Saturday, 12 January 2013

Time for the bird

I'm not counting my chickens – the 'flu may only have gone into temporary hiding – but today was the first time this year that I felt seriously in the mood to contemplate food, never mind actually do something about it.

So what was on the menu?

Well, given that the temperature is dropping to something like actual winter levels, the first thing that occurred to me was that soup would be in order for lunch.

And since, after a fortnight of general ickiness there were various things in the fridge that needed using, a spot of leftover soup suggested itself.

Soup is a wonderfully forgiving dish when it comes to experimentation. Unless you try to be really outré, how can you go wrong?

I took a couple of rather gnarled parsnips that had been in for rather too long, peeled and chopped them, and added them to a large saucepan with butter and finely diced onion in it.

Some thinly-sliced celery – floppy and way beyond using in a salad – joined it, plus a couple of cloves of garlic and a large pear, peeled, cored and chopped, that was getting rather soft.

The thing is, I know that apple goes with parsnip – so why not pear, when I've got one that needs using? Onion and celery are obvious because they help form the base of many a dish.

I added a stock cube and some water, and let the whole thing simmer gently for some time.

Taste, taste and season/think.

It was actually not bad at all; but what would give it a real little boost? How about a glug of Worcester Sauce? Okay – not a bad idea: let’s try that.

And so I did. And after a total of around 40 minutes very gentle cooking, I carefully mashed it all down a bit, checked for seasoning, added some cream and allowed it come slowly back to a bubble again, before serving.

And I must say, while it’s never going to win any Michelin stars, it was very pleasing and comforting.

Only an hour or so later, it was time to get on with dinner. Because on days like this, what could be better than a pie? But a pie needs time and care and a bit of dedication.

For a change – well, I’d been intending to try one for a while – this was going to be a chicken and mushroom pie.

Now, I will make puff pastry by hand one day, but today was not that day. Fortunately, you can easily buy frozen puff pastry that isn’t full of crap: shortcrust pastry is a different matter.

Unfortunately, I forget to get it out of the freezer early enough – but more of that later.

I was using a Hairy Bikers’ Perfect Pies recipe for this – with adjustments.

The most obvious adjustment was that that is for 5-6 portions. But it also states chicken breasts. Now why? On all but the very best birds, breast meat is bland. Okay, it's low-fat – hence the mass love affair with it, but I’ll let you into a secret: chicken thighs are cheaper and tastier.

And it’s one of the few cuts where I actually have decent butchery skills – helped by a very good pair of kitchen scissors.

So, four thighs were skinned, boned and cut into four pieces each.

A good handful of flat leaf parsley was finely chopped and added to approximately two and a half tablespoons of plain flour.

A large banana shallot and two fat cloves of garlic were finely chopped.

Approximately 200g of button mushrooms were halved. Some dried porcini were rehydrated.

At which point I was rubbing my hands in glee at being so organised: assorted ingredients in small bowls all ready and waiting to be cooked.

Ah. Then there was the question of the stock.

Since only 150ml was needed – max – I pulled one of my small jars out of the freeze and set it in the sink in hot water. A small jar defrosts quickly.

The Hairy Bikers’ process is interesting. You start by melting 25g butter and a spoon of oil, and then gently cooking your mushrooms for just two minutes.

Once that’s done, you pop them in a bowl and toss with the flour and parsley mix.

Then it’s on to cooking the shallots and garlic, in more butter and oil, for around five minutes, until softened.

Into that, add the chicken, to which you’ve added seasoning and some chopped/dried thyme, and cook for just two minutes, before adding the flour and herb-coated mushrooms, and giving it a further minute.

Then it’s time to deglaze with some white wine – about 100ml – plus approximately the same of chicken stock; or a little more. Enough, anyway, to bring the sauce to a nice thickness.

Take the pan off the heat and add a serious glug of double cream. Stir in. Bring back to the bubble. And then decant into your pie dish and leave to cool.

Now this was the point at which I realised that I hadn’t defrosted the puff pastry.


No: not ‘dough’; ‘doh!’

The packet went into a freezer bag and then into the sink with the hottest water possible. It’s a remarkably effective method – I don’t have a microwave.

Then it was a question of putting my pie bird into the centre of the dish – its debut – and rolling out some of the pastry.

With the edge of the dish brushed in beaten egg, a strip of pastry clung easily. And it was followed by an entire disc, pressed carefully down around the pie bird, and with more beaten egg to glaze.

Then all that was left was to bake in a 200˚C (fan) oven for 40 minutes, by which time the pastry had risen in a rather lopsided but exhilarating manner.

This was my first attempt at a puff pastry-topped pie – and by god, it wasn’t bad at all.

But perhaps the most wonderful thing about the whole day has been a sense that I’m back (or almost) to being me.

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