Anatomy of a Classic: Chicken Potpie
The humble chicken potpie rises to new heights
Like the best home cooking, chicken potpie comes with a big helping of nostalgia. Dating back to the earliest Colonial times, the doughy casserole’s original kitchen role was one of thrift—a way to bulk up a little bit of meat into a family meal. But today potpie’s value has moved way beyond the practical. It’s a dish many of us crave when we want to conjure up the warmth of home and hearth, and chef Ashley Christensen, owner of Poole’s Diner in Raleigh, North Carolina, is no different.
“I grew up in a family that grew, cooked, and celebrated wonderful food,” she says. “My mother is from Memphis, and she’s my favorite Southern cook. This potpie is inspired by her kind of cooking: dishes that shout out to the classics, but with clean flavors and crisp textures.”
Christensen roots her recipe in the South, using local colder-month offerings of cellared sweet potatoes and rutabagas, and tender leaves of kale. Pearl onions roasted in balsamic vinegar add a tangy lift to the rich base. “This is the best kind of Southern cooking,” she says. “It makes use of flavorful but economical chicken thighs, while allowing the fruits of the season to sing.” The result is a complex woodland taste with a touch of earthy sweetness.
But the real secret is in the crust. Adding another bit of Southern flair, the chef uses a small amount of cornmeal, which provides more texture as well as a nutty, toasty flavor with an echo of sweetness to match the filling. “Though some potpies are encased in crust, I like the ‘island’ approach, letting the gravy boil up around the pillow of crust in the middle,” Christensen says. “Crust is potpie’s defining moment. It can make or break the mission, no matter how delicious the filling.”
Chicken Thigh Potpie
4 large boneless chicken thighs (skin on), seasoned with coarse salt and ground black pepper and lightly dusted with flour
1 tbsp. unsalted butter
Flavor mix: 1 sprig thyme, 1 sprig rosemary, and 2 cloves garlic (peeled and crushed)
1 tbsp. flour
Approximately 1½ cups chicken stock (brought to simmer and kept warm)
¾ cup oyster mushrooms (torn in pieces)
1 cup kale (measure after cleaning and cutting the leaves into 1-inch tiles)
Prepared vegetables: 1 large rutabaga (peeled, diced, and roasted), 1 large sweet potato (diced and roasted), ½ cup pearl onions (drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and roast in preheated 425˚F oven until tender)
In a large cast-iron skillet over medium heat, heat canola oil (just enough to coat the surface) until almost smoking and cook thighs until brown and cooked through (adjusting heat when needed). Remove from skillet.
Let the skillet cool slightly, reduce heat, and add butter. Add flavor mix, basting until brown and aromatic. Slowly whisk in flour, whisking constantly so the mixture forms a paste without burning, about 2 minutes. Slowly whisk in warm chicken stock until mixture is smooth and glaze-like. Season with salt and pepper, and set aside.
In a sauté pan coated with canola oil over medium-high heat, sauté oyster mushrooms until slightly crisp. Season with salt and add kale, sautéing until tender. Add prepared vegetables, and season again with salt and pepper. Cut each thigh into six pieces and add to vegetables along with pan gravy. Transfer to 10-inch round baking dish and cover with crust.
Cornmeal Butter Crust
1¼ cups flour mixed with ¼ cup cornmeal and 1 tsp. coarse salt
8 tbsp. unsalted butter (diced small)
6 tbsp. ice water
Combine dry ingredients and butter (butter should maintain its size and shape), and place in freezer for 1 hour. Transfer to food processor and pulse until butter is the size of small peas. Still pulsing, drip in ice water until the mixture begins to cling together. Do not overprocess.
Remove and shape into a disc, pressing the dough to keep it together. Wrap in plastic and rest in refrigerator at least 6 hours or overnight.
Remove and roll dough to ¼-inch thickness (easier when you place the dough between two pieces of parchment paper). Cut to fit baking dish (this is not a sealed potpie; the partially prebaked crust almost covers the dish, letting the filling bubble up along the sides). Score dough, place in freezer, and chill for 1 hour.
Place on cookie sheet and bake in preheated 350˚F oven for 15–20 minutes. Check every 5 minutes, rotating each time. Once dough is crisp and slightly brown, place on potpie and continue baking until hot and bubbly, approximately 15-20 minutes. Cool slightly and serve.