I recently read The Supper of the Lamb by Robert Farrar Capon, and in addition to the wonderful theology within, I was struck by its paean for food intentionally, carefully, lovingly prepared. Food is life. Food is love. Food is how we nurture these beautiful bodies that carry us through the world, that give rise to our consciousness, that contain and carry our emotions, personalities, reactions, and beliefs.
Last night I made one of my favorite meals: Skillet Chicken Pot Pie with Butternut Squash. It is everything I love in a meal: warm, time-intensive (if you do it right!), comforting, delicious, intentional, and layered. It is one of the meals I make when I want to act out “I love you.”
Sometimes the sincerest “I love you” is also the ugliest. Metaphor for life?!
One of the things I love about this recipe is the time commitment. It’s a half a day of hands-on labor. First, you have to roast a chicken. A half an hour prepping the chicken (rinsing; patting dry; stuffing with sliced lemon and garlic cloves; brushing with melted butter; sprinkling with salt, pepper, onion powder, smoked paprika, and dried thyme), then roasting for an hour and a half, basting every 30 minutes. Then let it rests for an hour or so until it is cool enough to shred with your hands. Doesn’t it smell wonderful? It almost invokes nostalgia for childhoods never experienced.
The shredding itself is a study in simple concentration. Your only task is to get as much meat off the carcass as possible, and each piece of the chicken has its own distinct best practice. The wings have such little meat nestled behind bones and under thick skin. Then the breasts. The outer, thick layer of breast meat lifts off easily and is easily shred; the smaller strip of breast meat clings to the spine and requires its own effort. Then, the most delicious: the thighs and drumsticks. What rich, dark, tender meat. No one would blame you if you ate a warm piece or two while shredding. With a tiny bit of seasoned, roasted chicken skin, perhaps nothing tastes better.
Once you have stripped every last bit of meaty sustenance from the carcass, dive right into making chicken stock. Into your biggest stock pot put the chicken carcass (minus the lemon), then add celery stocks, baby carrots, half a large sweet onion (reserving the second half for later), garlic cloves, and a healthy dose of salt and pepper. Cover with 6 – 8 quarts of water, bring to a boil, and simmer for a couple hours, adding water as needed. At the end, strain the bones and vegetables out, making sure you have 3 cups of stock at the end.
Once you get the stock simmering, it’s time to prep the puff pastry. You can purchase frozen puff pastry (Pepperidge Farm makes a lovely product), but why would you purchase for $7 what you can make from scratch in 15 minutes for pennies on the dollar? Whisk together one cup of flour and 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Chop 10 tablespoons of cold butter, then scoop into the flour mixture and mix with a pastry blender (two knives work in a pinch) until you have fairly-uniform, pea-size chunks. Make a well in the center of the mixture and pour in 1/3 cup of ice water, mixing with a fork until you have a slightly lumpy, drier-than-you-think-it-should-be lump of dough. Pour onto a floured surface and form into a square.
Carefully, indeed tenderly, smooth flour over the entire surface of the dough and roll out with a rolling pin. Carefully flip the dough over, fold in thirds, and rotate dough 45 degrees. Sprinkle with more flour, and roll out again, repeating the fold-rotate-roll procedure 6 – 7 times, brushing with flour until you have a smooth block of dough that doesn’t stick to the counter but that also coheres nicely when rolled. Form into a small square, wrap in plastic wrap, and chill for an hour.
Then comes my favorite part: chopping fresh vegetables. While the recipe calls for pearl onions, I prefer the rhythm and ritual of chopping large, sweet onions. I’ll let Capon say it for me…
“Look at the cut surface: moisture. The incredible, utter wetness of onions, of course, you cannot know yet: This is only the first hinted pressing of juice. But the sea within all life has tipped its hand. You have cut open no inanimate thing, but a living tumescent being–a whole that is, as all life is, smaller, simpler than its parts; which holds, as all life does, the pieces of its being in compression. […] somehow, beneath this gorgeous paradigm of unnecessary being, lies the Act by which it exists. You have just now reduced it to its parts, shivered it into echoes, and pressed it to a memory, but you have also caught the hint that a thing is more than the sum of all the unsubstantialities that comprise it.” (The Supper of the Lamb, 14, 17)
How can you not love onions after that? Finely dice the leftover half of sweet onion. Next, slice into rounds, trim off the skin, and dice a butternut squash. You’ll only need one and a half cups for this meal, but now you have a solid 3 cups leftover for dinners this weeks (LOVE). Notice how the moisture beads on the sliced rounds as soon as the butternut squash is cut; life and sustenance fairly ooze from beings grown on the ground, harvested for our delight and nourishment.
Finally, to complete our mis en place, it’s time to chop the kale. Take 3 stalks, a sharp knife, and slice along either side of the center ribs. Chop the curly petioles into one-inch pieces until you have a pile of dark green, healthful leaves.
Heat oven to 425.
Another reason this dish is one of my favorites is that it calls for a large cast iron pan. Aren’t cast iron pans such a beautiful item of nostalgia and simplicity? Somehow I feel closer to my food when using cast iron. Heat a beautifully seasoned, shiny cast iron pan over medium heat. Add 1/4 cup olive oil and let heat until it achieves a lovely rainbow sheen. Add chopped onions and stir to coat. Enjoy the aroma of the rich oil melding with the fresh pungency of the chopped onions. Add a teaspoon of garlic powder (because you were silly and forgot you were out of garlic cloves) and a teaspoon of dried thyme (because you were extra silly and forgot to buy fresh sage). Stir for a few minutes, then add the chopped kale and a healthy grind of sea salt and two grinds of black peppercorns. Stir over medium-low heat and let wilt. I love how kale turns such a bright, dark green when sauteed, how it wilts and condenses into a distillation of its fresh self.
Add a bit of flour. Stir until the flour has coated the kale, onion, and garlic, then continue stirring or a few minutes more until the mixture smells nutty and rich. Add your homemade chicken broth in half-cupfuls, stirring to blend the flour with the liquid. Add one and a half cups of chopped butternut squash. Bring mixture to a boil then simmer for 8 minutes until butternut squash is tender and the liquid is thick. Stir in some shredded chicken, mixing and stirring carefully to make sure each chicken piece is coated with thick, rich, broth. Salt and pepper to taste. Turn off heat.
Now it’s time to frost your confection. Take the puff pastry out of the fridge. Roll out on a flour surface, then carefully lift and place over the cast iron pan. Let the edges fall over the rim, but trim any edges that are long enough to rest on the stove top. Brush with egg wash and carefully cut two slits into the top of the pot pie to vent.
Bake for 15-20 minutes in a 425 degree oven until puff pastry starts to brown, then reduce to 375 and bake for an additional 20 minutes. Remove from oven and let rest for 10 minutes.
Slice, scoop up a generous portion of the internal bits, and serve. It is a decidedly non-visually-appealing dish, but it more than makes up for that downside in savory richness. It goes well with a hearty pour of wine (red or white), if you’re feeling so inclined.
The wind is howling through our high-rise Hawaii apartment, and even though it is in the 70s, my heart and body crave the comfort of this careful, tender dish. Food, even the food we prepare only for ourselves, conveys messages of care and love. Not all love needs to be so involved, but every so often, an involved effort is called for. I hope you try this dish, for a delightful twist on a comfort classic.
What is your favorite “I love you” dish? What does food mean to you?