Is there anybody who doesn’t love a crispy pastry crust? It dresses up any dish. And the French do it so well. They call it en croûte, wrapped in a crust. There is boeuf en croûte, there is paté en croûte and brie en croûte. So popular is that crispy crust (on bread, pastry, or otherwise) that the verb croûter is another way to say manger, to eat.
Anything from a simple fish to a Beef Wellington can be served in a crunchy, elegant wrapper, which can be any kind of pastry or phyllo. The best thing I’ve had en croûte in France was at the home of our friends Marie-Christine and Jean-Louis. Marie-Christine fixed a lovely soup, topped with a homemade pastry crust that was piping hot from the oven, served in a classic French lion’s head soup bowl. Piercing the crust released the aromatic steam from the soup, eliciting oohs and ahs all round. Do not try this at home, unless you are French.
But I also love the more down-home American equivalent, the pot pie. Except that this simple comfort food is NOT easy to get right, do you think? After many mushy crusts and heavy fillings, I’ve finally got a technique I like (translation: easy and foolproof). It’s the perfect thing to pull together if you have some leftovers, or a surfeit of market vegetables.
I cheat with a good prepared French feuilleté, all rolled out and ready to bake, but you could use frozen puff pastry or a ready-made pie crust (or yes, even make your own). My secret is to cook everything separately first, including the crust and a brandy béchemel sauce. Then you just pop the croûte on top of your casserole for a final browning, and it stays crisp.I like to top the pastry with a sprinkle of sea salt or parmesan cheese and some black pepper. I lay my round feuilleté on a pizza pan and bake it, then when baked it’s just the right size to pop on top of my cast-iron skillet for the oven.
Make the sauce, and then fill the pie as you please (my 10”, 25cm black skillet, filled and topped, served three). I like a vegetable mix, with a base of sautéed aromatics and whatever veggies I have on hand. To that you can add leftover cooked meat of most any kind, if you like. Try salmon with leeks, or steak and potatoes, or pork and carrots with white beans, or whatever inspires you. With a dish as crusty as this, you could almost be French.
RECIPE: Anything Goes Pot Pie, or Veggies En Croûte, Southern Style
Heat oven to 400F (200C). Place (or roll out) your pie crust or pastry on a pizza pan, and make it about the size of your casserole dish or cast iron skillet. Crimp edges and cut some slits in the middle. Pierce it here and there with a fork so it won’t rise too much. Bake it until it’s a pale golden brown, 10 to 15 minutes. Especially if it’s puff pastry, check it every few minutes; you may have to deflate it with a fork a time or two. Remove from oven and set aside, leaving the oven on.
Meanwhile, make your filling: as discussed in the post, use any combo of veggies you like, plus cooked meat or seafood if you wish. I usually start by sautéing some aromatics (like onions, shallots, garlic, peppers) in olive oil in a black skillet, then throwing in some more vegetables to sauté, and/or adding steamed veggies and cooked, chopped meat or seafood afterwards. (For the pie pictured, I sautéed squash with onions and garlic, then added steamed carrots, a few cherry tomatoes, and some leftover pork).
Set your veggies aside, then make the brandy béchamel sauce (bécamel is a white sauce with a fancy French name):
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 2 Tablespoons flour
- 1 cup ( 240ml) light cream
- 1/2 cup (120ml) chicken broth or white wine
- generous splash of brandy
- 1/2 teaspoon salt black pepper
- dash of hot sauce
- grated parmesan cheese, optional
In saucepan melt butter and add flour, then stir it for about two minutes, on low heat. Heat the milk and broth to a low simmer then add it to the flour mixture, stirring; bring just to a boil and then simmer for a couple of minutes, stirring. Stir in salt and pepper, hot sauce and brandy.
Pour sauce over vegetables in skillet. Top with cooked pastry. Sprinkle pastry with sea salt or a couple of tablespoons of grated parmesan, plus black pepper. Cook just until pastry is golden brown, 5 to 10 minutes, and serve hot from the oven.
In the COMMENTS: Readers offered their own favorite (and often funny) expressions in the comments, and they are not to be missed (Colleen, loved your funny reply). These will all be discussed at our French class next week, and Dottie, yours gets my vote for the funniest, that's for sure going in my French vocabulary. Natalia's though, is a close second!
Favorite Reads: On the subject of French expressions, if you're looking for racy ones, Martin sugggests a fun book called The Complete Merde.
I've just discovered a book by one of our readers, Ella Dyer: Nice in Nice:The day-to-day musings of a middle-aged housewife living "part-time", in the South of France. Ella is a fellow southerner who lives between Nice and Atlanta. Her book will be available as an e-book soon.
Visiting France: Are you planning a summer trip to Burgundy? Nicole and Pierre have a couple of small apartments or guest rooms in the château you may want to stay in, which you can combine with language lessons if you like, or just relax and take the beautiful country walks around the château. Go to Les Saveurs du Château.
If you have a free-standing gîte (holiday rental house) in mind, our Dutch friends Jacqueline and André, who live in a spectacular renovated manoir house near us and near Cluny, have just put the finishing touches on a beautiful holiday house on their large property (they have four adorable cats, who may stop by for a visit). If nothing else you may want to just dream over their beautiful website, Maréchaud.
Photo: Jacqueline and André's newly renovated gîte.