When I was a kid growing up in northern Vermont, the French-Canadian ancestry of many family and friends was on full display during the Christmas season. Traditional foods graced tables, friends and neighbors shared meals, and every home had wonderful smells coming from the kitchen.
At my great-grandmother’s house, where French (at least a local dialect of it) was often spoken when Mim’s friends visited, you could always count on a tourtiere (or two or three) somewhere on the table or countertop. These are French-Canadian meat pies. They were often quite spicy, with cloves and nutmeg and other flavors rising to the fore. I wasn’t a big fan, to tell the truth. Mincemeat pies were others I shunned, considering them the pie version of over-the-top fruitcake.
Once I began traveling, though, I discovered that people everywhere – from New Zealand to South Africa to northern Europe and Great Britain- like to stuff and bake meat in pastry. “Try the pasties,” someone urged me in England many years ago. Previously, I had only heard of pasties as those tiny stick-on coverups that burlesque dancers and some strippers used to shield from view a small body part that, for some crazy reason, many people and the law took issue with.
I came to realize that pasties came in all shapes, sizes and flavors. They could be full meat pies, small individual servings like pot pies, or fashioned into interesting shapes with the pastry edges crimped shut and then roasted on parchment paper, like empanadas. Empanadas, tourtiere, pasties – they’re all related. Variations in technique and flavor give them their regional identification and significance.
You can stuff any kind of meat, including organs (ever hear of steak and kidney pie?) into a pastry. We use ground venison. I must have potatoes mixed in mine because – well, I just do. Maria, in a curious, culinary taste-competes-with-health contradiction usually insists on frying the ground venison and finely chopped onions and peppers in a tablespoon of pork fat while simultaneously adding turmeric for its purported beneficial properties. It’s like getting a diet coke with that Big Mac. And, because she’s from Louisiana, there must be something Cajun in my mostly French-Canadian meat pie. So, a little something like Poche Bridge Cajun Seasoning goes in. No cloves or nutmeg...thank you.
All I know is that this basic recipe here gives you something to work with. Give it a try and then tweak those pasties until you get a mouthful of something you’ll really enjoy.
½ pound ground venison
2 small russet potatoes, cooked and roughly mashed (OK to leave skin on – just cut out any bad spots)
1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil or bacon grease
¼ cup finely chopped onion
1 clove minced garlic
¼ cup finely chopped bell peppers (any color)
2 large mushrooms – any variety, chopped
1 teaspoon stock beef concentrate - like Better than Bouillon (or about ½ cup beef broth)
Dash to ½ teaspoon Cajun seasoning
Dash to ½ teaspoon turmeric (optional)
Dash to ½ teaspoon herbs de Provence
Dash to ½ teaspoon dry mustard
Dash to ½ spoon lemon pepper
Dash to ½ teaspoon Goya Adobo seasoning
Dash cayenne pepper (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste
Puff Pastry/Pie crust (homemade or frozen –Pepperidge Farm puff pastry works well)
Additional broth, seasonings and butter as desired
2 tablespoons melted butter
½ teaspoon garlic powder
Preheat oven to 375.
In a large skillet, in olive oil or pork fat/lard over medium heat, cook the venison, onion and pepper. Add a couple ounces of water or stock to help break up the meat. Cook until the meat browns and the vegetables soften. Add the mushrooms and garlic and cook another couple minutes. Add the concentrate and a splash of water (or broth) and a dash of the seasonings and cook a few minutes more. Stir in potatoes. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed. Add more broth or water if the mixture is too stiff. The potatoes absorb a lot of moisture and seasonings. Mixing in a tablespoon of butter helps round out flavors. It needs to be a nice “smushy” consistency.
Roll the pastry dough out fairly thin. Cut into large squares or circles –make the size and shape of the pies whatever you like. If making rectangles or triangles, place a couple tablespoons of meat mixture onto each square and fold pastry over. If making circles, cut the top piece a little larger than the bottom one. Place the filling on the bottom piece and place the larger circle over the filling. Press edges together to seal and then fold over and crimp. Brush the pastry with melted butter with garlic powder. Pierce each pie a couple times to vent. If you feel creative, cut some pastry decorations to top your pies or carve an interesting design into the piercing.
Bake at 375 degrees for about 15 minutes or until crust is golden brown. Let the pies cool for a couple minutes before serving. The insides will be very hot.
Serves 2 to 4 people. Pairs well with a crisp green salad and a medium body, dry, red wine. The degree of spiciness in your finished product should inform your wine selection.
As you’re cooking, taste, taste, taste. Adjust seasonings to whatever suits your taste. Next time we make it, I’m tossing in some additional northern pizzazz and sweetness to the blend with a cooked, finely minced carrot. I may even add peas – or would that be too crazy?