What is it about winter that we all think of chicken pot pie? Perhaps not all of us, but certainly this fan of these chicken-loaded, pea- and carrot-sprinkled, flaky crust mini pies. This is the season to pop one in the oven and let the wonderful aroma fill your kitchen with cozy and happy. And for those of us tolerating the bitter cold, there’s no more fulfilling way to ward off the January and February blahs.
But here’s the thing: Not all chicken pot pies are created equal. And if you believe this post from Delish.com, you may never eat one again. While their take is a bit harsh, I agree with them on point #8 – the frozen versions are a nightmare.
I might be a purist, but how can anyone sell a chicken pot pie that has no more than an ounce of chicken? Yes, one ounce. I actually pulled the pieces out of a Jewel brand fresh pot pie recently and weighed them. Buried in the gobs of gravy-flavored goop was a smattering of peas and a few carrot discs.
In fairness, Jewel is just fine for many things, but their version of a chicken pot pie should be called no-chicken pot pie.
This fiasco started me on my quest to find store-bought pot pies that actually contain chicken. My research took me to Plum Market, Mariano’s, Treasure Island and Whole Foods. After consecutive nights of testing, I discovered big and subtle differences among the contestants.
Before I reveal my results however, let’s look at the history of the chicken pot pie. Like other comfort foods such as meatloaf, chicken pot pie typically conjures up memories of cold nights warmed by family gatherings. Yet if you lived under the Roman empire you might not have this same memory, since live birds were often hidden under the crust only to fly out and surprise dinner guests. England in the 16th century saw a pot pie resurgence (even though the crusts were not eaten), and soon the concept crossed the Atlantic into the New World, bringing versions with chicken, beef, pork and veal.
My first Chicago chicken pot pie memory began in Marshall Field’s Walnut Room. Mrs. Hering’s 1890 recipe was delicious, and while I’ve not tried it recently, I suspect the recipe is much the same with a tweak here or there. For many years, my friend Judy and I would line up ramekins, roll out dough and create this classic recipe at home. It would be an all-afternoon affair, perfect for a cold snowy Sunday.
Try your hand at Mrs. Hering’s recipe, and see how this sales associate’s simple chicken pot pie recipe became the store’s most popular item for over a century.
And now the results of my chicken pot pie research:
Whole Foods: This version ($7.99) was wholly tasteless, despite the abundance of chicken and vegetables. Upon first bite I was rather excited, but then after a second and third bite, I realized the pie was bland. It needed salt and much more. The crust had an unusual sweetness to it and was neither flaky nor buttery. While generous with peas, potatoes, corn and chicken, it lacked essential flavor. If Whole Foods would add some seasonings and work on that crust, they just might have a front-runner.
Mariano’s: I wanted this entry to be the best since the price is great for an 18-ounce pie ($5.99). While I cannot declare it so, it was tasty, despite an odd texture. This, I believe, was due to the pie having been previously frozen. After being fully reheated, it was mushy. There were ample amounts of chicken, but the pieces were so small it was hard to distinguish them from the peas, carrots and celery. The crust, on the other hand, was excellent – buttery, slightly chewy and golden brown.
Plum Market: Like most stores, Plum Market sells both fresh ones made in their kitchens ($8.99) as well as pre-made frozen options.
As for their fresh version, which Plum Market describes as “all natural” – whoa!
At that hefty price it should not only taste good, but also look good. After a few bites, I couldn’t eat it any longer. It was exceptionally spicy (too much cayenne pepper, herbs and other spices), very mushy, and an unappetizing greenish color. And while I can appreciate the lengthy list of organic and natural ingredients and a decent amount of chicken, Plum Market’s attempt to deliver a chicken pot pie extraordinaire missed the mark.
And the winner is:
Treasure Island: Fully cooked and available in the deli case ($6.98), this chicken pot pie is the winner. It actually tasted like the chicken pot pies I remember, like Mrs. Hering’s. Reasonably priced, it’s very good, especially compared to the others. Chock full of chicken as well as a good dose of corn, peas, carrots and a few green beans, it’s a nice balance of stuff and gravy. Thankfully the gravy doesn’t overwhelm the vegetables and chicken. The crust, while slightly dense, was yummy when baked to a golden brown.
For those of us who like to play in the kitchen, this recipe from Two Peas and Their Pod is an ideal way to utilize leftover roast turkey or chicken. Or you can start with a rotisserie chicken available at most grocery stores. I like this version as it includes fresh herbs like thyme and parsley as well as the predictable ingredients – peas and carrots. And it keeps carbs at a minimum by leaving out the potatoes that most pot pie recipes include.
Let us know where you go to enjoy your chicken pot pies. Lots of restaurants like Lady Gregory in Old Town or Café Selmarie in Lincoln Square feature them this time of year. Or if you have a favorite recipe, do tell. No matter whether you buy a pot pie, order one in a restaurant or make your own, take the edge off the winter freeze with this classic comfort food. Just be sure it has plenty of chicken.
Photos by Cynthia Kallile unless otherwise noted.