Chef's Blog

May 24, 2019

Hand Pies in Any Language

from Chef Gregg Nelson

I grew up in Jersey City, NJ, eating calzone at the local pizzeria. They’d cut their meatballs in half and stuff them into a pocket of pizza dough and cook it in the oven—a cross between a sandwich and a pizza, and a perfect lunch for one person.

A nightly special at a restaurant in Seattle got me thinking about the tradition of individual handheld pies. The item was menued as a Hand Pie, and it was made with trim from the chef’s signature cheddar and chive biscuits, filled with a farce of confit chicken parts (gizzards, necks, and livers), and jasmine rice, served with raw onions, fine herbs, and a carrot chasseur sauce, and finished with a little frisée salad. It was sophisticated, delicious, and beautiful on the plate, and it set me back $11 for ingredients that were basically extras and overproduction.

It turns out that meat pies have a long and storied history. In the book “Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States,” I learned that Chinese immigrants carried meat pies across the ocean on ships in the late 1700s and early 1800s, their long shelf life assured by plenty of spices and suet.

Welsh miners had their pasties, filled with minced meat and potatoes or turnips, and the English are great fans of pork pies and other small, savory pies. In New England, of course, there is mincemeat, originally made with venison or suet, chopped dried fruit, brandy, and sugar.

In fact, people all over the world enjoy versions of hand pies. One of the best known is the empanada, the savory stuffed pastry which hails from Latin America but is becoming much more popular here in the United States as the cuisines of Argentina, Chile, Venezuela, and other South American countries work their way north. Where I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, there are fast-casual shops specializing in empanadas with all kinds of different fillings, and ambitious chefs everywhere are filling empanadas with everything from duck confit to shrimp scampi.

Variations on the Latin hand pie theme include arepas, with their cornmeal-cake dough, and tequeños, which are like a fried breadstick filled with cheese. There are Central European pierogies and Puerto Rican pasteles, Moroccan b’stilla, South African sausage rolls, and Jamaican meat patties. When you think about it, our own Hot Pockets® and those famous cocktail-party frozen pizza rolls are nothing more or less than savory hand pies. No wonder chefs are taking inspiration for their menus from hand pies. I’ve seen cheffy “housemade hot pockets” from hipster restaurants, and upscale lobster hand pies filled with lobster and savory herbs, cream, Swiss cheese, rice, and crimini mushrooms.

Here are some great reasons to consider hand pies on the menu:

  • Comforting hand pies represent a familiar way to introduce global flavors and ingredients
  • They’re extremely versatile and can be adapted to anything from a bacon-and-egg breakfast pie to a vegan or vegetarian item
  • Hand pies are fun and portable, so they can be adapted to fast-casual, delivery-only, and food truck menus
  • Operationally, they’re a slam dunk, allowing for the use of overproduction from the filling to the dough, and can be made ahead and rethermed to order or served at room temperature

Try This:

  • Almost any filling ingredients can be adapted to the hand pie format. Cross-utilizing proteins like braised short ribs or pulled pork, meats, meatballs, roasted chicken, or other prep is a smart strategy for starting out
  • Consider going cross-cultural, like steak teriyaki or shrimp Creole in a hand pie
  • Look to Minor’s® flavor concentrates in marinades and braising liquids for savory pie fillings; products like Fire Roasted Poblano or Herb de Provence can be used to introduce Latin or Mediterranean flavor profiles
  • Dips and sauces bring an added dimension to hand pies. Try Minor’s GreenLeaf™ Basil Pesto with a calzone, or add an international touch with Minor’s General Tso’s RTU Sauce or Caribbean Style RTU Sauce Mixing a flavor concentrate like Minor’s Ancho Flavor Concentrate with avocado and mayo represents an easy way to create a signature dip for empanadas

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