Fish pie! It’s comfort food pure and simple. There’s nothing very elegant about fish pie. You can make individual ones and serve them up in individual oven-to-table bowls. That’ll give you an authentic pub-kitchen look. Or to can just say ‘bugger it’, make a large dish and slop it out onto a plate.
If you do that you’ll have to put up with the fact that it tends to look awful; a splodge of potato and a spew of fishy sauce. But it tastes great. No nouvelle cuisine chef ever attempted fish pie, unless it was to produce something ironically post-modern, that needed to be examined with a microscope and popped on the tip of one’s tongue. Voila!
This is home cooking where no one waits around while they contemplate ‘presentation’. You simply can’t dress this one up.
But comfort food is too often a little bland and fish pie, which is essentially fish in white sauce topped with potato, risks being very bland.
So flavouring is everything. But you have to be careful because it’s so easy to overpower the fish. So rather than go overboard with herbs or spices I prefer to point up fishy flavours.
I reckon Felicity Cloake’s ‘perfect fish pie’ recipe in the Graun is a good starting point. But it’s not there for me. So let me offer my small twist on this.
Quantities for two (generous) portions:
500g potatoes, variety according to whether you like them mashed or scalloped
Splash of milk
250ml vegetable stock
100ml (dry) cider or white wine
Small bunch of parsley, divided into leaves and stalks
400g fish fillets – smoked haddock/cod/salmon
200g whole, shell-on tiger prawns
25g plain flour
100ml double cream
2 anchovies, finely chopped
Handful of white breadcrumbs
Grated Parmesan or Pecorino
There are three distinct stages – potato topping, fish, sauce.
Potato first. I went with mashed in which case it’s just a case of steaming the potato until cooked and mashing it with a big knob of butter and some milk. Salt and pepper here work well. The alternative is to steam the potatoes until almost done, slice them into scallops and put them to one side so you can arrange them on top of the pie later.
Then the sauce. This is the key bit; take the heads and shells off the tiger prawns and throw them into a non-stick pan with the butter. It’s the prawn shells that give the dish its sumptuous flavour. When they’ve been properly cooked add the cider (or wine), parsley stalks (having pulled off and reserved the leaves) and the stock and reduce a little. I should stress that I use my father’s unpasteurised cider, made from Bramleys, Arthur Turners and a few other varieties (Tom Putt, Michelin, Blenheim Orange) thrown in. Sweet commercial cider might not work very well. If in doubt try a dry white wine.
Next strain the liquor, throwing away all the prawny bits and keeping the liquid. To the liquid add the fish, cubed, and prawns and cook for five minutes. Use a slotted spoon, take out the fish and prawns and put them to one side, ideally in the dish the pie will be cooked in.
Then make a roux with 25g of butter, the anchovies and an equal amount of flour and gradually add to it the liquor from the prawns and fish. When that is all mixed in (and don’t forget to add the juices that have drained from the fish) add the cream, the parsley leaves, salt and pepper. You could add a pinch of cayenne or chilli but go easy. The main flavours of this dish should be the prawn stock sauce and the smoked fish.
Tip the sauce over the fish and then put the mashed potato on top. If you’re using scalloped potatoes toss them in olive oil or melted butter first and pepper them, then arrange them hither and thither over the top. Put it in the oven at 180C for 35 minutes (stepping in with 10 or 15 minutes to go to add blended cheese and breadcrumbs).
I reckon serve with a salad or broccoli, something green for Pete’s sakes, to take the edge off the brownness. Oh, and try not to look at it too much… just eat.