the pie on the second. With duck stock in the sauce and a little duck fat in the roux, it’s something of a duck extravaganza. It’s great for a dinner party, brought to the table in a big casserole and served with a glass of Gigondas.
Perfect for a snowy day in Malibu, or when the temperature dips down into the mid-60s. Brrrrr!