chicken, bacon and leek pie

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Pie. What can you really say about pie? Arguably the ultimate comfort food and, I reckon, one of the most versatile dishes around. You can top it how you like, fill it how you like, decorate it how you like. There aren’t really any rules. Ok, there are rules but they’re easily bended or ignored.

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I’ve had some glorious relatives visiting from Down Under this week and I have taken it upon myself to be the caterer for the event. Probably much to the distress of my mum and dad, I forced myself into their kitchen and stayed there. The meat pie is an Australian classic and has become rather iconic- there’s even a famous contest. Normally hand-sized and made with minced meat, it bares most similarity to our steak pie I suppose. So in honour of the Aussie rellies having a long overdue reunion with the Pommy lot, pie seemed perfect. Pie, mash and a bucket load of gravy.

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This one ain’t hand-sized. This one could have sunk a small ship, but luckily people chose to eat it rather than sink things with it. The recipe is wildly elaborated and amended from various other recipes I have used and mucked about with previously. Chicken and leek is probably my favourite pie filler, but I always like to have a little fun and basically throw a dollop of whatever’s lying around into it. It’s all about working out what flavours you like, and what flavours go together and then tweaking and poking as you go along. I like to make pie filling in a leisurely, unhurried way so that you can really allow every ingredient turn into a real character in the dish and make beautiful unions with all the other flavours.

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I bought puff pastry. Sacrilege to any pastry connoisseur but I was still trying to spend actual time with my family as well. If you would like to spend the best part of fifty years trying to perfect puff pastry, you are a far better person than I am. When it comes to puff, I cheat. For this pie, I wanted to luxurious billowing crumbs of puff to proudly sit on top on oozing chicken filling and I just have not mastered the art yet, so down the shop I went.

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This recipe feeds six people generously, so probably eight people who already had a big lunch, and I served it with whole roasted garlic skin-on mash, red onion gravy and greens. I’m a thigh girl. DO NOT use chicken breast, please! Thighs are soooo much more juicy and tender, they’re cheaper, they have better flavour and they don’t dry out. If you’re going to cook chicken for a long time, it really has to be thighs. Chicken breasts are ok if you are going to bake them briefly in foil, for example. But basically, breast is inferior to thigh.

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Big knob of butter
Six boneless, skinless chicken thighs
Around 250g bacon lardons
Three large leeks
Two heaped tbsp. cornflour
One bottle white wine
Two generous dollops of crème fraiche
One dollop of Dijon mustard
One dollop of grainy mustard
One tbsp peppercorns
Four bay leaves
One handful parsley, one of tarragon, one of thyme
One tbsp. fig chutney (or something sweet-ish, a flavour of your choice)
One tbsp. lemon juice
One block of ready bought puff pastry
One egg, for glazing
One more bay leaf and a little handful of thyme for decoration
One bulb garlic
One knob butter
Enough potatoes to serve your pack (Purists will get into debates about what type of potato to use for what type of dish, but frankly you can use whatever you like to eat, it makes no difference. I used Charlotte potatoes because they were in the cupboard and my mouth likes them)

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One large red onion
One heaped tbsp. brown sugar
One tbsp. flour
Two glasses red wine
Handful of thyme
Ok so to being with, get browning the meat. Put the chicken thighs whole into a frying pan with your butter and keep them on a fairly high heat. Throw in the peppercorns and the bay leaves and let them joyously brown away. In a separate frying pan, throw in the bacon lardons. Don’t add any fat, there’s absolutely no need. The bacon will crisps away in its own delightful fattiness so just let it get on with it. Meanwhile, chop the leeks into big chunks and put them in a casserole dish with a knob of butter. Let them soften a little then add your herbs. I used tarragon parsley and thyme but you can, of course, use whatever you enjoy. Think about the way you want the pie to taste and what flavours you want to dominate. Tarragon has an incredibly strong, aniseedy flavour (and is apparently from the sunflower family. Cool) so I would suggest using it sparingly. In large quantities it is far too overpowering. On the other hand, I could probably use an entire bus of thyme in a pie and still want more, same goes for parsley- mega mild.

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While this is all going on the lovely meats should be browning happily so turn the chicken and poke at the bacon a little. Make sure they’re all happy. Put the flour in the casserole dish with the leeks and herbs and stir to coat, and then pour in the wine. It’s a lot of wine; you can use stock if you like. For me, wine gives a depth of flavour that is incomparable and marries beautifully with meat when cooked long and slow. Keep checking the meat and let the winey greens brew a little before dolloping in the crème fraiche and mustards.

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Remove the chicken from the pan and shred it, save the peppercorns and the bay leaves. If the bacon is browned to your liking put it, and the shredded chicken, into the casserole dish with the greens. Stir everything together and then drop the peppercorns and the bay leaves back in. Pop the lid on and leave it on a low heat, letting all the loveliness mingle together. After it’s been cooking for half an hour or so, taste it and work out what’s going on. The reason I added the lemon juice and chutney was because of this moment. Something wasn’t right. The tarragon was too strong, and something else as well that I couldn’t put my finger on. I added the chutney and the lemon juice and let it bubble for a little bit and when I tasted it again it was bang on. It needed something sweet and something sharp to compliment the other flavours.
Wrap the whole garlic bulb in foil and put it in the oven on the highest temperature. Leave it in there for about forty five minutes. To make the gravy, cut the onion up as small as you can and let it fry in a pan with some butter until it’s softened a little, then add the sugar and let it caramelise. Pop in the thyme then stir in the flour to coat everything. Add the wine and stir it all together very gently on a low heat until you have the consistency you want.

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Remove the bay leaves from the meaty pot transfer to an ovenproof dish. Roll out the pastry so it covers the size of your dish with a little to spare for a nice crust. Cover the pie with the pastry, then brush it with the beaten egg and top with some cracked black pepper and thyme. While it’s cooking in a hot oven (about 220), boil the potatoes, skin on, in some salted water. Squeeze the oozy, sticky garlic cloves out of the bulb and set aside. Once the potatoes are soft enough, mash them up with a good knob of butter and the garlicky goodness.
The pie filling is cooked and hot already, so it’s only a matter of letting the pastry cook and brown on top. It will probably take about half an hour. Serve it with whatever greens you like the most. I used peas, spinach and broad beans. This pie was good! It was rich and meaty and herby and decadent with a subtle sweetness coming from the chutney- and the Aussie’s said it was the best pie they’d ever eaten………. So maybe I should be entering that competition of theirs.
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