I grew up in a house where dinner did not come out of a box or the freezer. My mom cooked meals from scratch and actually my brother and I longed to try the exotic products that we saw advertised on television, like Stove Top stuffing or Rice-a-Roni. (To this day, I have never tried either of those delicacies.) Even dishes that no one makes from scratch like macaroni and cheese or chicken pot pie, my mom made from scratch. Although I discovered frozen chicken pot pie as a teenager — and I still have a spot soft for it – my mom’s homemade version was one of our favorite dinners.
Chicken pot pie is the ultimate comfort food. It’s the perfect meal for a homecoming or a freezing cold Sunday night. Chicken pot pie is generally thought of as a way to use up leftover chicken — and it is a great way to do just that — but there’s no need to wait until you have leftover chicken to make it. Just poach or roast chicken breasts earlier in the day and shred the meat for your pot pie.
To my mind, chicken pot pie is a perfect dish to feature in my on-going series on cooking without a recipe. (See the first entry in this series on beef stew here.) Chicken pot pie can be made in any number of different ways and it is a dish that should absolutely be adapted to your family’s tastes — or to what you have in the fridge on a given night. The key is, all the ingredients, with the exception of the crust, need to be cooked beforehand. That’s why it is such a great dish for using up leftovers.
There are also numerous ways to make the crust. You can do a top and bottom crust, like a real pie, using store-bought pie crusts or by making your own. Or you can serve the pot pit with a top crust only, which is how I do it. When I was growing up, my mother used those biscuits that come in a can — hmmmm…I guess she did take some shortcuts after all — as a top crust. I prefer to make a biscuit dough using Bisquick — I am not above short cuts either – and then drop it in spoonfuls on the top of my pot pie for a rustic look.
To make a top-crust-only chicken pot pie, you will need the following:
Several cups shredded cooked chicken (I prefer white meat)
2-3 large (or 4-5 small) boiling potatoes, such as Yukon Gold or Red Bliss
Sauteed diced vegetables, such as onions, carrots and celery
Fresh or dried herbs, such as thyme or sage
3 TB butter or olive oil
3 TB flour
3 cups chicken broth, heated
Refrigerated biscuits, or biscuit dough
If you are not working with leftover chicken or potatoes, the first step is to cook these items. You can poach boneless chicken breasts by placing them in a shallow pot of water, bringing the water to a boil and then turning off the heat and letting the chicken cook, covered, in the hot water for 15-20 minutes. Or you can roast bone-in chicken breasts in the oven at 375 for 35-40 minutes until cooked. (You can also buy a supermarket rotisserie chicken if you prefer.) Shred the chicken into bite size pieces and set aside.
As for the potatoes, place them in a saucepan filled with cold water and add salt. Bring the water to a boil, then turn down the heat and simmer the potatoes for 15 minutes or so, until mostly cooked through . Drain and and let the potatoes cool. Once cool, peel them and cut them into bite-size pieces. Set aside. The chicken and potatoes can be cooked as far ahead of time as you like.
When you are ready to start making the pot pie in earnest, preheat the oven to the temperature at which your biscuit or dough needs to be cooked. Typically it is around 400 degrees. Dice and saute your vegetables in olive oil over medium to low heat until tender. I would definitely recommend using onions and carrots. Celery is also good. If you have zucchini or red pepper, feel free to throw them in too for color. Indeed, almost any leftover cooked vegetables (corn, peas, green beans) will work as well. Season the veggies while you are sauteeing them with salt and pepper and dried herbs, such as thyme.
When your veggies are tender and all of your ingredients are ready to assemble, it is time to make your roux or white sauce. It’s a pretty basic white sauce: equal amounts fat and flour combined with hot chicken broth. (This sauce can be adapted for different recipes. For example, when making macaroni and cheese, you use milk instead of the chicken broth and add the cheese to the sauce.) Melt the fat — that is the olive oil or butter — in a medium saucepan. Whisk in the flour and cook the mixture for a few minutes over low heat to get rid of the raw flour taste, stirring continuously. Meanwhile, heat your chicken broth — feel free to add a splash of white wine to the broth. Add the hot broth to the flour mixture and cook, stirring, over medium heat until the sauce begins to thicken.
Assemble the pot pie by tossing the sauteed veggies, cooked chicken and potatoes in a large baking dish or Dutch oven. Pour the white sauce over the ingredients and combine. Cover with biscuit dough leaving space on the sides to vent. Bake until the biscuit dough is cooked — the bottom of the biscuits will be somewhat goopy, but that is part of the charm — and all the ingredients are heated through. Serve piping hot!