Saturday, March 27, 2010

Being humbled by pie

Pie is easy.* You can buy it frozen and pop it in the oven. That pie is humble: it doesn’t ask for much, doesn’t expect much, doesn’t particularly offer much either, just sits quietly in the freezer, then the oven, then disappears quickly without much comment.**

Eating fancy meals can be demanding: there is an extra attentiveness we tend to approach a glamorous dish with, as opposed to the unwinding we allow ourselves when we sit down for a traditional home cooked meal. Something intimidating, something attention-grabbing about a restaurant meal. It is special food for a reason. We hesitate, we pause, we pay that momentary respect, that intake of breath, that thoughtfulness.

The direction of the breath we take is pivotal, I think, in defining the difference. Restaurant food: intake. Wonder. Home cooking: exhale. Relaxation.

A few weeks ago I attempted a recipe from Thomas Keller’s cookbook The French Laundry. It was pretty complicated, involving making duck stock and then a reduced duck sauce. Creamed corn, which involved pureeing fresh corn kernels, then straining them, then cooking them, then adding whole blanched corn kernels. Oh, and blanched silverbeet wrapped skinned duck breast, cooked sous vide (ie, wrapped in plastic then poached).
The meal took a whole day, and was an exercise in peeling, precision dicing, watching, skimming, straining ... The end result was delicious, but damn, it would want to be for the effort it took to produce one dish.

Taking this recipe as a starting point, I thought about pie. What if you took the basic components - duck, mushroom, corn - and made pie? Mixed everything up together? Mushrooms fried with roughly chopped leeks and thyme. Poached the chicken (that way, if it doesn’t work, I’ve only lost my investment in chicken, and not a duck). The diced brunoise is transformed into diced vegetables. The creamed corn and reduced poaching liquid from the chicken becomes the binding gravy. From fancy restaurant food to rustic, home-style comfort food.
Easier to eat.

Not easier to make.

It took me nearly as long to make the pie as it did to make the Keller recipe. Poaching the chicken the night before. Reducing the stock. Chopping the vegetables. Cooking the sauce. Frying the mushrooms. Pulling the chicken off the carcass. Baking the pie. (Thank goodness for store-bought pastry!).

But there was a gentleness about the process – a shift in the expectation. This pie didn’t need to be perfect. It didn’t need to wow anyone. It didn’t have to look like a jewel, be perfectly sized or shaped. It didn’t really rely on split second timing. When we sat down to eat, we breathed out.

* ‘Easy as pie’ doesn’t describe the ease of creation, but rather the pleasure of eating, the idea being that good things are also easy to like – easy on the eye, for example. ‘Easy as pie’ comes to us from American English (check out Mark Twain and all the pie references).

** Humble pie is little bit older – from the old English ‘numble’ or ‘umble’ pie – pie made from deer offal. Perhaps also eaten by the lowly of station. By a phonetic slight of hand: ‘umble pie (think of Michael Cain saying it). Humble pie. Numble pie eaten by the humble.

Chicken, corn and mushroom pie, a play in four acts

Act 1: The poaching of the chicken (the day before)

2 1 kg chickens (whole or with thighs removed – depend what fits into the pot)
1 carrot, cut in half
1 brown onion, peeled and cut in half
6 sprigs of parley
10 sprigs of fresh thyme
2 bay leaves

Place all ingredients in a large saucepan. Cover with cold water. Bring to boil, simmer for about 20 minutes. Cover with a lid and turn off the heat. Allow to cool, then refrigerate overnight (I put the whole saucepan in the fridge.

The next day, scrape the fat from the top of the stock. Remove the chicken, discard the skin and pull the meat off the bones. Shred the meat and set aside.

Strain the poaching liquid and reserve.

Act 2: A kernel of corn

Poaching liquid from the chicken
Kernels from 3 cobs corn
2 carrots – cut in ½ cm dice
200 g celeriac – cut in ½ cm dice
1 leek, white part cut into 1 cm dice
¼ cup polenta

Bring the chicken poaching liquid the boil in a medium sized saucepan and reduce to about 4 cups.

Puree the 2/3 of the corn kernels with a cup of poaching liquid. Strain and discard the solids. Return the puree to the stock, add the polenta and slowly cook until it starts to foam. Add the remaining corn kernels and diced vegetables and continue to cook until the sauce thickens and the vegetables are just cooked.

Set aside.

Act 3: Mushrooms

½ kg mushrooms (I used field mushrooms, but any combination will be fine), thickly sliced
2 leeks, chopped into 1 cm dice
2 tbsp chopped thyme
1 tbsp chopped oregano
1 bay leaf
2 tbsp olive oil

Throw everything into a non stick fry pan and cook until the mushroom are soft, shaking the pan occasionally to prevent sticking. The mushrooms will release liquid, which will evaporate.

Act 4: the assembly of the pie

Shredded chicken
Thickened corn gravy with vegetables
Fried mushrooms
Pastry (enough to line and lid your pie dish)

Heat the oven to 180ºc

Mix the shredded chicken, mushrooms and corn mixture together. Taste and season (note – nothing has had any salt or pepper added yet).

Line the pie dish with pastry, fill with the pie filling, cover with a pastry lid. Brush with egg wash or milk.

Place into the oven, and cook for about half an hour (if the top starts to brown, cover with foil whilst the pastry base continues to cook).

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