Everybody’s All-American: A Southern Spin on Chicken Potpie
By Paige Orloff
I’ve loved potpie since I was a little girl and my mother used to serve me the frozen ones as special lunch treats. (The fact that she’d do odd dances to entertain me while I endured their epic heating time in those pre-microwave days may have sweetened the memory, but only a bit.) As an adult, I discovered that potpie is one of those impressive-though-casual dishes that is way, way easier to make than it appears. You don’t even have to be able to make a decent crust (though that, too, is one of those things that is much simpler than most people think).
As a friend suggested, you can easily purchase frozen puff pastry to top your pie. This produces impressive, company-worthy results with next to zero effort. (Can you open a box? You’re set.) But the nearly-as-easy alternative is to make biscuits to top your homemade chicken stew. This Southern-influenced version of potpie is delicious, and a fine recipe to put together all at once, or to prepare in stages over a day or even a couple of days. Children will eat it, adults will marvel, and if you’re the kind of person who finds herself with stray vegetables in the produce drawer or in half-bags in the freezer, you can have the virtuous joy of cleaning house as well. Don’t get too obsessive about quantities of anything—except when making the roux—and you’ll do fine.
Chicken and Biscuits
For the chicken stew:
1 roasting chicken, about 4-5 lbs
6 ribs of celery — two left whole, the rest sliced
3 onions — one peeled and sliced in half; the others chopped into coarse dice
6 carrots—two left whole, the rest cut into 1/4 inch rounds
2 - 4 cups of other veggies to your taste: diced potatoes, parsnips or winter squash, frozen peas, pearl onions or mushrooms would all work.
1 bay leaf
salt to taste
1/4 c. flour
2 T butter
2 T olive oil
First, make the stock. Put the chicken (rinsed, giblets, if any, removed) into a large stockpot with the whole celery, whole carrots, halved onion, bay leaf, peppercorns, and a teaspoon or so of salt. Cover with water, bring to a boil, then turn down the heat and leave to simmer for an hour. Remove the chicken to a bowl to cool, and strain the stock into another pot to cool.You’ll probably have a couple of quarts, most of which you’ll save for making soup or risotto another day.
While the chicken is cooling, make the roux. In a small saucepan, melt the butter over low heat so as not to burn it. When it starts to bubble and foam a bit, add the flour and stir vigorously. Cook the mixture over low-medium heat until it becomes fragrant, and a tiny bit golden, but not brown. Now add about a half cup of your warm stock, and whisk to combine. Cook until it thickens, and then repeat by adding additional half cups of stock, allowing the sauce to thicken before adding more liquid until you’ve incorporated about 3 cups of stock altogether. Don’t worry if it’s not extremely thick when you’ve finished adding the liquid. You’re going to keep cooking it down, and it will thicken on its own. Let the sauce simmer over low heat while you prepare the chicken and the rest of the vegetables.
If the chicken is now cool enough to handle, remove all the meat you can from the bones with your fingers. Pull apart into manageable pieces, but don’t get crazy. You can eat this with a knife; the pieces don’t have to be perfectly bite sized.
Now prepare the vegetables. Heat the olive oil for a couple on minutes in a Dutch oven (which you’ll bake the dish in so it needs to be oven safe.) Add the chopped onion, celery and carrots. (If you’re using mushrooms, add them now, too.) Sauté until the vegetables are just starting to soften, but still retain their color. Pour in the sauce, and continue to simmer over low-medium heat while you make the biscuits, and until all the vegetables are fork-tender. (If you’re using potatoes, parsnips or squash, add now so they have time to cook through. Pearl onions, too. Frozen peas should be added at the very last minute before the dish goes into the oven, so they keep some nice color.)
For the biscuits:
2 c. flour, preferably White Lily Self-Rising (hard to find unless you live in the South, but you can buy it online—see below.)
2 t baking powder
1 t salt
1 stick butter, cold, and cut into 1/2 chunks
2/3 c milk or buttermilk (low fat is fine)
2 T melted butter
Preheat the oven to 500 degrees F. Stir flour, salt and baking powder together to combine. (If you’re using White Lily, you can even omit the baking powder, but if you use it, that’s okay, too.) Using a pastry blender or two knives, cut in the butter until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. This will take five or ten minutes—don’t lose heart! Just when you’re cursing the effort, the texture will magically change. Stir in the milk until the mixture pulls away from the sides of the bowl. Turn out onto a lightly floured board, and knead two or three times. Roll out to a thickness of 1/2 inch, and using a two-inch circle cutter, cut by pressing down without turning. Cut and re-roll until you’ve used up all the dough. You should have 12 - 15 biscuits.
Now it’s time to put everything together. Remove the pan from the heat and stir the shredded chicken into the pot. Add a half cup or so of frozen peas if you’re using them. Taste the sauce for seasoning and add salt and freshly ground pepper as needed. Place the biscuits on top to cover, and brush their tops with molten butter. Place in the oven, uncovered, and bake for 12 to 15 minutes until the biscuits are golden brown. Keep an eye on it; depending upon your oven, it could only take 10 to 12 minutes.
Enjoy the meal, and the accolades.
Note: Buy White Lily flour online here. I use White Lily Self-Rising for biscuits.