A version of this story was originally published on Dec. 23, 2011.
If you happen to spend Christmas Eve in Canada — especially Quebec — you might be lucky enough to be invited to a festive dinner after midnight Mass. The feast is an old tradition from France called reveillon, and it’s something to look forward to after a long day of fasting.
“They’ll have a huge feast, with sweets and lobster and oysters, everything,” says Thomas Naylor, executive chef to the Canadian ambassador to the U.S. “But in Quebec, at least, you’ll always have tourtiere. It will be the center of the reveillon.”
NPR’s All Things Considered visited Naylor in the kitchen of the ambassador’s residence in Washington, D.C., to learn how to make tourtiere.
Naylor knows about this Christmas Eve custom because many years ago, it traveled with French emigres across the Atlantic to Canada (and to New Orleans). The tourtiere is a savory, spiced meat pie, which both French- and English-speaking Canadians love to serve around the holidays.
The pie is so beloved in Canada that it has spread far beyond Quebec. “The recipe has been altered so many times,” he says.
Along the coast, it’s made with salmon. And even within Quebec there are different variations, Naylor says. There’s a ground pork version in Montreal, while some in Quebec City prefer game meats. Even within a family you might find different recipes.
I have been at events with Canadians around Christmastime where there can be a little tourtiere competition, and everyone brings their own. Naylor agrees: “It’s like hockey rivalry.”
One thing that’s usually the same is the four spices: cinnamon, clove, allspice and nutmeg. Naylor likes to add savory and rosemary to his pie. “It’s a very festive flavor,” says Naylor. “The use of spices goes back to medieval times. They used to serve them along with sweets.”
But the first step in creating a perfect tourtiere, says Naylor, is to make a buttery, flaky pastry shell.
Then Naylor moves on to the meat mixture — he adds pork, water, onion and celery to a pan. Then he adds the spices.
Naylor lets that mixture simmer for an hour and a half. At the end he mixes in a cup of rolled oats, which binds the meat and makes it easier to slice a piece of the pie later on. Once the meat filling has cooled, he spoons it into the pastry shell and covers it with a crust. Then it’s time to decorate with some of the leftover dough.
Once the tourtiere is ready, says Naylor, it is usually served with some kind of tasty condiment or sauce. It could be cranberry sauce, pickled beets, something sweet and sour, or “something with a kick to it to pair with the spiced meat and flaky crust.” (I like to serve a chili sauce with my tourtiere; you can find Naylor’s recipe and my chili sauce recipe below.)
All in all, it’s a memorable dish. And it’s “one of Canada’s better contributions to the culinary world,” says Naylor.
Makes 6 to 8 Servings. Uses a 9-inch pie pan.
3 cups flour
1 1/2 cups butter (just cooler than room temperature, but still firm)
Pinch of salt
1/2 cup water (room temperature)
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
2 pound ground pork
1 1/2 cups cold water
1 cup onion, finely chopped
1/2 cup celery, finely chopped
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon dried savory
1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary
1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
Salt to taste
1 cup old-fashioned rolled oats
Pastry (make the day before)
In a food processor, mix flour, butter and salt. Pulse until you get pieces the size of small beads (Pate Sable). In a separate bowl, mix egg, water and thyme leaves. Add to the food processor, pulse until dough just comes to together. Remove from the processor and form a ball, trying not to work the dough. Cover or wrap with plastic film and refrigerate for at least 12 hours.
In a large, heavy frying pan, over medium heat, add pork and water, and heat to boiling point. Add onion, celery, pepper, savory, rosemary, nutmeg and cinnamon. Cook, covered, over low heat for one and a half hours, adding more water if the mixture dries out. When the mixture is ready, season with salt to taste. Stir in rolled oats and cook, stirring, for two to five minutes.
Preheat oven to 425 F.
Line a 9-inch pie plate with the pastry. When the meat mixture has completely cooled down, spoon it into the pie shell and cover it with the remaining pastry. Trim pastry, seal the edges and cut steam vents in the top of the crust. Decorate with pastry cutouts as desired. Bake in the preheated oven (at 425 F) for 15 minutes. Then, reduce heat to 375 F, and bake another 25 minutes — or until crust is golden.
Egg wash five minutes before removing from oven, optional.
Courtesy of Thomas Naylor, executive chef at the Canadian Embassy
Smiley’s Chili Sauce
Lynn Neary and her husband make a big batch of Smiley’s Chili Sauce every year to accompany their Christmas Eve tourtiere, and to jar and give as gifts. Here’s their family recipe. It makes 4 to 5 pints.
14 large ripe tomatoes (or 5 to 7 pounds)
3 1/2 cups brown sugar
1 3/4 cups white vinegar
3 hot red peppers — chopped
2 tablespoons pickling spice in a seeping bag
4 cups chopped onion (or about 2 pounds of onion)
1 heaping tablespoon of pickling salt
Combine all ingredients in a pot on the stove and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer for two and a half hours, stirring occasionally. Remove spice bag after about 75 minutes.
Note: Some dried chili pepper can be added to heat up the sauce.