It started with two requests: I was asked by a Sierra Club member to bring my Grandma’s Pumpkin Pie to the next meeting, which happened earlier this month. Having one beautiful blue pumpkin left in my basement, I thought it was a great idea. Then, my sweetie asked for tuna casserole, not his typical ask. I guess he was in the mood for comfort food, and anytime he asks for a fish dish, I try to oblige. And then, of course, I realized that I had stumbled upon the perfect opportunity for a pot pie. What else was I going to do with that second pie crust and the last little bag of market peas waiting in the freezer?
Now, canned tuna can be a tricky ingredient, for both human health and environmental health. Lots of bad stuff out there—unsustainable fishing practices, poor processing methods, toxic exposure to high levels of mercury and BPA-(Bisphenol A) lined cans. Well, yum. But you can choose wisely and responsibly, if you seek out the right product and make this ingredient a healthy small addition to your mostly plant-based diet. So be sure to see the end of the post from my choice pick for canned tuna: Wild Planet.
And there’s another point to make here. While Don wanted tuna casserole, you may prefer chicken or turkey or just vegetables. Go for it! (That could be my friend Sasi talking from this month’s cooking class at La Vista: courage!) This recipe is a great way to use up leftover chicken pieces, turkey pieces or ham bits. Or, just add more diced vegetables for a vegetarian version—maybe some turnips or leeks or fennel or parsnips from your spring market favorites. Be brave, right Sasi?
Finally, before we begin, you’ll note that I am including a from-scratch Béchamel sauce in this recipe. Well, of course this is a bit more work than you might expect for a humble pot pie. But classic Béchamel is worth every bit of effort. You see, when great chefs go to culinary school, they don’t learn recipes; they learn foundation and technique. White sauces such as Velouté and Béchamel are foundations for all the amazing creations they will perfect during their careers. So while the rest of us are opening our cans of cream of mushroom soup, the great chefs are making Béchamel. Time to kick that soup can.
To make my Béchamel, I used a bain marie, that’s my biggest heat-proof mixing bowl fitted over my stainless-steel Dutch oven, filled a quarter full of steadily simmering water. It is a makeshift double boiler that provides plenty of room for melting and whisking. I highly recommend this method for making such a delicate sauce. See photos below the recipe.
- One prepared pie crust, rolled to a 13 x 9 rectangle and chilled (See notes after the recipe.)
- Three tablespoons unsalted butter
- Three tablespoons all-purpose flour
- One medium shallot, finely minced (Onion will also work here, about a half-cup finely minced.)
- Two large cloves garlic, finely minced
- Two cups heavy cream
- One-half cup whole milk (You can use all milk, if you wish, which is typical for Béchamel, but why?)
- One-half teaspoon minced herb of choice (Thyme was my choice.)
- A pinch of whole black peppercorns (four or five)
- One small bay leaf
- A pinch salt (I used Himalayan Pink Salt, which is quite nice here.)
- Freshly grated nutmeg, a big pinch
- Two cups Béchamel sauce (which is exactly what you should end up with using the recipe above)
- Three to four tablespoons olive oil
- One cup diced carrots
- One cup diced celery
- One large shallot, diced (or onion)
- One cup shell peas (thaw a bit, if frozen)
- 10 ounces albacore tuna (about two cans or one and one-half cups)
- Zest and juice of one medium lemon
- Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
- Begin by heating the milk and cream together gently on the stove. No need to bring it to a boil, but make sure it is becoming hot so that it will not “surprise” your roux as you add it to your mixture in the bain marie. Once it is very warm, you can remove it from the heat and have it at the ready.
- Bring several cups of water to a steady high simmer (just shy of a rolling boil) in a large pot or Dutch oven. You want the water level just below the bottom of the bowl. Place a heavy heat-proof glass bowl on top, making sure it fits securely and won’t wobble. Take care, as steam does escape from the sides.
- Put the butter in the bowl and wait for it to melt and begin to bubble. Add the shallot and garlic with a pinch of the Himalayan salt, stirring so nothing browns because you are looking for a perfectly white sauce in the end. Cook for three or four minutes, just till softened.
- Now whisk in the flour and continue cooking until the flour has lost its raw flavor and there is a nice roux forming in the bowl, about two or three minutes more.
- Very slow, begin to add the warm milk and cream mixture, whisking as you go so that the roux smoothes out. After a few minutes—about five or six—the sauce will begin to thicken. Now add the seasonings: herbs, peppercorns, bay leaf and nutmeg with another pinch of pink salt.
- Continue to cook, whisking occasionally, for 10 to 15 minutes, until the sauce is thicker and velvety smooth.
- Finally, strain the sauce through a fine mesh sieve into your measuring cup. You need two cups for the pot pie. If you end up with a bit extra, save it for enriching a soup or as a topping with cheese for eggs and toast. Béchamel can be made ahead and will keep in a tightly covered jar in your frig for about two days, but no longer. If you are making everything on the same day, just put in the frig while you prepare the rest of the pie. It may thicken up a little more, but no worries.
- If your Béchamel has been chilling in the frig for a while, bring it out to calm down a bit.
- In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the shallot, carrot, celery and a big dash of sea salt. Sauté until the vegetables are beginning to soften and become shiny, about 15 minutes. Add the peas and continue cooking for about two minutes.
- Remove from heat and stir in the lemon zest and juice. Allow to rest.
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and generously butter a 13 x 9 casserole dish.
- Bring your pie dough out of the refrigerator and have it ready to go on the top of the pie.
- Add the Béchamel to the vegetable mixture, stirring until well combined. Pour everything into your prepared casserole dish and top with your prepared pie crust.
- Cut several slits in the crust for steam to escape—you can even attempt a little fish or two.
- Bake the casserole for 30 to 40 minutes, until the crust is nicely browned and the filling is bubbly and hot.
- Let stand for about five minutes before serving.
The prep time here is the approximate time it takes to make the Béchamel Sauce and prepare the vegetables, including assembly of kitchen equipment and dishes. Note that the time to make a pie crust is not included.
The Upper Crust
I really like a butter crust for the flakey topper on my pot pies, although a crust made with lard will work fine, if you are not vegetarian. I never use vegetable shortening—just a bit of coconut spread, but if your favorite, never-fail crust uses a vegetable shortening, by all means, use what makes you comfortable. For a great butter-based vegetarian crust, see my recipe for Asparagus Leek Quiche.
Here is the deal with Wild Planet: it’s a company that shows extreme care in its sourcing of sea food and its commitment to its customers with transparency, honesty and uncompromising product quality. It’s also a top product endorsed by Greenpeace. Nuff said.
The main issues when it comes to any canned seafood, to my way of thinking, are the following:
How was the fish harvested? Wild Planet sources tuna caught only by batch catch or pole and line— considered the very best method for sustainability by a consensus of many Non-Government Environmental Organizations (ENGOs).
Is the source sustainable? The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch® Program studies various government and academic data and makes unbiased recommendations according to a consumer-friendly ranking system: green for best choice, yellow for good and red for bad. Wild Planet follows this system sourcing most of their products from green choices, a few from yellow and NONE from red.
What about the Mercury Issue? Wild Planet sources the younger and smaller, migratory tuna that are caught near the surface because of their sustainable fishing methods. These fish (3-5 years of age) have accumulated lower levels of mercury as compared to older and larger tuna (6-12 years old), which live at much lower depths and in a different part of the Pacific Ocean. They test each year to make sure their fish is safe.
And the BPA in those cans? Well, as far as is possible, Wild Planet’s cans used for tuna have no “intentional” BPA. So what does that mean? It means even companies with the highest ethical and environmental standards cannot keep BPA out of the environment completely…or out of our bodies. That’s a hard fact to swallow, but it’s true. Wild Planet does its best, but we have so saturated our environment with toxic plastic that we are now at its mercy. What can be done? In a word: reuse. Avoid ALL disposable plastics—bags, bottles, all of it. Choose glass or wax cartons over plastic jugs. Consider products like DROPPS for your laundry. Your efforts will never be enough to eliminate plastic entirely, but it might save the oceans and your children’s health. NOT KIDDING.
For more information on Wild Planet, check out their lengthy list of FAQ’s.
Yes, once again I’m asking you to make something from scratch, spend considerable time in the kitchen and create something that most people accomplish by opening a can of soup. Trust me. Be Brave. Your beautiful Béchamel with wow your diners—they’ll wonder just what type of creamed soup you used and how they can get some. Smile.
There are four simple steps:
Sauté the aromatics—whatever you choose or just go with a plain roux
Create the roux, which is a must
Add the warm liquid, which could be stock instead of milk and any flavorings
Cook and whisk until thick and velvety.
The possibilities are endless—the foundation for future classic dishes in your kitchen!
What’s in your pot pie?