Food is Love, Love is Food.

A blog devoted to the connection between meals, memories and the special moments in our lives.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Better Than a TV Dinner: Chicken Pot Pie

The first pot pie I ever ate was a frozen one from the supermarket, probably Swanson's or something like that.  Shortly after my father died, my mother began working at a bank in the neighborhood, and although she was nearly always home when we got home from school, she worked until 7 PM on Friday nights.  We lived in the same house as my grandparents, so this was no problem.  We arrived home to the warm greeting of my grandmother.  My sister and I were about 10 and 11 years old, and my mother had taught us how to do a basic, decent cleaning of the house.  Our home was on one level, and we had a finished basement as well, so each week, Betsy and I would take turns: one of us would dust and vacuum the upstairs, and the other would dust and vacuum the downstairs.  The upstairs was larger, and there was more to do, but the basement, as it was our domain, was inevitably messier and dirtier, so it was really a toss up as to which one would take longer.  On the week I cleaned the basement, I could have the TV on, which made the cleaning seem to go by a little faster, but on the week I cleaned the upstairs, there was time to look closely at the beautiful pieces of china and crystal my mother had, all of which she had taken such good care of over the years.

After we had done the cleaning, our 'chores' on Friday, the deal was that we were allowed to cook a TV dinner for ourselves.  My grandmother, who was right upstairs, and had cooked dinner for herself and my grandfather, was beside herself on a weekly basis.  Why didn't we just eat with them?  Why would we want these frozen meals in an aluminum pan when she had made a homemade, delicious meal of which there was plenty? More than one argument arose out of that scenario. Now, of course, the idea of eating a TV dinner is less than appealing, but at the time, it seemed very exciting.  We got to choose our own meals when we went to the grocery store with my mother during the week.  We could each have something different.  I remember my sister being partial to the Salisbury Steak, whereas I liked the Stouffer's mac and cheese, or the turkey dinner, or eventually, I discovered, the pot pie.  Chicken (or turkey)? Gravy? Pie crust?  Why had we never had this before? 

Looking back, I understand that what we really wanted was not the TV dinners so much as the independence and responsibility that came with them.  Two almost-teen-age girls allowed to be home by ourselves (okay, Gram and Grandpa were right upstairs), given the charge of cleaning the house and then allowed to 'cook' and eat dinner together on the couch, in front of the TV at the end of the week, and enjoy the feeling of satisfaction that comes from doing a (pretty good) job.  Perhaps it is why Friday evening is still my favorite time of the week; the work week is done, and nothing but the prospect of two days of freedom lies ahead.

This recipe takes a few liberties; it is by no means a classic pot pie. I also cut a few time-saving corners, using puff pastry instead of making pie crust, so if you are a purist, by all means, make the crust.  I was looking at this as a pot pie you could make after a day at work.  Not too difficult, but still a treat for a Friday night, or any night for that matter.

Chicken Pot Pie  (makes 6 individual pot pies, or you can make 1 large one in a 9x13 inch pan)

1 box (2 sheets) frozen puff pastry, thawed
The meat from a medium roasted chicken (confession: I used a rotisserie chicken from the grocery store)
3 large carrots, chopped
1 medium onion, diced
3 stalks celery, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp thyme
salt and pepper to taste
4 potatoes, peeled, and chopped into  1/2 inch cubes
1 1/2 packages Green Giant petite peas (or any frozen peas that you like)
2 tbsp butter
4 tbsp olive oil, divided
3 tbsp all purpose flour
32 oz good quality chicken stock
1 tsp chicken demi-glace, optional
1 egg, beaten

Toss the potatoes in 1 tbsp olive oil and some salt, and put them in a cast iron skillet or a baking tray covered in foil. Roast at 375 degrees for about 40 minutes, until golden brown.  While they are roasting, put the celery, onions, garlic, and carrots in an oven proof skillet with 1 tablespoon of olive oil and sautee on medium heat until transluscent, 4-5 minutes.  Pop the whole skillet into the oven for about 10 minutes, just to get a little color on the vegetables.  In the meantime, melt the butter in a large saucepan.  Add the remaining olive oil and the flour.  Turn the heat to medium, and with a wisk, mix the fat and flour, cooking them until the roux turns a deep golden brown.  Add the chicken stock gradually, wisking constantly to avoid any lumps. Add the demi-glace, if using.  Bring the mixture up to a boil while wisking.  Return to a simmer, and add the onion, celery, carrot mixture.  Add the fresh thyme and let simmer for about 20 minutes. Taste, and add salt and pepper if needed. after 20 minutes, add the peas and stir.  Bring back to temperature.

Roll out the puff pastry and cut circles as large as the bottom of the pot pie container you are using.  I used large soup bowls, so I cut 1 small circle and 1 larger one for each pot pie.  Lay the puff pastry circles on a baking sheet, and poke several fork holes in each. Brush the beaten egg on the circles that will serve as the lid of the pot pies. Bake according to the package directions until the pastry is just barely golden.

When all the components are done, beging to assemble the pot pies.  First, put the small circles of puff pastry in the bottom of each container.  Add some potatoes and some shredded chicken.  Then pour the gravy and pea mixture.  Topwith one of the larger pastry circles.  Repeat until all the ingredients are used up.  Place the pot pies on a baking sheet and return to the 350 degree oven for about 20 minutes, or until the insides are bubbly and the top pastry is a deep golden brown.  Serve immediately.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

A Birthday Cake For Mom: Orange, Almond, and Olive Oil Cake

If I learned to cook by watching my grandmother, I learned to squeeze every ounce of joy from life by watching my mother.  She truly enjoys life more than anyone I know.  This week she celebrated her birthday, and to watch her in action, you would never guess her age.  She goes to the gym almost every day, travels extensively with friends and family, attends plays, movies, concerts, and is in the stands at all the home games of the UCONN men's and women's basketball teams.  She volunteers her time for several worthy causes, she helps those in her community, and in my house, we couldn't live without her.  She runs my girls to many of their activities, attends their soccer or basketball games, picks them up after school from time to time, runs errands for us, stays home with the girls when they are sick.  She is like a third parent in so many ways.  She has taken her lead from her own mother, my grandmother, in terms of being intimately involved in the day to day aspects of our lives.  She lives with a vibrancy and joy that I admire greatly, and she passes it on to everyone around her.

My mother's life has not been easy; she was very sick as a child, in and out of convalescent homes until she was about 9 years old.  She survived a sickness that one of her friends did not.  She married my father, gave birth to my sister and to me, and after just 16 years of marriage, lost my father to a sudden heart attack.  She was faced with the task of raising two daughters on her own.  Like everything else she does in life, she faced her new role with grace and joy.  She did not feel sorry for herself, nor did she ever allow us to feel sorry for ourselves.  The message was clear:  life would go on, and we would be happy. My father would have wanted nothing less. Even as a kid, I marveled at her strength, and as I got older and became a wife and a mother of two girls myself, I was more and more in awe of this amazing woman.

One of the best decisions she made was to return to college, earning her Bachelor's degree while working and raising us.  She had lots of help; she knew the benefits of surrounding us with our extended family.  My grandmother and grandfather, who lived just upstairs from us, and my Nana, were always there to support us, as were our aunts, uncles and cousins who lived so close by (several on the same street!). When Mom finished school, she worked hard to put my sister and me through college, and she always managed to find time for fun.  She continued to travel, and spend time with her friends and family.  She was active in our church, starting a food pantry for families in need, volunteering her time and energy wherever she saw a need.  She continues to be willing to try just about anything, which is one of the secrets to staying youthful.

I have not often written about my mother, and the reason is this:  it is hard to find words to fully express the depth of love, respect, and gratitude I feel for this woman.  She is my mentor, my sounding board, and my friend, and I cannot find words adequate to express all she means to me, to Michael, and to my girls.

Though my mother claims not to be a good cook, the truth is that she just doesn't enjoy it.  She loves having people over, and is the very best at organizing and presenting a heck of a dinner party.  For her birthday this week, Michael and I had a dinner party in her honor.  We had several of her dear friends, and my Aunt Judy and Uncle Bobby.  Auntie Judy, my father's younger sister, has the same birthday as my mother, so it turned out to be quite a party. While my house is not nearly as immaculate and organized as my mother's, the food and especially the company were quite fabulous. I wanted to bake a cake as unique as my mom, and I stumbled across this recipe I had cut out some time ago from a newspaper.  I made a few changes, added some whipped cream, and it was delicious.  A great ending to a wonderful celebration!

Orange, Almond, and Olive Oil Cake
1/4 cup sliced almonds
6 ounces blanched almonds
1 cup flour
1 tbsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
4 large eggs at room temperature
1 1/2 cups sugar
Zest of 1 large orange
Juice of 1 large orange (about 1/2 cup)
1/2 cup fruity extra virgin olive oil

Heat the oven to 350 degrees.  Grease the bottom and sides of a 9-inch spring form pan, and spread the sliced almonds in the bottom.  Finely grind the blanched almonds in the food processor until they look like bread crumbs.  Beat the eggs in the bowl of a stand mixer until frothy.  Add the sugar slowly, and beat the mixture until it is lemon colored. Add the ground almonds, baking powder, and salt.  Mix quickly, and then add the flour in slowly.  Add the orange juice, the orange zest, and the olive oil, and mix just until combined.  Pour batter into the prepared baking pan.  Bake until a skewer inserted into the center comes out clean, about 50-60 minutes.  Serve with whipped cream.