Friday, January 11, 2013

Some Visuals: Chicken Pot Pie

I swear I didn't plan on this blog just being about food, but what can I do when my first task is to come up with a plan for how we do our grocery shopping, cooking, and eating?

Anyway, I figured I'd take a shot at taking some pictures of me making the recently-featured Chicken Pot Pie and offer some commentary. First, a look at where I'm working:

Its not much, but we can get the job done. I like to use as large a cutting board as possible, and keep my digital scale on hand for measuring as many ingredients as possible. They're closed, but the cabinet on the upper-right has my spices, and the one on the upper-left has my measuring bowls and cup, as well as my glass and stainless steel bowls. The drawer to my left is our regular flatware, and my two main tool (I'm reluctant to call them "gadgets") drawers are on my right. With spatulas, scrapers and knives all immediately available on the countertop, I usually manage pretty well.

The first thing I do is get the stove ready.

I'll be using the dutch oven on the left to make the dish, but I need the two saucepans for the chicken stock and to blanch the carrots. Each of the three items here has its own use in the kitchen. The saucepan on the lower-right was part of a large Calphalon stainless steel set that I bought from Amazon's deal of the day for a song several years ago. It's got a thick core welded to the bottom, but relatively thin sides (which can heat up and burn something delicate like a risotto). Still, for making rice or blanching vegetables, I'm happy to have it around.

The other saucepan was a wedding gift from a co-worker (ok, I'm really like 99% sure it was from his wife, but a gift is a gift, right?). It's a 3-quart model and came with its smaller 1-quart brother (not used today), and it part of Emerill's tri-clad set. I'm not usually one for celebrity-chef cookware, but this is maaaybe my favorite pan in the kitchen right now. It's really solidly built with a three-layer construction of stainless steel on the outside and inside, but a nice aluminum core that goes all the way to the end. It heats very evenly, cleans really well, has a really well-designed lip that allows for pouring (like when I need to add hot stock to a chicken pot pie), and has nice curved corners on the inside so you can scrape every last bit of whatever you're cooking out of there. Best of all, it has a really comfortable, sturdy handle. Have been using it constantly for the last two years and still looks as good as new.

And then there's the dutch oven. I asked for one a few years ago for Christmas and somehow ended up with two (long story). The other is a large, circular one by Lodge Logic, and this one is made by The Palm (or at least, trademarked by them). This one is also a bit of a head scratcher: The Palm is a series of expensive steakhouse-type restaurants originating from New York. Sharon and I have eaten at one or two of them, and I can't think of a single thing on the menu that you'd make in an enamel-coated cast iron dutch oven. Still, it works great, and the oval shape means it takes up less room at the table and works better for certain dishes (like this one).

Back to the recipe: I put the butter in the dutch oven, the frozen stock in Emerill's masterwork and the water in the Old Standby. The burners go on low, high and high. Next comes the onion.

Ok, I'll be honest: I had hoped this would be a good night to take about Mise en place. Like so many things in life, it's one of those things that makes a ton of sense once someone explains it to you, but you still need someone to explain it to you. You know how you watch TV cooking shows (yes, you do, admit it) and the host has most or all of his ingredients already prepared and in little bowls, ready to go? That's Mise en place. This is the mistake a lot of first-time-soon-to-be-former home cooks make: you see someone on TV make some recipe that looks amazing and you want to give it a go. Unfortunately, between a lack of gear in the kitchen and the fact that the recipe doesn't hit you over the head with the fact that you should prep certain things ahead of time, you don't, and you end up with a mediocre meal because you either overcook something or have to turn down the heat while you're still chopping vegetables to go into the next step. People get frustrated, and they go back to takeout and PB&J. Well, don't. Instead, get something like these:

The Cuisinart metal bowls are similar to the ones we have, and I think this is one of the glass ones we have (we also have two sets of four each of the smaller bowl sizes, but I can't find those anymore). We actually added them to our wedding registry because we were trying to pad it a bit, and I can't tell you how glad I am that we did. Lots of people will ask for all sorts of expensive gadgetry, but having a whole pile of bowls that you can use for mixing and just putting your prepared ingredients makes all the difference in the world.

Like I said: I had hoped to use this as an opportunity to show off my Mise en place skills. Unfortunately, we were running a little late today and so I had to prepare as I was cooking. Thankfully, there really aren't all that many prep steps involved here. On low heat, the butter was melted just in time for this.

Oh, that measuring spoon in the corner? That's just, uhm... mustard. Yes, mustard is one of those unsung heroes of the chicken pot pie, and...

Yeah, I didn't think you'd buy it. Yes, it's a little Better Than Bouillion. I know I said how good the homemade stock is. Unfortunately, I'm in the habit of freezing it in 2 cup increments, and the recipes calls for 5 cups of stock. So my option was to either use too much, thaw too much and then toss some out, or thaw out 4 cups and fudge my way through the 5th cup. Hopefully you'll understand my decision--chicken stock in the pressure cooker is easy; it doesn't mean I let it go to waste. Anyway, once the onions were sweating in the butter, we had time to get the carrots peeled and chopped.

Not only chopped, but photographed without any incriminating evidence in the shot! I did indeed use the Santoku on the right, since it was already dirty. Tonight I was trying to keep cleanup to a minimum, so I left the mandoline inside the cabinet. Definitely recommend it for something like this--any time you've got vegetables simmering for a long period of it, it's best to have a consistent thickness. And into the boiling water they go--let it come back to a boil, sit for two minutes and then pour the water out into the sink. Don't want to dirty your colander? Hold the lid a little off the edge and pour out the water.

Just around this time, the onions have had enough of a sweat. See?

Tonight wasn't the greatest example of kitchen preparation, but you can see that the flour is ready to go: 3.3 ounces by weight (according to these guys). Why weigh instead of measuring? Because flour is a non-crystalline substance, which means that you can get varying amounts of the stuff into a certain volume depending on the humidity and even the way in which you get the flour in the cup (scooping versus pouring). It's not as big a deal in cooking as in baking, but I still do it for one very good reason: it means I don't have to wash the measuring cup when I'm done (this can add up on a lot of recipes). Into the butter the flour goes, mixing to combine (and then some):

So what are we doing here? In part, we're making a roux: flour granules suspended in fat. By mixing it evenly and heating it up, we get all the little starch molecules primed for when we start pouring in the chicken stock. 

Unfortunately, it is quite hard to manage a camera and keep stirring while slowly adding in chicken stock, so this picture actually came about halfway through the process. You may notice that we took a liquid (butter), added more liquid (the stock) and seem to have created paste somehow. Well, actually that is what we did: this is the thickening power of a roux. Adding flour or cornstarch doesn't thicken a sauce or soup because it's dry--it thickens the soup because the starch molecules inside create a latticework within the liquid that make it less liquidy. Often times, you'll have a bit pot of water-based liquid and add to it a little roux to thicken it up. We've gone the opposite way--we took a ton of roux and are adding the liquid to it bit by bit to make sure it mixes evenly. Add a bit more...

It starts to loosen a bit. More still...

Just about edible, and...

Hey, there ya go--looks like a thick, creamy soup. Ooh, speaking of cream:

Sharon got me a set of Oxo beakers for Christmas (this is the largest one--the smallest is just a teaspoon). I love them--can you tell? In any event, in goes the cream along with a bag of frozen peas (the recipe calls for 10 ounces, but all I ever find are 14 ounce bags--just throw it all in there), the carrots, some salt and pepper,  oh and this: 

You thought I'd forgotten? No, just put it out of order. One Wegman's rotisserie chicken, meat torn apart and put in one of our handy dandy stainless steel bowls, ready to go at the moment we need it. When all is said and done...

Well, ok, not everything--there's still the crust. 

The refrigerator kind works very well--I can just take it out, unroll it and know that it's going to fit the dutch oven very well. The frozen variety often need a little extra work, and you need to be sure to take them out far enough in advance, otherwise you end up with the crust falling apart into big pieces. Press it against the sides and put it in the oven. When all is said and done...

Hmm... well that's a bit of a letdown. 

Ok, confession time: not everything goes well in the kitchen. Sometimes you make a mistake, sometimes you realize that you've forgotten something midway through a preparation, and, well... sometimes you realize the clock is running out and you've got to get dinner on the table because the kids are getting an unhealthy level of ants in their pants. Which is what we had tonight. Given that the whole thing had come to a boil before it even went into the oven (beyond the fact that the chicken was already cooked when it first went in), I thought we could sacrifice a little browning on the crust for getting dinner done at a reasonable time. 

Of course, because I was in a bit of a rush to begin with, I didn't have time to stretch out the dough to make sure that it had some room to breath between it and the filling. Thus, when the filling started to bubble, it went straight through the crust (which, admittedly, it less likely to happen with the original recipe and their thicker crust). Admittedly, it's not the greatest-looking pie out of the oven. 


Let us not forget three important facts:

First, appearances are nice, but this is a family dinner, and they're going to come second to being on time(ish), nutritious and something everyone will eat (or so I keep telling myself). 

Second, however pretty it looks right out of the oven, it's going to be a mess once we start cutting into it. 

Third, while the pot itself may be a bit of a mess, this is what it looks like in your bowl. 

So, yeah, I'm pretty happy with how it turned out. 

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