Family traditions make December and Christmas a special time of year. For me, these involve the pilgrimage to get the perfect tree, witnessing my wife turn our mantel into a winter wonderland with her beloved trinkets, and caringly packing goodie-filled parcels to send to distant loved ones.
I also look forward to making tourtière to enjoy on Christmas Eve. That tradition came from my late Montreal-born French-Canadian mother, or "Mud-der," as we adoringly called her because of her rich accent.
I, too, was born in Quebec, but my father's military career transported our family out of the province shortly after my birth. While I was growing up, we lived in all three Prairie provinces and northwestern Ontario.
My mom did what she could to keep her culture alive in these far-from-home places, which is how I learned about, and began to relish eating, tourtière. In Quebec, she told me, this savoury meat pie is traditionally eaten at rÃ©veillon, a Christmas Eve feast enjoyed after midnight mass.
It was also enjoyed at other special occasions and could be found on the tables of both rich and poor. Mud-der, being number 17 of 19 children (that's not a typo), was definitely in the latter category.
Unlike tender roasts and plump turkeys, tourtière was accessible to most folk because of the modest ingredients used to make it - pastry and a humble filling made with ground or cubed meat, depending on the part of Quebec you were from. Nicely seasoned and served up with cheer, it could bring a smile to one's face on the coldest night of the year.
According to Bill Cassel-man's fascinating book, Canadian Food Words, tour-tière took its name from the utensil in which it was baked. He says the original tourtière, in French print by 1573, was a pie pan for tourtes. In old French cookery, he says, a tourte was a round pastry pie filled with meat or vegetable, or fruit and cream.
In Quebec, the savoury tourtière took hold, with pork the preferred ground meat. However, these days, in some recipes, other types of ground meat are combined with the pork.
How many, or how few flavourings are combined with the meat can vary greatly from family recipe to recipe. Onion, potatoes, spices such as cinnamon, clove and black pepper, and herbs such as savoury, thyme and sage are ingredients I've seen listed in recipes.
In a past column and in two cookbooks, I've published a recipe called Eric's tourtière, the one that I make every year for my family that contains wonderfully spiced ground pork, veal and beef. So, to offer you another version, I decided to come up with a tourtière that contained some flavourings popular in the place tourtière took its name from: France.
In today's recipe for pork and veal tourtière, that meant deliciously flavouring the meat with such things as green peppercorns, shallots, Dijon mustard and herbes de Provence, a French-style blend of herbs.
I make the filling for tourtière the day before making the pie. Sitting in the refrigerator overnight gives the filling flavours a chance to meld and become even richer. However, if time is short, you can skip this step and assemble and bake the tourtière as soon as the filling has cooled to room temperature.
Never put a warm filling into a pie crust, as it will cause the fat in the pastry to melt and seep out and you won't end up with flaky, tender pastry.
I like to serve tourtière with such things as pickled beets and other vegetables, mustard pickles, chutneys and relishes - homemade if you have them.
Because tourtière is pretty rich, a light and colourful green salad is also a nice accompaniment.
PORK AND VEAL TOURTIÃRE WITH PEPPERCORNS AND HERBES DE PROVENCE
Savoury tourtière richly flavoured with a splash of red wine, mildly spicy green peppercorns, tangy mustard and a wonderful blend of herbs.
Preparation time: 40 minutes, plus overnight chilling of the filling
Cooking time: About 70 minutes
Makes: 8 servings
3/4 lb ground pork
3/4 lb ground veal
1/3 cup finely chopped shallot (2 small to medium shallots)
2 medium garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp herbes de Provence (see Note)
2 to 3 tsp green peppercorns, drained well and coarsely chopped (see note)
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground clove
2 Tbsp all-purpose flour
1 cup chicken stock
1/4 cup red wine
1 cup small (about 1/4-inch) potato cubes, boiled until just tender, drained and cooled
1 Tbsp Dijon mustard
2 green onions, very thinly sliced
? salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 (10-inch) deep-dish double crust pie shell (recipe on page D3)
? egg wash (1 large egg mixed with 2 Tbsp milk)
Place ground meats, shallots and garlic in a pot over medium heat. Cook, breaking up the meat with a wooden spoon, until meat is cooked through and no longer pink. At that point, drain away excess fat. (If there are still noticeable clumps of meat, use a potato masher to create a smooth meat mixture.) Add the herbes de Provence, green peppercorns, cinnamon, clove and flour and mix well to combine.
While stirring, slowly pour in the stock and wine. Simmer the meat mixture until the liquid has almost evaporated, and then mix in potatoes, mustard and green onions. Season the meat mixture with salt and pepper. Remove from the heat, cool to room temperature, cover, and refrigerate filling overnight.
Evenly pack the filling into bottom pie crust. Brush the edges of the pastry with egg-wash. Set the top crust on, crimping the edges to seal. Trim off excess pastry. Brush the top of tourtière with egg-wash. Cut a small hole in the centre of the tourtière to allow steam to escape. Refrigerate tour-tière 20 minutes, to allow the pastry to firm up.
Preheat oven 425 F. Bake tourtière in the middle of the oven 20 minutes.
Reduce heat to 350 F and cook 25 to 30 minutes more, or until pastry is cooked and nicely browned top and bottom. Allow tourtière to set 10 to 15 minutes before slicing and serving.
Note: Green peppercorns, packed in brine, are sold in jars or cans in the pickle aisle of most supermarkets. Herbes de Provence is available in bottled herb and spice aisle of most supermarkets.
Eric's options: You could make the tourtière several hours before needed and keep it refrigerated until ready to bake. This tour-tière, unbaked, also freezes well. Thaw in the refrigerator overnight before baking. If you do either of these things, add a few minutes to the baking time, as you'll be starting with a very cold product.
FLAKY PIE DOUGH
In this recipe, the generous amount of shortening, and a touch of butter, creates an ultra-flaky crust once baked.
Preparation time: 10 minutes Cooking time: See main recipe Makes: Dough for 1 double-crust pie, or 2 single-crust pies
3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/4 cups cold vegetable shortening, cut into
1/4 cup cold butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 large egg, beaten with 1/3 cup ice-cold water
Combine the flour and salt in a bowl. With a pastry cutter or two forks (or with the paddle attachment of your stand mixer), cut the shortening and butter into the flour until well blended. Pour the egg/water mixture into the bowl; gently work it until it forms a loose, moist dough that just holds together. Transfer dough to a lightly floured work surface. With lightly floured hands, shape the dough into a ball. Cut the ball in half. Press each half into a 1/2-inch-thick disk. Wrap and refrigerate each disk for 20 minutes before rolling out. If you've chilled the dough more than 20 minutes so the fat in it is very firm, let the dough warm at room temperature for a few minutes before rolling it out.
Eric's options: The dough, if tightly wrapped and kept refrigerated, could be prepared up to two days in advance.
Eric Akis is the author of the just-published hardcover book Everyone Can Cook Everything. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.
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