Louisiana is home to dozens of food-themed festivals, but few are named for as specific a dish as the Natchitoches Meat Pie Festival.
This year, the 14th annual free festival is Friday (Sept. 16) evening and all day on Saturday in downtown Natchitoches. It features a fun-run, food, live music and crafts and on Saturday night, the fest offers a fireworks show over the Cane River.
Still, for me, the star is the spicy, savory meat pie.
If you live in the New Orleans area and don't want to take the four-plus-hour drive to north Louisiana, you can make authentic meat pies at home. The recipe in "Cooking Up a Storm: Recipes Lost and Found from The Times-Picayune" (Chronicle Books), co-edited by Judy Walker and Marcelle Bienvenu, is the real deal.
How do I know? This was one of the first recipes I made from "Cooking up a Storm," one of my most cherished cookbooks. Walker and Bienvenu created the book post-Katrina to help readers rebuild their recipe collections that were lost in the storm and flood. The book includes reader-submitted as well as classic and modern New Orleans and Louisiana dishes from the NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune archive.
I remember bringing the book home in 2008 and leafing through it. When I came to the meat pies, I wondered, will they really taste like I remember them? (I've been burned by copy-cat recipes before that just haven't measured up. Haven't you?)
With the first taste of the filling, I was hopeful. When I bit into the hot, savory pie fresh from the fryer, however, I was over the moon. It tasted just as it should.
Lots of folks make the regional north Louisiana hand pie. My taste comparison was to Mrs. Wheat's Louisiana Meat Pie, which calls itself the "Home of the Original Natchitoches Meat Pie" and brings the treat down south each spring for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and French Quarter Fest. (Mrs. Wheat's has expanded beyond meat pies, to do vegetarian and seafood pies, but the originals are my favorite.)
Walker wrote that the recipe was first printed in The Times-Picayune in 2000. It came from Ann Ewart Cloutier, whose mother-in-law, Mary Cloutier of Natchitoches, had perfected it. The younger Cloutier added garlic, Walker said.
It's a relatively easy recipe and makes a lot of pies. The pies, however, freeze very well. I froze them and then fried them in batches as I wanted to eat them.
This would be a great game-day treat for watching LSU or the Saints at home. Or, bring them along for a tailgate. They are definitely a walk-around food.
Natchitoches Meat Pies
Makes 26 to 28 (5- to 5-1/2-inch) pies
1-1/2 pounds ground beef
1-1/2 pounds ground pork
1 cup chopped green onions, white and green parts
2 or 3 cloves chopped garlic
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
Combine meats, green onions, garlic, salt and peppers in large Dutch oven. Cook over medium heat, stirring often until meat is no longer red and is broken into small bits, about 15 minutes; do not overcook. Sift flour over meat, mixing thoroughly. Remove from heat. Place meat in a large colander to drain off liquid and cool to room temperature.
2 cups self-rising flour, plus about 2/3 cup more for rolling out dough
1/3 heaping cup Crisco shortening, not melted
1 egg, beaten
3/4 cup milk
Vegetable oil, for deep-frying
Sift flour and cut shortening into it. Add egg and milk and mix. Form dough into ball (it will be very sticky). Roll out about 1/3 of dough at a time on heavily floured board with floured rolling pin to about 1/8-inch thick, adding least amount of flour possible to keep it from sticking.
Cut dough into 5- to 5 1/2-inch circles. (Use a round sharp-edged dish or utensil of the correct size; or use a dumpling-maker form.) Cut out all dough circles before filling any, placing circles on cookie sheet. If necessary to stack pastry while making circles, place waxed paper between them.
To assemble each pie, place a heaping tablespoon of filling on one side of pastry round. Dampen edge of pastry with fingertips moistened with water. Fold pastry over meat and crimp with fork tines dipped in water, pressing to seal.
Prick each pie twice on top with fork. Freeze if desired, enclosed in self-sealing plastic bags; do not thaw before frying.
Just before serving, carefully drop pies in oil heated to 350 degrees. Fry until dark golden brown, about 2 minutes. Drain on absorbent paper.
Note: For bite-size pies, use a biscuit cutter, allowing 1 teaspoon of filling per pie.