No matter how humble or elegant, a pie is comforting fare. Savory rounds — pastry full of meat, poultry, seafood, or vegetables — are perhaps even more appealing than sweet.
That meat pies are experiencing a resurgence can be attributed to both the wintry season and still fragile economy, and the introduction here, two years ago, of the Australian variety. Aussie native Samuel Jackson showcases his individual, hand-held meat pies at KO Catering and Pies in South Boston and East Boston. As common and iconic as American burgers, Australian meat pies at KO have a short-crust bottom and puff-pastry top, and fillings for the 5-inch rounds include classic ground beef and onion in gravy, braised lamb shank, Irish beef stew, and curried vegetable.
Other restaurants are tipping their hat to the trend. Park Restaurant & Bar in Cambridge, which opened in April, offers a rather old-fashioned but novel “meat pie of the day.” Chef Mark Goldberg says the loaf-shaped pies fit perfectly with the restaurant’s homey, pub-like ambience. Popular varieties include chicken, mushroom, and leek; braised pork; and sausage, apple, and white bean.
Savory pies have very old roots. One popular variety is Cornish pasty (pronounced PASS-tee), a half-moon-shaped turnover from England’s Cornwall region. The pasty was a miner’s lunch, easy to carry and eat with one hand, the crust typically made with lard and the filling a combination of meat, potatoes, and root vegetables. Some Cornish pasties have a savory filling at one end, an entire meal in one portable dish.
According to Jackson, who hails from Wollongong, Australia, “A pasty is in the same family, but it’s not a pie.” He considers pasties similar to other dough-wrapped foods, such as empanadas, samosas, even calzones. Jackson explains that in Australia, meat pies are mostly round, occasionally square, and sold in bakeries, pubs, and even gas stations (those, he says, are “the cheap, mass-produced ones”). He uses two types of pastry, specifically the puff pastry on top, to give the rounds a lighter texture. Down Under, you pick up a meat pie with your hands (like a burger, mate!), and add a squirt of ketchup, if you like. “Here in America, if people want to use a knife and fork, I’m cool with that,” says the chef.
Pies that definitely require flatware are familiar New England pot pies, where chunky stews of poultry, meat, or seafood are covered with pastry or a biscuit-like topping. The big difference between pot pies and meat pies is that meat pies are fully enclosed, with a top and bottom crust or a folded-over pastry, and the filling is thick, never soupy.
Traditional pot pies are sold at four locations of Harrows Chicken Pies (top crust only), and Petsi Pies (top and bottom crust) in Somerville and Cambridge. Small English-style “pub pies” (completely enclosed and sold as hand-held rounds) are a specialty of Thwaites Market in Methuen. Owner Kenneth Greenwood, great-grandson of the founders, says his family has been making meat pies for over 80 years. Customer favorites include the English pork pie (ground pork with gravy), chicken, tomato-sausage, and Italian sausage and peppers.
At the 27-year-old O’Hara’s Food & Spirits in Newton, the so-called chicken pot pie is a hearty stew ladled into a hollowed-out, 5-inch round loaf. “We’ve always done it that way,” says co-owner Karl O’Hara.
Whatever the vessel, a savory pie is a meal in itself, with protein, vegetables, and sauce in a tidy package. Goldberg, the Park chef, says, “We try to span ethnicities with them.” The restaurant has served a Portuguese fish stew pie with seafood and diced vegetables in a tomato saffron broth; an Indian-style chicken curry pie; and another with meatballs in marinara.
“The pies give us something to play with every few days,” he says.