Saturday, November 12, 2011

New Found Freedom and Fantastic Festival Food: Natchitoches Meat Pies

I talk to my daughter at university probably three times a day. No, I don’t make her, I am just that fun. She calls me first thing in the morning to let me know she’s alive (I do insist on this one). She calls me at lunchtime because she’s wondering what I'm up to, then she calls me at night to let me know that she’s all buttoned down and going to bed. Then we start all over again the next day. She’s a good girl and I love her more than I can say. Thank goodness for cell phones and her good taste in the people she wants to talk to.

When I was her age there were no cell phones. If my parents couldn’t find me when I went underground they’d either have to hire a detective or wait it out. When I think about what they must have gone through worrying about me it makes me realize how spoiled I am always (well, almost always) being able to contact my kids when I want.  

When I was in my early twenties my newly found, all-grown up freedom and I went to Natchitoches, Louisiana (pronounced NACK-uh-tush) with a group of friends for the town’s annual Christmas Festival of Lights.  In all the excitement I forgot to call my parents and tell them I was leaving town, so by Sunday night when I got back home to Houston the National Guard was on high alert. Man, they were mad!  Now that I have a couple of children of my own, I know how frantic they must have been when I forgot to call and tell them I’d be gone for three days. Oops!



The weekend started out when one of my friends somehow got the keys to his family’s weekend house in Louisiana. As I remember it, it was a rustic little place on the edge of a swamp nestled among the cypress trees with the snakes and alligators. We had planned a wonderful weekend of drinking, dominoes and festival making. The only kink in this plan was that the septic tank was broken so there was no working bathroom in the house. Not good a good situation with four women who are drinking beer. Since we all refused to go outside and use the restroom in the bushes (see photo below), we spent most of the weekend driving to the closest gas station with a public toilet.

Louisiana's outdoor restroom attendants

Since every time we turned around we were running to town anyway, we spent a lot of time hanging out at the festival eating. You might be familiar with the town and this festival and not know it. The movie Steel Magnolias was filmed here and the festival they show in the movie is this one. They have every Christmas scene you can imagine fashioned from lights and placed on one side of the Cane River which runs through the center of the historic part of town. The fireworks show which is on the opening weekend of the celebration, is so spectacular that even the fluorescent yellow nacho cheese sauce that I sat in in my new wool coat to watch them couldn’t kill the fun.

Like many festivals around the country, the food here is delicious mainly because it has been perfected  over the years by generations of amateur home cooks. Even though great food abounds, the one dish they are most proud of and famous for is their meat pies. They love them so much that they even have their own separate celebration for them in September.  These pies are made from a simple recipe of ground beef and pork with Cajun flavors wrapped in a soft dough and deep fried. How can you go wrong with this combo?



Those meat pies were so good that I have never forgotten the flavor and have planned on making them for years now. Well, this is the year and I'm happy to tell you that they were really simple, the hardest part being rolling the dough, but even at that not a deal breaker. This recipe made 16 pretty large pies but I think it would also be great to downsize them a bit and make 24 smaller ones for party appetizers. This is really a great base to expand on or change.  I could see where this recipe could be easily altered to make Mexican, Asian or Italian versions, so I hope you’ll have fun experimenting with it. I know I will.


Natchitoches Meat Pies


1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 pound 80/20 ground beef

1 pound ground pork (I tried it with pork sausage and it was great)

1 bunch green onions, finely chopped

1 small bell pepper, finely chopped (green is more traditional but you can use any color that you like)

1 large garlic clove, crushed

1/4 teaspoon dried thyme (my own addition)

1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)

Salt and black pepper to taste

4 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for preparing surface

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 cup shortening

2 eggs, beaten

1 cup milk

Pour vegetable oil in a large frying pan set over medium high heat; brown meat in oil. Add the onion and bell pepper; cook, stirring frequently until vegetables are soft, approximately 5 minutes; add garlic and sauté for 1 minute longer. Add thyme, red pepper flakes and salt and pepper to taste before sprinkling 1 tablespoon of the flour you borrow from the dough ingredients over the meat; stir well.  Remove from the heat and set aside until ready to use.

Sift the remaining flour, salt and baking powder together into a large bowl or in the bowl of a food processor (this makes quick work of this step); process or cut in shortening by hand until it looks like cornmeal. Stir the eggs and milk together before slowly mixing into the flour mixture; mix well to form a soft dough.

Divide the dough into 16 equal portions. Dust a clean dry surface with flour. Roll each dough portion into a ball. Place each ball on the floured surface one at a time before rolling it into circle about 6 – 7” in diameter. Spoon approximately 2 heaping tablespoons of the meat mixture onto one side of the circle, leaving a 1” clean edge all around. Brush edges with a little warm water. Fold the circle over the meat mixture matching the edges, forming a semi-circle. Fold the edges in half up towards the meat leaving a 1/2" edge. Press the edge with the tines of a fork to crimp. Repeat with the remaining meat and dough.

Heat deep fryer oil or pour enough oil into a medium size frying pan to come up to a 1” depth in the pan; heat over medium high heat. When the oil is hot and shimmering place 1 – 2 pies in the pan and fry to a golden brown on each, approximately 3 minutes or so. Remove from the heat and drain on paper towels. Serve hot or at room temperature.

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