When we moved back to the US, I gushed to the Critter about the unrivaled artistry and craftsmanship we Americans can put into a sandwich. The rest of the world thinks that a sanwich is a convenient way to put some food in your gullet. In America, we can elevate a sandwich into a gourmet experience. I love a good sandwich. I will (and have) drive hours for an exceptionally good one.
But nobody does a pie like the British.
One day earlier this week, I was listening to BBC Radio 4's "Food Programme" discussing 'The Life of a Pie' (I still download the podcasts of several shows from BBC. Also: 'Gardener's Question Time', and 'Farming Today'. My Bride claims this as proof that I am officially an old man). A whole hour about pies in all their glory made me hungry.
In America, we do know how to make a good pie (my Bride learned to make a blueberry-peach pie last year that is nearly a religious experience). But for the most part, our pies in America are sweet, desert style pies. Our cousins across the pond have the knack of putting things into pies that both surprise and delight.
I was craving a good British pie. And I am 2,000 miles the wrong side of an ocean from a chance of buying one. So today, I took some time to enjoy the fantastic weather we've been having, and to take a stab at making a few pies of my own.
I chose four: Chicken, bacon & leek pasties, steak & ale pie, Poacher pie, and a traditional pork pie.
Pork Pie: This is the one that takes the longest to make. As in, about 7 hours. Which I didn't really figure on before I started. Start with a couple of pigs' feet, and a few other bits in 3 quarts of water, and boil down to make a good gelatinous stock. It takes an hour or two, but the fat & cartilage from the feet break down into the stock, and become an important part of the pork pie consistency and experience.
This is the first time in my life I've ever said "Oh thank God, we still have pigs feet."
The pork for the filling is a good mix of nice center loin pork and fat, cut into half inch cubes. Rubbed with sage and a bit of allspice, and left to chill while the stock reduces.
While that was working, I made a short crust pastry dough - a simple mix of lard, salt, flour and water. My Bride watched me, laughing and constantly chiding me not to overwork it. I wrapped it up and let it chill for a while to come together.
We had found a "texas sized" 1 cup muffin tin some time ago which I use as a handy measure for freezing soup stock. When it was ready, I lined the tins with the rolled out pastry, and filled it with the chilled, raw pork. Topped with another bit of pastry and well crimped, it went into the oven for a couple of hours around 325F. I brushed it with egg in the last half hour, and got it lovely and golden.
As a final step, I took the well reduced stock (down from 3 quarts to about 2 cups) and poured it into each pie through the center hole. (I used a big turkey baster as an easy way to push it right down into the pie). Once full, it was stuck into the fridge to cool for four hours and set up.
Once ready, slice and serve cold with some spicy English mustard.
My pork pies may not have been quite the prettiest thing I've ever seen, but they were the exact flashback of hearty goodness I was looking for. You can totally understand how these were the perfect meal for a farmer or hunter in the field. Compact and dense with flavor and nutrition. And a nice cold lager if you have it.
The other pies were a chicken, pancetta & leek (featuring our homemade pancetta, and big heavy green onion tops cut from our garden today as a substitute for the leeks.
I browned the chicken thighs with the pancetta and onions, and then chopped it roughly. A healthy couple of spoonfulls in the center of rolled pastry, and hand crimped & brushed again with egg, this one was a much easier pie to whip up.
My personal favorite in the end was the Poacher pie - the recipe is a Jamie Oliver special from his latest book, 'Jamie's Great Britain'. The recipe is made with 3.5 lbs of shredded zucchini, cooked down with lemon zest, salt and pepper. Eventually, you add a healthy handful of chopped mint (our garden grows plenty of mint, so I'm always looking for new ways to use it up), and 2/3 lbs of crumbled Lincolnshire cheese. (The name of this pie comes from a specific type of cheese that's hard to find outside of the UK. But a good, mature unpasteurized milk English cheese can be found at Whole Foods or other good cheese shops).
This one I made in a big pie dish, top and bottom with another round of pastry. Along with it, I nestled a dozen shallots into rocksalt in a separate pan. They both roasted in the oven for an hour.
I never would have thought of zucchini, cheese and mint together. But oh, man. This is one of the most fantastic things I've had in a while. And a great way to use up zucchini later in the summer when you're up to your ears with the things.
The steak & ale pie was a simple beef cut, braised with stout, and mixed togehter with mushrooms and onions, topped with puff pastry. This is somewhat of a standby at our house, especially in the winter months, but it's always a good 'un, and the Critter's consistent favorite.
Once the beef is ready, I slice it up with the mushrooms and onions and remainder of the stout, let simmer a few minutes with the leftover stout, and then drop these into little heart shaped ramekins & top with pastry. Brush with egg, and bake for about 30 minutes.
All in all, this was a hell of a lot of pie. We'll be eating leftovers for a week. But oh, man. Totally worth it.