Ok, so I have been working on learning about sous vide cooking for a while now (I got my copy of Under Pressure Christmas 2008). I didn’t start the actual hands-on part until February when I took delivery of my new, shiny magic machine. In spite of the lack of available recipes for the home cook, I have soldiered on, experimenting and learning as I go. I have made chicken breast, strip steak, flank steak, lamb shanks, lamb breast, duck breast, and chicken breast again. (Do I see a trend here?) You have heard about many of these in prior posts. It has all been very instructive and rewarding, but thus far the poultry breasts, both duck and chicken, have been the most amazing. A big challenge has been figuring out what to do with stuff once you have cooked it sous vide.
Now I don’t know about you, but I adore chicken pot pie. (I’m not talking Swanson here – that’s what we were raised on. In those days, they went on sale at 10 for a dollar and you understood why: you could never find any chicken inside. I hated that junk – even though in those days I’ll bet it did not have nearly the chemicals and additives that it has today.) No frozen chemical kits for me! I’m talking about the real, honest–to-goodness, made-from-scratch kind of chicken pot pie. I decided to try a pot pie with sous vide cooked chicken breast, instead of my usual method which uses breast meat poached on the stove top. Chicken pot pie is an easy dish to master and man oh man did it come out fabulously with that chicken.
Here is what I did: I cooked the chicken breasts sous vide for the pot pie at a slightly cooler (57.5C/135.5F) temp than for other chicken breast dishes. This helped to ensure that the chicken did not get overcooked because I knew that I was going to cut the meat up and toss it back into a hot béchamel sauce to combine it with the other ingredients just before serving.
I considered the option of putting the chicken into the sauce with the vegetables after removing it from the stove, covering it with a crust and baking the crust in the oven. I think this would have worked too – especially if I put the whole pie under the broiler, instead of baking it in the oven. In either case, I knew the chicken was going to have to endure an assault of more heat and I was working on finding a methodology that didn’t significantly alter the wonderful texture and juiciness the chicken takes on in the water oven.
A béchamel sauce is fairly quick and easy, especially a lower fat one. I always keep good, rich chicken stock on hand in my freezer. I make it from stewing hens – one good old bird will make a gallon of strong stock which I divide up into pint containers. I took a pint of that stock and brought it up to a boil on the stove, then turned down the flame and reduced the stock by a good quarter. Once reduced, I turned off the heat and stirred in a cup of low fat (2%) milk, some freshly grated nutmeg, a good heavy pinch of cayenne pepper, ¼ tsp white pepper and lightly salted it to taste. In a bowl I mixed a quarter of a cup of half and half (you can use heavy cream if you want) with 1/3 cup of granulated flour. I then added in some of the seasoned broth/milk mixture, a little at a time, much like you would do if you were tempering egg yolks for custard. I continued whisking this mixture until it was nice and smooth. I strained this mixture into the broth and stirred constantly while I reheated the sauce got it to come to the desired thickness.
If for some reason you do this and your sauce is not as thick as you would like, you can add more liquefied flour in the same manner. It is best to correct the consistency of the sauce this way before you add back the solid ingredients. By the way, I have tried cornstarch and other thickeners but for pot pie I prefer flour. Of course, I really prefer to make the sauce the “right” way – first making a white roux with lots of butter and flour and then whisking in the hot reduced whole cream and stock little by little. But alas, in order to keep the very overweight person (“Big Merri”) inside of me from getting out, I have come up with this “skinny” method. It is not at all disappointing. Close enough to its more fattening counterpart the end result is a thick and velvety béchamel into which you can put all the other ingredients to produce a delicious pot pie filling.
A wonderful thing about a pot pie is that it is well suited to individuality and variation. A great variation to the plain béchamel is to add a heavy dose of your favorite curry seasoning to the sauce. If you do this, hit it with a tablespoon of sugar because the curry tends to be a little bitter. Also, you will want to first simmer the sauce with the curry a little while before you start the thickening process.
The other ingredients can be altered or added to, as well. You like celery? Just lightly sauté some and add it to the sauce. My mom used to like it with lima beans (feh!). I make mine with fresh diced waxy potatoes, pearl onions, and carrots, and thawed frozen petit peas (I use the frozen variety as fresh peas are near impossible to come by). If my family ate mushrooms, I would definitely add these in. Remember to saute these well to release water so your sauce won’t thin out too much. I pre-cook all vegetables to just slightly al dente, individually so as not to overcook any of them. (Don’t you just hate mushy vegetables?) I add these to the final mixture, just before the chicken, gently stirring just long enough to get everything up to the desired temperature. The meat always goes in last – another bit of insurance to avoid overcooking.
Here is the end result:
Now you can see I had other motivation for settling on the stove-top method of pot pie construction: I had a sheet of puff pastry on hand that I wanted to use for my crust. The beauty of doing it this way is that it eliminates some time pressure, not to mention that a puff pastry crust is effing fantastic! You can cook off the puff pastry and hold it in your warm oven while you are getting your other ingredients ready. You can even re-heat the stuff once it has been cooked. Though this is less desirable to me, it is doable. Just before serving the pot pie, take your big French knife to the cooked puff pastry to cut it into smaller pieces. You can get a fine shape and a clean edge with a swift push of the blade. Cooked puff pastry looks great and you can portion it out however you like.
No, smarty pants, I did not make the puff pastry from scratch. It may be very satisfying and therapeutic to do so, but the quality of the ready-made puff pastry, which can be bought from the gourmet grocer, is totally fabulous. Moreover, I am not a martyr! (Just make sure you are buying a puff pastry that is pure and simple – and made with real butter.) I thawed out that puff pastry dough and made my crust on a sheet pan in the oven. By placing a second sheet pan crosswise on top of the one holding the dough. This way I was able to leave plenty of space for it to cook while at the same time prevent the dough from rising unevenly.
Though I can rarely get my family to tell me what they want for dinner, they do ask for this dish from time to time. They gobbled up this version up and they were not at all unhappy that it was lacking the more traditional crust. In fact, my adorable, darling, precious, sweet, lovely teenaged step-daughter even went back for seconds – a real rarity. For a formerly finicky pastatarian (a vegetarian who only eats carbs), I took that as a great complement.