The words “pot pie” on a menu appeal to the traditionalist in all of us, evoking images of Grandma’s apron and the steamy comfort of a warm kitchen. So what if the pie turns out to be like nothing Grandma ever dreamed of?
In Dana Point, at the luxurious new St. Regis at Monarch Beach Hotel’s Aqua restaurant, Chris L’Hommedieu makes pot pie stuffed with chunks of lobster and baby vegetables lightly bound in a cream sauce. It is served tableside, the waiter carefully lifting off the crust intact and spooning out the filling.
At the House, Scooter Kanfer’s spunky little place on Melrose, there’s no pastry lid at all. There’s no meat, either. Even the fairly traditional pot pie Patrick Healy makes at Buffalo Club in Santa Monica is based on a homemade chicken stock reduced to a glaze and spiked with wild mushrooms.
Clearly, this humble dish has been dressed up in ways Grandma never imagined. Yet all three chefs credit their grandmothers with their first pot pie experience.
Kanfer says her New Yorker grandma called her dish pot pie, even though it was made with a mashed potato topping, which purists might consider more of a shepherd’s pie.
“I grew up in a Hungarian Jewish home in Queens, and I was one of those weird kids who didn’t even have store-bought bread until I went to boarding school, because my nana made a loaf of fresh bread every morning,” she says. “For her pie, she would take a little leftover goulash and put a layer of mashed potatoes on top of that and bake it. I loved that. To me, that’s the ultimate comfort food.”
L’Hommedieu ate pot pies at his grandma’s table in New England. “I remember she used to bake them in an oval casserole dish. She’d boil the chicken up in the morning, then flake it into the pot with carrots, potatoes and creamed peas. Then she’d bake it in the oven with a flaky pie dough. A lot of things I do in the restaurant, I picked up from her.”
Grandma might not recognize the tableside lobster preparation, but she’d still feel safe ordering it, L’Hommedieu says. “I think that’s the one dish on the menu that, if one of my family members came in, that’s what I’d send them. I come from a pretty humble background, and most of my family doesn’t have much experience in this kind of restaurant. But this dish touches on the comfort zone for most people while still being pretty sophisticated.”
Healy’s family was very sophisticated about food. His grandmother was a high-society cooking teacher in Palm Beach, Fla., and counted Julia Child and her sister Dort among her students, as well as Jackie Kennedy.
“My grandmother used to do a pot pie with pheasant,” he says. “At home she used a puff pastry crust and served it in a beautiful old earthenware dish. She did things very French. That was my first chicken pot pie and still probably one of the best pot pies I’ve ever had.”
You can rail about the evils of meddling with tradition if you want, but in reality, these modern improvisations are perfectly in keeping with the historical spirit of the dish.
There is no single definition of a pot pie, and there never has been one. Meat pies go back to time immemorial. As long as food has been written about, there seems to have been some kind of main dish being served in a crust somewhere. In fact, until the 17th century, nearly all pies were filled with meat.
In early America, with its colonial culinary roots in England, the meat pie was particularly important. In Amelia Simmons’ “American Cookery,” published in 1796 and credited as this country’s first cookbook, she mentions savory pies made of chicken and “stew,” as well as a “sea pie” made with meat and salt pork. Mince pie, today regarded as an antique dessert, actually began as a main dish.
Perhaps because of its ubiquity, the pot pie has resisted uniformity. In addition to having wildly different fillings, there is similar disagreement as to topping. Crusts are made with flaky pie pastry, puff pastry and biscuit dough. In the first edition of “The Joy of Cooking,” the chicken pot pie is topped with a batter, more like what we would consider a dumpling.
Even Kanfer’s seemingly radical topless pie isn’t all that weird. In Pennsylvania Dutch country, pot pie is a chicken stew served with broad noodles. Who knows? Someone may even have made a vegetarian version once.
Even with something as homey as pot pie, careful preparation is required. For the Aqua pie, that starts with exact cooking of the lobster. “All the love goes in before the pie is baked,” says L’Hommedieu. “That’s making the sauce and precooking the lobster.
“Lobster is temperamental. You don’t want it undercooked or overcooked. We precook the lobster before assembling the pot pie. You want a three-minute lobster. You want to cook the tail and the claws so you can get all the meat out.
“You also want to make sure all the vegetables are tender but not messy. Everybody puts their twists on this recipe. Down here, I have a particular farm I work with for my produce and I want to show that off, so I get baby vegetables and cook them just tender.
“For the sauce, I sweat lobster bodies with a little chopped vegetables, a little white wine, a little brandy and some cream. Cook those for 20 to 30 minutes to infuse the flavors. Some people use roux-based sauce. I don’t like that as much as thickening the sauce with pureed vegetables. You get a natural flavor and it’s as stable as roux is.”
Healy uses a roux for his sauce, but only after a lot of cooking has already gone into it. “The sauce that’s served with this is very rich,” he says. “It’s made from a deep chicken stock reduction that turns into glaze and I add cream to it.”
The chicken has to be cooked just right as well. “I tried serving it with dark meat and with white meat and I found that most people like white meat, though that’s not necessarily my preference. And like any recipe with white meat chicken, there’s a fine line between when it is tender and moist and cooked through and when it starts going to the stew stage, where it will be dry, and you’ll have to keep cooking it until it is falling-off-the-bone tender. Always cut a little piece off and give it a taste test. That’s the way we do it in the restaurant.”
The biscuit dough, which he prefers as a topping because of the way its hearty texture matches the sauce, has to be handled lightly, too, or it will become tough. It’s much better made the same day it’s baked, Healy says. “You get a much better rise. It’s lively and light.”
Kanfer’s pot pies aren’t so much an example of perfecting technique as of rethinking the form. They are whimsical and change with the seasons. First, there’s some kind of roasted vegetable container--anything from a winter squash or spring onion to a summer tomato. Then she puts in a protein base--lentils or grain to keep the dish vegetarian. On top of that goes a mix of seasonal vegetables--some blanched, some roasted, some grilled, for a variety of flavors and textures--bound with a vegetable puree.
“I call it a pot pie because it comes in a vessel,” she says. “I think it’s fun to give people something a little familiar, then give them a twist on it.”