DIARY: Memories of comfort food served in splendour at The Fairmont Empress Hotel in Victoria, BC.
RECIPE: David Hammonds’ chicken pot pie.
We’re sitting beside the fire in our cosy little den, looking through the photo albums we so assiduously print up, and come across the memories of our trip to Vancouver Island a couple of years ago. They’re lovely memories, including our last night on the island, when we stay at the venerable Fairmont Empress Hotel in Victoria. It’s where I always stay on the island, and so too apparently does Diane, but I won’t repeat any of those stories. As it’s just snowed outside here in Toronto, my thoughts for dinner turn to comfort food, but it will have to be something I can make with what’s in the house.
As I rake through the offerings in the fridge my mind wanders back to Victoria, and one previous trip, cold and wintry, or cold and springy I forget, when it rained the whole time I was there. It would have been a video shoot or a photo shoot, and I think the former because I recall a long day behind the camera getting dull middle managers, representing some corporate entity, to deliver their mundane thoughts as if they were the Holy Grail. Back at the hotel, somewhat damp, all I wanted was some Scotch from the mini-bar, a really long hot bath and then comfort food. The bath was great. I was lucky enough to have one of the old rooms, pre-renovations, that had a full size tub one could fill right up to the brim with hot, hot water and soak away full length, instead of having one’s knees bent around the ears.
When I’d drunk all the Scotch in the mini bar (alright, already, there were only two little bottles and the rest were Canadian whisky or bourbon, where I draw the line) there was no alternative but to get dressed and head for dinner in the dining room, known as The Empress Room. It’s a glorious room, with richly tapestried walls and a carved wooden ceiling, and most important of all, a dress code. In those days, gentlemen wore jackets and ties and minded their manners. I hope they still keep out scruffy tourists in torn jeans and baseball caps. Alone with a book and my own company, a Gentleman’s Portion of good Scotch brought by an attentive waiter along with the large leather bound menu, I checked out the substantial offerings. And there it was, the perfect answer to my woes: chicken pot pie. When it came, it was perfect. Crusty golden pastry on top, luscious creamy sauce, generous chunks of chicken, carrots and peas inside. When I plunged my spoon through the crust, the heavenly scent of chicken arose. I helped myself to a generous portion and tucked in. It was a big pie, and I believe I finished the whole thing off.
So here I am, many years later, finding all the ingredients I need, simple as they are: some frozen chicken; a packet of frozen puff pastry, which I always keep for emergencies such as this; frozen peas, a good year-round standby, as fresh ones are so rare out of season; fresh carrots from the market, green tops still on, another mandatory occupant of the veggie drawer; celery sticks, good for a salad any day. In the wine cooler, just enough white wine for the sauce in the end of a bottle of much too good Chablis – les vénérable vielles vignes – a typical unoaked Chardonnay and perfect for the job.
Instead of the individual pot I’d enjoyed all those years ago at The Empress, I had enough for a large casserole and even though there would only be three for a family dinner, the teenage boy eats enough for two, and we’ll still have left overs. Checking the Internet for a decision on ingredients – onions, or no onions – I come across a recipe for chicken pot pie attributed to former Empress Executive Chef David Hammonds. I like this version, except I leave out the potatoes, there being none in the veggie drawer. David would have been the chef at the hotel when I stayed on that miserable rainy night in the late 1990s and I’m only sorry that I did not have a chance to meet a fellow Brit and thank him for a life saving meal. Of course he was in charge of 65 cooks in five kitchens at the time, so I doubt his hands touched my plate, but I like to think that he was there making sure every pie was perfect as it left his domain. At the turn of the century, he decamped to the Fairmont in Dubai, where I doubt there was much call for comfort food in the desert heat, and now apparently he is back in Victoria, plying his trade at the opulent Union Club. I hope they have chicken pot pie on the menu. Perhaps I’ll pop in and have a taste.
When my substantial pie comes to the table to share, all agree it has worked out wonderfully. Spooning through the golden crust into the delectable filling below makes me realize why cooking is such fun. Something I haven’t tried for a long time is giving everyone pleasure and making the whole process worthwhile. It’s why we labour at the sink preparing veggies, over the stove tenderly stirring a sauce, sweating in the face of a hot oven or weathering hot fat splatters from the frying pan. Food must be made with love and enthusiasm, with excellent ingredients, and prepared for people we know, family and friends, the occasional disasters laughed over. I agree with that wonderful food writer Nigel Slater, who says “an individual pie says ‘mine,’ whereas a big pie says ‘ours.’”
So with thanks to the other Nigel, whose chicken, leek and parsley pie I will try soon, and David, nearly four and half thousand miles away across the vastness of Canada, who kept me going on a cold rainy night, here is my own big pie recipe to share.
CHICKEN POT PIE
Prep time: 45 mins
- 2 cups (500 mL) chicken stock
- 1 cup (250 mL) dry white wine
- 2 cups (500 mL) well chopped carrots
- 2 stalks celery, finely chopped
- 1 bay leaf
- pinch salt and pepper
- 1 lb (454 g) boneless, skinless chicken, cubed
- 1/3 cup (75 mL) unsalted butter
- 1/3 cup (75 mL) fine white sauce flour, or all-purpose flour
- 1/3 cup (75 mL) whipping cream
- 1 cup (250 mL) frozen peas, defrosted
- 1 pkg frozen puff pastry, thawed but chilled
- 1 egg, beaten
- In a large, heavy bottomed saucepan, bring the chicken stock, wine, chopped carrots and celery to the boil. Add a bay leaf, and a pinch of salt and pepper. Reduce heat to a simmer, cover, and cook for 10 mins.
- Add the chopped chicken and simmer uncovered for a further 10 mins.
- Strain the stock into a bowl and put the dry chicken mixture in the dish you are going to use for the pie, which should have an 8 cup (2 L) capacity and be fairly deep. Measure out 2 1/2 cups (625 ml) of the new stock and add more chicken stock or water if there is not enough.
- Back in the saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. Whisk in the flour and cook, whisking constantly, for about 2 mins, then add the hot stock and whisk until smooth. Bring to a boil, reduce, then cook for about 5 mins until the sauce thickens. Lastly, stir in the cream and cook for a final 2 mins.
- Tip the sauce over the chicken filling in the dish and stir to coat well. Add the peas (making sure they are thawed) and mix in gently. Try not to break up the pieces of chicken.
- Moisten the edges of the dish with water, roll the thawed puff pastry onto the top of the pie and crimp round the edges. Brush with the beaten egg and make 4 slits for the steam to escape.
- Bake in a 400°F/200°C oven until golden brown on top, puffed up and the filling is bubbling, about 30 mins.
Categories: Market to Table