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Pigeon Pasta Pie

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Extraordinary 19th century Italian pie filled with maccheroni in a pigeon sauce. The height of Italian haute cuisine a century ago.

The climax of 19th century Italian haute cuisine dinner was often a pie filled with macaroni in the most extraordinary sauce. In Visconti's movie Il Gattopardo, the arrival of the pie is the height of the dinner scene. And yet, for all its past glamour, this is a dish nobody makes anymore. I used a traditional Bologna recipe for this pigeon/squab macaroni pie.

Pasticcio di piccioni
Macaroni Pigeon Pie
Starter for 8 or main course for 4
3 pigeons
100gr bacon
2 large carrots
1 celery branch
1 large onion
1 glass Marsala or Port or sweet red wine
500gr maccheroni (short tubular pasta, not the little horns)
Béchamel sauce:
1 tbsp butter
2 tbsp flour
2 cups milk
Short dough (or 300gr Puff Pastry)
200gr butter
200gr flour
2 eggs
pinch of sugar
Salt and pepper

 

This way of preparing fowl is called salmis [salmee] by the French and was very much in favor in 19th century Paris. Antonin Carême, the king of French chefs, uses it in about every other dish. First we finely chop carrots, celery, onions and bacon. Mirepoix, used real pot as a pan, traditional salmis roasted then carcass is pounded and boiled for an hour with the rest.


... celery ...


... onions ...

 

... and bacon. Here I used guanciale, seasoned pig jowl.

This mixture of finely chopped vegetables and bacon is called mirepoix [meeruhpoy] by the French and it is a fundamental ingredient in building up the flavor in many traditional sauces - read on to see how.

Fowl's giblets - heart, liver and gizzards - are a wonderful and tradition-sanctioned way of enhancing the flavor of any meat sauce. Meat-eating European gourmet consider it sacrilege to throw them away. I don't eat liver, heart nor haggis, but in a sauce these parts have their rightful place. Please do try it at least one, even with a little piece. The giblets' flavor will dissolve into the sauce and you won't be able to tell it apart from the rest apart from that haunting hit-me-back taste.

 

Wash the organs carefully and make sure to remove any of the bitter green matter from the livers (the ones that are liver shaped are the livers). Not for the faint-hearted. I can't say that I like this part but you have to admit the colors are pretty spectacular. Gives a whole new meaning to the color painters call pigeon blood!

Finely chop the gizzards ...

 

 

... and crush the livers under the blade of a large kitchen knife.

We now brown the mirepoix and the gibblets in a large pot with a little oil to enhance their flavor using the Maillard's reactions.

 

Once the mirepoix is nicely browned, add the pigeons/squabs and turn frequently until browned on all sides. The same chemical process is at work here to enhance the flavor of the meat. In Scotland they would be boiled, but the French know better and the Italians just copied this.

Add a glass of Marsala or Port or Wine. This will dissolve the browned food that may have stuck to the bottom of the pot and add a touch of tartness to the sauce. Bring to a boil.

Meanwhile, finely chop 2 slices of ham.

Add a glass of warm stock or water, the chopped ham and a pinch of salt to the pigeon pot and reduce heat to low. Let it cook covered until pigeon is cooked - about 15 minutes.

Fish the pigeons out of the pot and lay them on a cutting board.

Using a sharp knife, remove both breasts and slice them crosswise.

Now it's our turn to call the French barbarians. To obtain a smooth and homogenous sauce nobody will guess the composition of, we strain the sauce using a conical sieve called chinois [sheenoah], from the shape of traditional Chinese hats. The cook can't help thinking it is a pity to through out vegetables, bacon and gizzards, but French culinary tradition reasons that most of the flavor has passed to the sauce by now. I suppose in the 19th century there would be no lack of interest for this by-products - by servants or pets.

 

Traditional French salmis is done slightly differently. The fowl is roasted in an oven, then the breasts are removed and slices. The carcasses are pounded and added back to the pot to cook for a good hour, then the whole thing is strained. This process makes good use of the carcasses which are lost in our Italian recipe explained above.

Now we reach the stage where the real reason why these macaroni pies are not made anymore. The whole thing is baked inside a short dough, that horrible, tasteless culinary horror of medieval descent. Sweet short dough may be all right in a custard-filled pie, but present-day diners outside the British Isles just can't bring themselves to eat these huge yellowish shells. I am quite sure that using a puff pastry would lead to more enticing results. Still, I made my pie like the Italians did 150 years ago and carefully mixed butter, flour, eggs, salt and sugar. That's right, sugar. Most traditional Italian pasta pies use a sweet short dough outer shell.

While we are at the confessional, I admit not having prepared the béchamel sauce (besciamella in Italian), which ought to be mixed with the macaronis to make the pie more juicy. If you wish to do it, just fry a 2 tsbp flour in 1 tsbp butter until butter is fully melted and intimate with the flour, then add 2 cups milk and mix until it thickens.