"TV Dinners" from Scratch

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Lisa Parsley
Sunday, November 4, 2012

Are you old enough to remember the TV dinner in the aluminum tray with the divided compartments? Yes, kids, there was a time, in the dark ages before microwaves, when we had to use an oven for frozen “convenience” food. Including preheating, dinner could be served in a matter of minutes…like 30 to 40. It taught us patience if nothing else.

Swanson was the brand my mom usually bought. Each complete dinner would consist of a main course like sliced turkey and gravy, (my favorite!) or mystery meat like Salisbury steak. (I still don’t know what protein we were eating…beef?) There would also be a nutritious vegetable (included, no doubt, so that moms didn’t have to feel guilty for not cooking dinner for their kids from scratch.) It was generally either very wrinkled peas or the dreaded mixed vegetable. (Baked lima beans, blech.) Finally, to round out the meal, the dinners also had a dessert, usually some kind of baked fruit in tasteless pastry. This was always eaten first.

The cousin to the TV dinner was the pot pie. We also went through a lot of those in my house. I remember the best part of them was the pastry—I would surgically remove the top crust and save it to eat last. Next, before eating the rest of the pot pie, I would pick out all of the peas and line them up under my plate, hidden from Mom’s eagle eye. This only worked when it was my turn to clear the table (as my siblings would generally rat me out if they were the ones loading the dishwasher).

And oh yes, like hoarder’s everywhere, we saved the “disposable” tins. One never knew when they would come in handy.

Like never. When we moved my mom into a smaller home, I bet I threw away 300 of the things.

Funny enough, I now wish I had kept some of them, because I have discovered the joy of making homemade pot pies. It started one day when I had made a huge pot of chicken and dumplings. After dinner, the dumplings were gone, and we were left with a still hearty portion of chicken soup, thick with meat and vegetables. I could have thrown in some noodles to make the ubiquitous soup, but instead I rummaged through my freezer and found a sheet of puff pastry left over from making a fruit tart. Instantly I thought of a pot pie.

To thicken the soup into a stew, I made a rue and stirred it in, then poured the mixture into an oven safe dish and covered it with the sheet of puff pastry. It baked up golden and delicious over the steaming savory stew. Since that time, I have made pot pies in single serving sizes as well as in a larger dish. Either way works great. They are not exactly “convenience foods” but are the ultimate in comfort food.

I still pull the pastry off the top and eat that last. But I no longer hide my peas.

Do you have childhood experiences of TV dinners? Do you make your own from scratch? Please share.

Roasted Chicken and Leek Pot Pie

This is my standard recipe I use to make a chicken “stew”. It seems like a lot of work, but most of it is just cooking time. You will be amazed at the depth of flavor if you take the time to roast the chicken and vegetables first. In a pinch, you can use a store rotisserie chicken and skip the roasting step.

1- 3 pound package chicken leg quarters with skin, washed and extra fat removed

2 onions, peeled and cut in quarters

5 large carrots-- 2 scrubbed and cut in half and 3 peeled and cut to ½ inch dice

6 large cloves garlic, unpeeled

3 Tbsp olive oil, divided

Salt and Pepper

4 sprigs fresh thyme, 1 sprig fresh rosemary, 1 small bunch fresh parsley, tied together in a bundle

4 quarts (approx) water

2 large russet potatoes, peeled and cut to ¾ inch dice

1 large leek, cleaned and cut in half lengthwise, then finely sliced (white and light green part only)

¾ cup frozen peas

¼ cup flour

1 sheet of frozen puff pastry, thawed.

Part 1-Chicken stock

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Lay the chicken pieces on a rimmed cookie sheet and then fit the onions, halved carrots (save the diced carrots for later) around the chicken. Set the garlic cloves on top of the chicken (so they don’t burn on the pan).

  2. Drizzle all with 2 Tbsp of the olive oil and sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Roast for 50-60 minutes, until vegetables become caramelized and chicken is very well done.

  3. Remove chicken from pan and set aside to cool. Pour off any accumulated fat and then scrape the vegetables and any brown bits stuck to the pan into a large Dutch oven. When chicken is cool enough to handle, remove the meat (don’t throw out the bones and skin!) and set aside to be added later. Once cooled to room temp, refrigerate it.

  4. Put the chicken bones and the skin into the pot with the roasted vegetables. Add the herb bundle and cover with water until everything is submerged by at least an inch.

  5. Bring the stock to a boil then reduce to a simmer, cover and simmer for at least 1 hour.

Part 2-Chicken and Leek Stew

  1. Strain the stock and discard all of the solids-- the skin, bones, herb bundle and vegetables. (I know, it seems like a waste, but trust me—all the flavor has been leeched out of them and is now in the stock.) Remove the excess fat from the stock, either with a spoon, a fat separator or chilling until the fat hardens and manually removing.

  2. In the original stockpot, heat the remaining 1 Tbsp olive oil and lightly sauté the leeks until they are tender,but not browing them, about 5-7 mins. Add the defatted stock, the diced carrots and potatoes. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer for 10-15 minutes until tender.

  3. Mix together the flour and approximately ¼ cup water in a gravy shaker until a smooth paste is formed. Bring the stock back up to a boil and then pour in the flour slurry, stirring constantly, until desired thickness. (Depending on the amount of stock, you may need to make additional flour/water mixture and add in small amounts until gravy is formed.) Cook for a minute or so, stirring constantly.

  4. Taste and adjust salt and pepper if needed. Stir in reserved chicken and frozen peas and heat until warmed through.

Part 3-Pot Pie

  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Pour the chicken stew into an oven safe casserole dish (or separate small dishes). Roll out the puff pastry sheet until it is large enough to cover the dish and then cut into 4-6 equal portions. (This is much easier than trying to cut it after it has baked.) Place the pastry pieces on top of the thick stew. There should be enough meat and vegetables that they won’t fall to the bottom, but will rest on top.

  2. Bake for 15-20 minutes until pastry is golden brown. Serve.

Last updated: 10:46 am Wednesday, August 28, 2013

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