Who doesn’t love a great pot pie? Meat and vegetables and gravy under a blanket of pastry, these pies are American Classics. But they go back in culinary history considerably longer. In the Roman Empire, the pastry was banquet fare. Sometimes the crust revealed live birds, which must have been quite a shock to unsuspecting guests. In 16th century England meat pies became all the rage. The English ate meat pies of all sorts – pork, lamb, game and they were especially fond of using venison. And, like the Romans, English cooks loved their birds. In Elizabethan time, pot pies were made using ‘chicken peepers’: tiny chicks were stuffed with gooseberries. And then of course there’s the nursery rhyme:
Sing a song of sixpence,
A pocket full of rye.
Four and twenty blackbirds,
Baked in a pie.
When the pie was opened,
The birds began to sing;
Wasn’t that a dainty dish,
To set before the king?
Although a nursery rhyme, it’s based on historical fact. In preparation for a visit by King Henry VIII to the Hever Castle home of Anne Boleyn, ‘netters’ were sent out onto the fields with rye in their pockets and the goal of catching a mass of blackbirds. Two dozen, feathers still intact, were baked into a large pie which looked beautiful on the outside but which when cut into produced a ghastly smell.
“The birds began to sing” is British slang for ‘began to smell’ and ‘the dainty dish’ is pure sarcasm. Today, I am happy to introduce you to a Pot Pie that, once cut into, will surprise you not with a frightening flurry of wings, but with a richly satisfying filling of beef and onions and mushrooms topped with flaky pastry which you may or may not make yourself.
I found this recipe in a Bon Appetit from last March. It’s of course the perfect food for cold weather dining, warming and homey. Built around boneless short ribs, it has two other main ingredients. Onions were in the original Bon Appetit recipe. I added cremini mushrooms for taste taste and texture and they were a great addition. It’s a great make-ahead dish for a dinner party. And there was a hidden bonus I hadn’t planned on when I set out to make it. Andrew and I were in Bridgehampton for one of the interminable snows we’ve had this winter.
As I started making the pies early in the day, the weather looked fine. By 5 o’clock the snow created a virtual white-out, the winds picked up and were projected to reach gusts of 60 mph. The Governor asked everyone to stay off the roads and indoors. Our four dinner guests were not going to make it to our house that night. Was dinner a wash-out? No, because we were making individual pot pies, we simply baked two and took the rest of the filling home. Sadly, we left the pastry in the fridge. A blessing in disguise, I hauled out the filling, used store bought puff pastry and once again we feasted on our enormously comforting short rib pot pies. Here is the recipe that I adapted from Bon Appetit.
Recipe for Short Rib Pot Pie
Makes 8 servings
For the Crust:
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1/2 cup vegetable shortening or beef lard
For the filling:
3 pound boneless beef short ribs, cut into 2″ pieces
Kosher salt, freshly ground pepper
1/2 cup all-purpose flour, plus more
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 10-ounce package frozen pearl onions, thawed
4 garlic cloves, chopped
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 cups dry red wine
2 sprigs rosemary
6 sprigs thyme, plus 2 tablespoons chopped thyme
Flaky sea salt (such as Maldon)
Heavy cream (for brushing)
First, make the crust:
1. Pulse flour and salt in a food processor; add butter and shortening and pulse until mixture resembles coarse meal with a few pea-size pieces of butter remaining. Transfer flour mixture to a large bowl and drizzle with 1/2 cup ice water. Mix with a fork until dough just comes together.
2. Knead dough lightly, adding more water by the tablespoonful if needed, until no dry spots remain (dough will be slightly shaggy but moist). Form into a disk and wrap tightly in plastic. Chill until firm, at least 2 hours.
Make the filling and assemble the pies.
1. Season short ribs with kosher salt and pepper; toss with 1/2 cup flour on a rimmed baking sheet. Heat oil in a large heavy pot over medium-high heat and, working in batches, shake excess flour from ribs and cook, turning occasionally, until deeply browned, 8–10 minutes per batch. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to a large bowl.
2. Add onions to same pot and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden brown; season with kosher salt and pepper and, using a slotted spoon, transfer to a small bowl.
3. Put the mushrooms in the same pot and cook until they release some of their moisture and take on a golden color.
4. Reduce heat to medium, add garlic to pot, and cook, stirring, until softened, about 2 minutes. Add tomato paste and cook, stirring often, until slightly darkened in color, 5–8 minutes. Add wine, rosemary, and thyme sprigs, bring to a boil, and cook, scraping up browned bits, until liquid is reduced by half, 8–10 minutes. Add 6 cups water to pot and bring to a boil.
4. Return short ribs to pot; season with kosher salt and pepper. Reduce heat and simmer gently, uncovered, until short ribs are almost falling apart and liquid is thick enough to lightly coat a spoon, 2 1/2–3 hours.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
Add onions and chopped thyme to pot and stir to break up short ribs; season filling with kosher salt and pepper. Remove herb sprigs.
5. Roll out dough on a lightly floured surface to about 1/8″ thick. Transfer filling to 8 individual casseroles as I did, or to a shallow 2-quart baking dish. Place pasty over filling and trim, leaving overhang. Tuck edges under and crimp. Cut a few slits in crust. Brush with cream and sprinkle with sea salt. Place dish or dishes on a rimmed baking sheet and bake pot pie until filling is bubbling and crust is golden brown, 50–60 minutes (35–40 minutes for smaller dishes).
5. Let sit 5–10 minutes before serving.