Pot pies pre-date that other retro comfort dish, Frito chili pies, by a couple of centuries. The British nursery rhyme about four and 20 blackbirds baked in a pie goes back to the 1700s. (Sadly, they were undercooked.)
But the savory pastry became an American favorite for home cooks and restaurants for ages. That is until that fateful day in 1951 when the C.A. Swanson Company created (drum roll, please) the frozen chicken pot pie.
Don’t even think about denying that you’ve eaten one. You know you have. Every mom in the country at one time served them on foldable TV snack trays in the living room. You probably ate them in college because they were so cheap. And even today, every once in a blue moon when you’re feeling poorly, you probably rush out and grab one just to feel wrapped in that cocoon of momness once again.
But, yeah, they taste like cardboard.
Pellegrino admits that since the frozen version came on the market, chefs stopped making them and they almost disappeared from restaurant menus. But he wants to change that.
“A well executed pot pie is delicious,” Pellegrino says. “It’s great comfort food, I’d eat 'em in the summer if it wasn’t so hot, but now’s the perfect season for them."
Which is why he’s featuring pot pies on Max’s menu for the next six months. And, because he couldn’t decide on just one, he’ll be baking a different version each month. It’s like a pot pie of the month club.
First up this month is rabbit. A meat that’s never been on the restaurant’s menu, before but one the chef is familiar with.
“A couple of year’s ago my cousins took me on a hunt,” he says. “We decided we would only eat what would could kill, but sitting around waiting for deer is pretty boring. So I’d just shoot the rabbits that came by. They kept telling me I was scaring off the deer, but I was hungry.”
So instead of venison steaks, the hunting party ate rabbit fajitas braised in beer. Which sounds pretty good. “But come to think of it, they haven’t invited me back,” Pellegrino admits.
The rabbit pot pie at Max’s this month is a mouthwatering stew made of whole rabbits simmered in stock, braised rabbit meat (rabbit in every bite!) and root vegetables in a casserole dish the size of Harris County. When you order it, they top it with puff pastry from Slow Dough Bread Co., brush it in butter with thyme and shredded garlic ships and pop it in the oven.
You’ll have to wait 15 to 20 minutes for it to bake to a golden brown and when it arrives, with three cuts in the crust, the fragrant steam will make you drool.
It’s a big dish with a hearty price tag ($22,) but it’ll feed an army. And no mushy peas, this dish comes with carrots.
“I cook what the animal would eat,” Pellegrino says. “The rabbit eats carrots so we cook the rabbit with carrots, it’s the circle of life, baby.”
As tasty as this Fatal Attraction pie is, and paired with wine guru Jacob Fairchild’s recommended Chateau de Sancerre it is a bunny feast, there are more tantalizing ones to come.
November will feature a Thanksgiving turkey pot pie, December’s version is succulent lamb, January’s will be vegetarian with potatoes and root veggies and February’s nod to the rodeo and Texas heritage will be a pot pie made with beef. Texas Longhorn to be specific.
“I wanted to do that one because it’s such a part of out culture,” Pellegrino says. “I found a local Longhorn provider. It’s tough, you don’t want a Texas Longhorn steak, but it’s perfect for stews and pot pies because you’re slow braising the meat until it’s tender.”
And then, as spring rolls around next March, there will be lobster pot pie.
“It’s butter, lobster, butter,” says the chef. “Everything you love!”
You had me at lobster. And butter. And more butter.
Speaking of lobster, Pellegrino is on a kick of ramped up retro fancy dishes and plans to add a lobster thermidor soon. Now there’s a dish you hardly ever see anymore. The last time I tasted this labor-intensive concoction of lobster, cream, egg yolks and brandy stuffed in the shell and baked with a cheesy crust it was at the long defunct La Louisiane in San Antonio in the mid 1970s. I can’t wait to try Pellegrino’s version.
Also dancing around in chef’s head are plans for Steak Diane, that old flambéed filet mignon classic, and a delectable little something called Angels on Horseback, which will consist of Gulf Coast oysters wrapped in bacon and broiled.
Max’s Wine Dive has always turned out great comfort food (can you say Southern fried chicken and shrimp and grits?) and the pot pie of the month fits right into that niche, but it looks like Pellegrino is adding some fancy fare from days gone by to the menu. And I can hardly wait. Bring on that lobster thermidor!