Tourtière, or French-Canadian pork pie, is another of those iconic family recipes that has been handed down for generations. My great-grandmother used to sell them at the bowling alley the family owned on Market Street in Warren, RI. It was a specialty of my grandmother Rose Dallaire Fortier, and she always served it for New Year’s Day dinner. My 81-year-old father was delighted when I brought a freshly-baked pie over this afternoon.
There are many recipes for tourtiere, some including beef, veal, and/or pork, but of course the best is always the one you grew up with. Apparently, the pork-only version is native to Montréal. Grandma Rose’s family was from the area around Québec City, just across the St. Lawrence River. Many years ago (she died in 1995 at the age of 95), I spent a day with Grandma Rose to learn the secret of her tourtière.
The most important thing to remember is to forget about buying commercial ground pork from the market. They throw whatever odds and ends of pork in there, and for this, you need to choose a fresh pork butt and ask the butcher to bone, skin, and grind the meat to order. A pork butt yields about 4 pounds of ground meat, which is enough for two large pies. You cook the ground meat gently with the onions and spices for 2 hours. Rather than including chopped celery, which has a strong flavor, Grandma would just take the inner stalks with leaves and lay them over the top of the simmering meat. She did not add garlic, but I added one lightly smashed clove and fished it out with the celery when I was done cooking.
Various recipes for tourtière will suggest that you bind the meat broth with potatoes, breadcrumbs, oatmeal, or saltine crackers. Grandma always used Nabisco Crown Pilot crackers, which were designed to be served atop chowder. When Nabisco discontinued them in 1996, the citizens of Maine staged a protest and the company continued to manufacture them until 2008 when they were again taken off the market due to dwindling demand. Check out this article: The Crown Pilot Cracker Escapade, from The Working Waterfront. Anyway, I used a Ritz-type cracker. It works fine.
Grandma served her pork pies with ketchup on the side, and this condiment appears to be traditional. She also offered a “relish tray” with celery sticks, pickles, and olives, on the table. Frankly, it’s a pretty hearty dish, and you probably can’t eat much else besides a salad or some crudités.
Grandma Rose’s Tourtière (recipe makes filling for one pie)
2 pounds lean ground pork
1/2 cup water
4 medium onions, minced
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1 clove garlic, lightly smashed with the flat of a knife
The center stalks of celery with leaves
1/3 cup cracker crumbs (Ritz-type)
Combine the first 8 ingredients in a large, heavy-bottomed pot. Lay the celery on top of the meat and cover the pot. Simmer, stirring occasionally to break up the meat, for about 2 hours. When the meat is cooked, there should be a small amount of liquid covering the meat. If you find that there is too much, you can skim some of this fat off the top. Combine the cracker crumbs with a little of the liquid from the pot, mix together, and add to the meat. Cool the meat mixture.
While the meat is cooling, make the piecrust. (Not Grandma Rose’s technique; this comes from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything.)
Flaky piecrust (makes enough dough for a two-crust 9-inch pie)
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 sticks cold unsalted butter, each cut into 16 pieces
6 tablespoons ice water, plus more if necessary
Combine the flour and salt in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the blade tool. Pulse once or twice just to mix. Add the butter and process until the butter and flour are blended and the mixture looks like cornmeal, about 10-12 seconds.
Put the flour and butter mixture into a bowl and add the ice water. Mix gently with your fingers until you can form the dough into a ball, adding a little more ice water if necessary. Form the dough into two balls, wrap each in plastic, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 375°.
Sprinkle a clean tabletop with flour, put one of the dough balls on it, and sprinkle the top with flour. Use a rolling pin to roll the dough (always working from the center out). Roll and turn the dough to form a circular shape, adding flour as needed to keep the dough from sticking to the table or rolling pin.
When the diameter of the dough is about two inches larger than the diameter of the pie plate, transfer the dough to the plate, by folding it in quarters and unfolding in the plate. Press the dough firmly into the plate. Refrigerate for about 30 minutes.
Pour the meat mixture evenly into the pie shell and cover with the top crust. Cut off any excess dough with a knife or kitchen shears. Crimp the edges together with your fingers. Prick all over the top of the pie with the tines of a fork and brush the top with milk.
Put the pie on a cookie sheet and bake in the middle of the oven 45 to 50 minutes, or until the top of the pie is golden brown. Serve hot or at room temperature.