- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Receive an invitation to come over for pie during the wintertime, and you may be tucking into a hearty, savory entree, not a sweet, fruit-filled one.

Indigenous to Northern Europe, dinner pies have been a popular meal since at least the 14th century. They’re a long-standing hit in my household, too, and no wonder. To make this easy dish, I simply plunk meat and vegetables — or meat or vegetables — into a pie shell or pan, cover them with sauce and seasonings, and top the concoction with a layer of dough, pastry or mashed potatoes and then slide it into the oven. In less than an hour, dinner is served.

The pie supposedly earned its name from its range of diverse ingredients. The late British historian Alan Davidson and others have suggested that “pie” came from “magpie.” Just as the magpie collects various knickknacks to stuff into its nest, cooks gather a wide assortment of meats, vegetables, fruits, herbs and sauces to load into their crusts.

A wealth of fillings has resulted in a multitude of savory offerings. The British, long reviled for their cuisine, nonetheless boast a long list of delicious, albeit sometimes quirky, pies. British cookbooks fill countless pages with recipes for goose pie, eel pie, game pie, steak-and-kidney pie, ham-and-egg pie, mussel pie, pork pie with anchovy paste, and fish pie packed with cod, flounder, whiting or perch.

Of all Great Britain’s pies, the one featuring game intrigues me most. In medieval times, what went into a game pie was anyone’s guess. In “The Taste of Britain” (Harper Press), food historians Laura Mason and Catherine Brown note that cooks used “rabbits, geese and garbage, not befitting and sometimes stinking” in their game pies. By the 18th century, the contents could consist of anything from venison, wild duck, turkey and goose to rabbit, blackbird, partridge and pigeon - or some combination thereof.

Although game seems like an exotic and filling choice for a frigid winter’s night, shepherd’s pie is a simpler and, quite frankly, safer option for my family. Originating in northern England and Scotland, where sheep and shepherds reigned supreme, this classic British entree was born out of the need, as most of these pies were, to use leftovers.

Shepherd’s pie contains scant few ingredients. Cooked minced or ground mutton or lamb is mixed with gravy and vegetables, spooned into a pan and topped with mashed potatoes. Baked until golden-brown on top, it tastes best if served piping hot. If you don’t have lamb on hand, you can substitute minced or ground beef. You’ll then have another quintessential English course, cottage pie (although most cooks today call this dish “shepherd’s pie,” too).

Nicky Perry says people “went mental” when she tried to take shepherd’s pie off the summer menu of her Tea and Sympathy restaurant and shop in New York’s Greenwich Village. Miss Perry says the key to a good shepherd’s pie rests in the potatoes and cheese layered on top: “Don’t make really sloppy mashed potatoes. They’ll go all liquid in the oven. Sprinkle grated cheese - English cheddar or something that’s quite sharp - on top.”

Another uniquely British pie to wash up on American shores is the pasty. Half-moon in shape, the pasty resembles a hearty, durable turnover, and like the turnover, it can be eaten with one hand. This aspect was particularly convenient for medieval field hands, miners, schoolchildren or anyone lacking a spare plate or cutlery.

The most famous of the genre, the Cornish pasty, fed Cornwall’s tin miners throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Made from a short-crust pastry, the original Cornish pasties contained chopped meat, sliced potatoes, onions, salt, pepper and occasionally rutabaga or turnips.

Some Cornish pasties featured sweet and savory fillings: meat-and-potato mixture at one end, an apple filling at the other - lunch and dessert in one handful.

Cornwall’s miners who settled in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula brought their specialty with them. Centuries later, the area is renowned for its pasties, hosts the summertime Calumet Pasty Fest and has a surprising number of pasty restaurants.

In Traverse City, Mich., Jerilyn and Nick DeBoer serve eight types of pasties at their 30-year-old British-themed Cousin Jenny’s Cornish Pasties. “What people love about them is that they can pick them up and eat them on the road,” says Mrs. DeBoer, whose pasty repertoire includes “the Cornish” (filled with cubed sirloin, potatoes, rutabaga and suet) and “the Bacon Bobby” (which holds bacon, eggs, hash browns, cheddar cheese and onions beneath its crust).

To make good, juicy pasties, Mrs. DeBoer advises baking them fresh or partially baking and freezing them to cook later.

When I don’t have time to make dough, lack leftover mashed potatoes and have run out of frozen pie crusts, I turn to the potpie. Although it customarily consists of top and bottom crusts, my version frequently goes bottomless. Instead of dough, I use drop biscuits or store-bought puff pastry to blanket the pie pan’s contents. Toss some poached, cubed chicken together with carrots, peas, onions and gravy, cover them with biscuits or pastry and pop it in the oven. In the end, I have a complete, filling dinner in one dish - my kind of cooking.

Cottage pie

To turn this into a shepherd’s pie, replace the beef with ground lamb. Makes 4 to 6 servings.


2 tablespoons olive oil

1 white onion, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 pound extra-lean ground beef

1 1/2 teaspoons dried parsley

3/4 teaspoon dried oregano

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

3/4 cup beef stock

1/2 cup beer

1 tablespoon flour


2 pounds potatoes, peeled and quartered

3 tablespoons butter, softened

1 cup milk, at room temperature

Salt, to taste

3 tablespoons grated white cheddar or Parmesan cheese

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter the sides and bottom of a 9-inch pie pan or 8-inch-square baking dish.

In a large frying pan, heat the oil on medium. Add the onion and garlic, and saute until soft. Add the meat and cook until browned. Drain the fat from the mixture and then add the parsley, oregano, salt, pepper, stock and beer.

Cook for 5 to 10 minutes, until liquid has been reduced. Pour the liquid into a small saucepan. While on medium heat, whisk the flour into the liquid. Allow the sauce to simmer for 3 to 5 minutes and then pour it over the meat mixture, stirring to combine.

In a stockpot boil the potatoes until tender. Using a potato ricer or masher, rice/mash the potatoes and then add the milk, butter and salt, adding more salt as needed.

Evenly spread the meat over the bottom of the pie pan or baker. Top the meat with the mashed potatoes and sprinkle the cheese over the potatoes. Bake for 35 to 45 minutes, until the potatoes have browned slightly. Serve immediately.

Chicken and mushroom puff pie

Makes 6 servings.

1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts

2 cups, plus 1/4 cup, chicken stock

3/4 cup low-fat milk

3 tablespoons flour

2 tablespoons butter

2 medium carrots, peeled and chopped

1/2 cup pearl onions, peeled and halved

8 ounces cremini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

1 sheet puff pastry

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

If using frozen puff pastry, unfold and defrost one sheet of pastry.

In a large saucepan or Dutch oven, poach the chicken in 2 cups of stock. Strain the poaching liquid. Add the milk, extra 1/4 cup stock and flour. Whisk together and then set aside. Allow the chicken to cool before cutting it into small cubes or pieces.

In a large frying pan or Dutch oven, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the carrots, onions and mushrooms and cook until softened. Pour in the liquid and the cubed chicken and stir the ingredients together. Add the nutmeg, salt and pepper, stir and allow the filling to cook for 5 to 10 minutes.

Place the puff pastry on a cutting board. Using a pie pan as your guide, trim the pastry so that it fits over the pan. Once the pastry is trimmed, butter the bottom and sides of pan.

Spoon the heated chicken and mushroom filling into the pan. Lay the pastry over the top of the filling. Bake at 350 degrees for roughly 20 minutes or until the pastry has puffed up and turned a golden-brown. Serve immediately.

Potato pasties

Makes 6 servings.

For dough:

14 ounces all-purpose flour, sifted

1/4 teaspoon salt

7 ounces unsalted butter

1/4 cup chilled water

For the filling:

1 medium onion, chopped

1 small parsnip, diced

1 large Idaho potato, peeled, sliced and then quartered

1 1/2 cups sharp cheddar cheese, shredded

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1 egg, beaten

In a large mixing bowl, add the salt to the flour. Using a pastry cutter or food processor, cut the butter into the flour so that the resultant mixture is very crumbly. Slowly add the chilled water, mixing the ingredients together until combined. Remove the dough from the bowl and place it on a lightly floured work surface. Knead it a few times until dough is soft and pliable. Form into a ball, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Grease a large baking sheet.

In a large bowl, mix together the chopped onion, parsnip, sliced potato, cheddar cheese, salt and pepper.

Place the chilled dough on a lightly floured work surface and roll out to about 1/4 inch thick. Cut out 6 6-inch rounds. (If you don’t have an actual 6-inch cutter, use a small bowl, plate or saucer with a 6-inch circumference as your guide and cut around it with a sharp knife.)

Spoon the potato-onion-parsnip-cheddar filling onto one half of the round. Fold the dough over so that you have a half-circle and crimp the edges together. Paint the top of the pasty with the beaten egg and make a small cut on top to vent the filling. Place on the greased baking sheet and repeat for the remaining dough rounds.

Bake for 20 minutes at 400 degrees. Reduce the temperature to 350 degrees and bake for an additional 40 minutes. Serve warm.

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