DIARY: Channelling Nigel Slater, Gina Mallet and distant ancestors.
RECIPE: Chicken and leek pie.
I’ve been browsing through Nigel Slater’s original The Kitchen Diaries (2005), a posthumous gift from that other great foodie and writer Gina Mallet. It’s a whimsical book, which one can pick up and put down at will, returning again and again for ideas or just a fun read. In The Kitchen Diaries II I recently found a great recipe for chicken and leek pie, when I was researching chicken pot pie recipes, and vowed to cook it soon. Leeks abound in the grocery stores at the moment and I’m growing to like them more and more. They’re much more than just an historic symbol of Wales.
Stuffed with the excesses of Christmas feasting, this chicken and leek dish seems like an excellent light pie to compensate for all the richness we’ve imposed on our stomachs.
So here we are at the greengrocers on the day before Christmas Eve, looking at vegetables in all their variety for the days of feasting to come: the mandatory Brussels sprouts, bright red beets, brilliant orange carrots, and lots of earthy potatoes for roast and mash, and there are the leeks, just waiting for the opportunity to jump into the basket with all the rest. In the organic section I pick out a bunch, white and fresh at one end, long stems blending into tender green and finally the deeper green tough leaves that will get discarded.
Farmers get the leeks to grow white by heaping the sand or dirt around them as they grow, somewhat like asparagus, so keeping them chlorophyll free and tender. The downside is that the dirt sticks to everything and the leaves have to be washed very carefully. I do this by first cutting off most of the root, then deciding how much of the tough green leaves I will keep, usually not much. Really I chop off most of them, just keeping the area where the leaves turn from tender green to dark. Then I slice each stem right down the middle and soak it in a basin of ice cold water for a good half hour. Next, I peel back each half leaf and scrub all the dirt out diligently. Sometimes the outermost leaf will be too dirt stained to rescue and it has to be reluctantly discarded. Another good rinse in cold water and the leeks are ready for cooking.
Sometimes I julienne them, cutting the stalks into long, thin slices, but today’s recipe calls for them to be cut into little semi-circles and that’s how you will find them in my version of Nigel Slater’s chicken and leek pie. My apologies to Nigel for “improving” his recipe. In England he would be untouchable, but 3,559 miles away, I hope he won’t retaliate. Getting the table ready for the photography is another fun task, not always enjoyed by the diners who are waiting to eat the food, not look at it. Today the dining table is stripped of its usual covering of heat mats and table cloth and the flamed grain in the light mahogany of this lovely piece of furniture is revealed. Of course, I put out a cork mat for the pie dish, and placemats for the diners’ plates, but the table needs another prop that will suit the dish.
In the silver drawer I find a wonderful long-handled spoon that will do just the job, and will serve equally well for punching through the golden crust of flaky pastry and spooning out heaping helpings of succulent chicken and silky-smooth leeks. The spoon is engraved: “1st Prize for Dairy Cows, Frome, Dec 12th, 1847,” and was awarded to a farmer ancestor who held the manor in nearby Kilmington, which at the time was, like the county town of Frome, also in Somerset, but is now in Wiltshire. I don’t know much about the gentleman, except that he was my great-great grandfather, but I have been to Kilmington, a very small village, with just an 11th century church and a graveyard with literally dozens of headstones with various ancestors names. My great-grandfather moved the family to London, and although I believe he lived as a gentleman off the revenue from the estates for the rest of his life, he was no longer a country farmer. Across the lane from the family’s old Elizabethan manor house, in fact far too close for comfort on a hot summer day, is a fully functioning dairy farm, where the distant descendants of my ancestor’s prize winning herd are happily munching away. Perhaps the scent of a lot of cow pats are what drove him into town.
CHICKEN AND LEEK PIE
- cooked chicken, 900g on the bone, about 600g boned and skinned
- 3 cups of washed chopped leeks
- 3 cups (approx 650ml) hot chicken stock
- 3 bay leaves
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
- 4 tbsp (1/4 cup) butter
- 1/2 pkt frozen puff pastry (225g), defrosted but chilled
- 1/2 cup (approx 100 ml) water
- 4 tbsp fine white flour
- 1 egg
- Pre-heat the oven to 200°C/390°F.
- Roast a small chicken, or approx 900g chicken breasts, skin and bone on for 30 mins — a very good substitute is to buy a small ready roasted chicken. Allow to cool, strip off the skin and bones and discard or reserve for stock another day. Chop the pieces into bite size chunks. Set aside in a covered bowl.
- Top and tail the leeks, cut in half lengthways, separate leaves and wash very thoroughly. Grit in the pie is a no-no. Shake leaves dry and chop across the length into small semi-circles.
- In a saucepan heat up the stock and add 3 bay leaves.
- In a heavy bottomed pot, melt the butter and add the chopped leeks. Stir for a minute or two as they soften, then add the 1/2 cup of water and simmer with the lid on for about 10 mins, until the leeks are quite soft.
- Sprinkle on 3 tbsp flour and stir in to make a thick paste. If it doesn’t seem quite thick enough, add the last tsp. Stir around for two minutes until the flour is cooked
- Slowly pour in the hot stock, including the bay leaves, and continue stirring until there are no lumps. Add the chopped parsley, some salt and pepper and finally the cooked chopped chicken. Just stir enough to cover the chicken thoroughly with sauce, but not enough for the chicken to disintegrate. Cook on very low heat, uncovered, for 5 mins.
- Beat the egg in a small bowl and have ready with a pastry brush.
- Pour the mixture into your pie dish. Brush around the edge of the dish with egg to allow the pastry to stick. Roll out the pastry and place on top of the pie. Crimp it around the edges with the tines of a fork, cut three or four holes in the pie so the steam can escape, and trim the edges of excess pastry. If you’re feeling creative, you can cut some leaves out of the left over pastry and apply to the top of the pie after dipping in the egg. Brush lightly with the beaten egg.
- Set the pie dish on a baking tin (in case of spillage) in the middle of the oven and cook for 25 mins, or until golden brown on top. Serve at once, discarding the bay leaves as you come across them.
Categories: Market to Table