One of my favorite winter meals starts with a quick rummage through the refrigerator. Last night's leftover broccoli, slightly wilted carrots and celery, my last potato and even past-their-prime onions herald the beginnings of something wonderful: chicken potpie.
A potpie is a savory combination of vegetables and poultry coated with a creamy sauce and then baked in a flaky crust.
Best of all, potpies can be created from what you have on hand. Prepared pie crusts, such as Pillsbury's All Ready crusts found in the refrigerator section, make putting together a potpie a snap.
The first step in making a perfect savory pie is to decide what baking dish you will use. A deep-dish pie pan will work, though I prefer a hefty Pyrex baking dish with 3-inch sides and about 8 1/2 inches across. You will need to know the volume of your dish.
One of the easiest ways to do this is to fill the dish with water and then measure the amount of water. My baking dish, for example, holds about 7 cups. I usually try for about 2 cups of cooked poultry and 5 cups of sauted vegetables but any combination will work well.
Now it's time to take stock. Any chopped, cooked vegetables, can be used. You will also need cooked chicken or turkey, chopped into bite-size cubes. Finally, besides a two-layer pie crust, you will need a creamy base.
If you have enough leftover cooked vegetables, fine. If you don't, chop raw vegetables into bite-size pieces. Saute the vegetables in butter, margarine or chicken broth. Start with the big stuff, for example potatoes or turnips. Once they are tender, add chopped celery, carrots, peppers and onions. I save the tough stems of broccoli just for my potpies. Peel the stems with a paring knife, discard the outer edges and add the chopped remainder to the potpie. Sliced, canned or fresh mushrooms or frozen green peas (don't bother thawing them) can be added at thelast minute. This is a super way to ensure you have enough veggies if you run short.
If you're in a real bind, you can use all canned or frozen mixed vegetables, but I don't like them as well.
Leftover, cooked and cubed poultry will work fine. If you're starting from scratch, now is a great time to remember there is more to chicken than expensive, boneless, skinless breasts. I buy whatever poultry is on sale; chicken thighs are a favorite. Some people like to buy and roast whole chickens, but I think that is too much trouble for a potpie. Instead, I prefer to slice the raw poultry off the bone and saute it in chicken broth.
You need just enough liquid, about 2 to 3 cups, to coat the vegetables and chicken. Traditional potpies call for one can of creamed soups, such as cream of chicken or mushroom stretched with half-and-half or whole milk. I find that canned or evaporated whole or skim milk works fine.
I like to use a new line of chicken sauces by Ragu, called Chicken Tonight. My favorite is the Herbed Chicken with Wine Sauce.
Purists will probably prefer to make their own from-scratch crusts for a two-crust pie. I like the refrigerated pie crusts just as well. They can be kept on hand, frozen until needed -- a big plus in my book -- and are very easy to work with. Refrigerated biscuits can also be used, but only to make a top crust. (See directions below.)
Go easy on seasonings, especially salt. Canned soups or the Ragu chicken sauces will probably provide all the seasonings you need. Taste first, and then judiciously add any extra herbs or spices.
To assemble the pie, combine the poultry and vegetables in a big bowl. Stir in just enough sauce to thoroughly coat all ingredients.
Roll out your crust, following recipe directions. Line the bottom of the container and scoop your ingredients into the bowl or pie plate, mounding the ingredients in the center. Don't overpack your container. Now place the top of the crust on top, press and crimp the edges firmly together. Cut a small slit in top.
Using a pastry brush, coat the top of the crust with a little melted margarine, milk or even mayonnaise for a beautiful golden color. Scraps of pie pastry can be used to make small decorations. Cut out shapes with a knife or miniature cookie cutter. Brush the pie top first before applying the decorations to make sure they will stick, then reapply coating to the top of decorations. If you're in a hurry, just sprinkle the top of the pie with sesame or poppy seeds.
How long the pie needs to bake will depend on what size baking container you used and how deep it is. The top should be golden and the pie warm through. Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Bake the pie for about 45 minutes, checking after 30 minutes and then after every 10 minutes. My deep-dish pie needs to bake about one hour.