"The problem I have in describing his writing is that I can’t bear not to quote vast tracts of it. It’s just too good not to glory in." Nigella Lawson
Yes, apologies - Nigel Slater again. But his wonderful book A Cook's Book is sitting on my desk, still with three earmarked pages to do something with. This one is an essay at the beginning of a section of the book on pies, entitled Sometimes, you just want pie. And finding that quote from Nigella Lawson in a review she did for it, started me off.
I do love pies too, but I actually rarely make them. When it comes to pastry and food I probably go for tarts more than pies. Somehow, to me there is something a little wrong about a pie that contains what is basically a stew of some kind. Why would you wrap it in pastry I ask? And the bottom is often a bit soggy - although I think my current oven with its pizza setting has more or less solved that. Plus putting your pie into the oven on a preheated tray. Nigel however, thinks that the soggy bottom is sort of a must:
"The pie whose pastry is perched on the filling like a hat is the pie from hell. The two must meet and merge. The filling needs to soak into the pastry here and there. A layer of puff or shortcrust sodden with meat juices is a thoroughly splendid affair. I remain unconvinced that the pastry underneath the filling needs to be crisp as it does in a tart. Soggy means saturated and that can be a very good thing."
And here I pause. Partly because I'm really not sure what I want to say here, and partly because it shows how even the 'great' cooks change their minds. For when trawling the net for one of my chosen examples - chicken and leek pie - I came across this version - admittedly made by the creator of the blog A Gentleman's Portion but from a Nigel Slater recipe - and it did not have pastry on the bottom. There were other sites with the same recipe so, as I say, I can only assume that he has changed his attitude.
Ok - so whilst I'm on chicken and leek pie, I'll digress with his other versions, even though this was not really what I started out meaning to do. I found at least three other versions. I think the first was a Chicken, leek and bacon pie which you can watch him make on a BBC video. Fundamentally this version is pretty traditional and a tiny bit fussy about the expense and quality of the ingredients. I'm also not sure that Nigel, wonderful writer that he is, is such a great presenter. A tiny bit dull. Anyway, then he went a bit more way out and published a Chicken, leek and prune pie in The Observer. In The Cook's Book in the introduction to his latest version he ruefully says of the prune version:
"The original version of this ... had prunes in, addition that added a treacly richness to the filling. Sadly, I fear their inclusion put some people off, so I have removed them for this collection"
A tiny bit cowardly perhaps? I have included the photograph of this latest version but you can't really get the full impression because all you see is the top, scattered with fennel seeds. It's a back to basics version really, no mustard, and only a bit of thyme for extra flavour. But then as he says:
"All the pies I make today are modern interpretations of old classics. A little lighter, the filling spicier or softer in texture. But all well known. Every pie I eat now has evolved from a pie of my childhood, and if the fillings are new, they are not that new. I'm not sure anyone should get too clever with a pie."
I have made a chicken and leek pie every now and then, and it is indeed lovely but one could say that his, or indeed anybody else's Chicken with leeks might be just as good. Maybe even more so. Do you really have to take the time to debone the chicken and put it in a pastry case?
Then again if I really think about it, I do like pies. Pasties, which I make quite frequently are a favourite comfort food. Christmas is not Christmas without mince pies and champagne - well Australian bubbly more like. And, what I like about a tart is the pastry more often than not, so why not go a step further and make a pie? It's not that difficult.
Shepherd's pie, as he quite rightly points out, is also a pie, although, he declares the similar fish pie to be a "bit of a faff" , and I have recently discovered the pillow pie. from Nigel himself, and I wrote about one of those relatively recently - Make this - and whatever happened to smoked mackerel? It's a fish pie with smoked mackerel (or trout, or salmon, any kind of smoked fish really) and crème fraïche. Dead easy, dead delicious.
I think what I really wanted to do with this particular post though, was to encourage you all once again, to go out and buy A Cook's Book - if you like cookbooks that is - because this is one for the ages. The recipes are great - so far the worst I can say of any that I have tried, is that it was a tiny bit ordinary - but then what is wrong with ordinary if it tastes good. The smoked mackerel pie is far from ordinary though. The really brilliant thing about the book though is the writing. It is full of essays on this and that. Yes sometimes slightly purple passage like I guess, if you are a cynic who thinks that food is not worth writing about in a serious way, but often - well - inspiring, and like Nigella I cannot resist quoting from it now and then. So - one last quote from this chapter:
"A pie is easy to fall in love with. The golden crust, the soft and giving filling, the way the pastry and its contents converge on the plate. Few forkfuls of food are more delicious than the one that marries luscious juices with a pastry crust. I say pastry, but it could just as easily be potato mashed into buttery clouds or sliced like golden coins and arranged like tiles on a roof. And when I say potato, of course, I can also mean mashed pumpkin, a latticework of grated carrot and parsnip or the spice-speckled rice of a biryani."
And pie is perfect for a cold winter's day.