GRUB!: Fish Pie

Sunday, February 11, 2018

I had a densely packed day of proper off-the-track hidden London kind of stuff last week, led by my Barbican-dwelling friend Piran. He’s like some kind of London-savant. I'm convinced I could walk  him down any street in Central London and he’d come up with at least three interesting facts about the history, or architecture or some other random London ephemera related to or prompted by the area. I like to think I’ve learned a few off-beat things about London since I’ve been here, but truly Piran is London Yoda to my Luke Skywalker. So having spent a whole day wandering around a geographically tiny but Londonically hyper-dense area of the city with him, it’s going to take me perhaps six months to distill things into a blog or two or ten.

While that all percolates I’ve fallen back on a good old-fashioned GRUB! post. Because it’s been cold and grey and rainy all day and nothing helps warm up the boat and the boater more than getting something hot and filling and lovely in the oven. Something like Fish Pie!

This is a day that cries out for something involving pre-heating the oven. Preferably for about eleven hours.

Fish Pie falls into that category of not-actually-pie occupied by Shepherd’s Pie and Cottage Pie, being a protein-packed stew-ish base topped with mashed potatoes and baked. Perhaps that’s why it’s sometimes called Fisherman’s Pie. Note that this category is separate and distinct from Real Pie, which must be completely enclosed in pastry on top, bottom and sides. Or at the very very very least covered with a shortcrust pastry that completely seals the top of the dish, like chicken pot pie (but actually even that is seriously borderline). And don’t even get me started on pubs that serve a dish of stew topped with a disc of puff pastry. I have no compunctions at all about grilling restaurant staff unmercifully and pointedly about what appears on the menu as “pie”.  Also note that traditional fish pie is nothing to do with Stargazy Pie, even though that particular dish is, in fact, a more real fish pie than, er, fish pie. Also Stargazy Pie is super instragrammable - check it out:

Stargazy pie
Stargazy Pie - a traditional Cornish dish served on Dec. 23. As you can see, it’s a proper pie with pastry, though perhaps you didn’t notice that because you were distracted by the whole pilchards with their heads and tails sticking out of the top.

So… fish pie. The base is a mixture of different fish, cut in generous chunks and poached in milk. The milk then goes on to become a white sauce, often with a few other goodies thrown in as well. The topping is creamy mash, which can also be jazzed up in various ways. Because fish pie is quite a traditional dish, some big supermarkets sell packs of fish pie mix so you don’t have to faff about buying a bunch of different kinds of fish. Cod plus something smoked (usually haddock) are most traditional, though the mixes I’ve seen also usually include salmon. And I think it’s nice to mix in some prawns too, for a little extra luxury.

Tesco’s fish pie mix including cod (left), salmon (centre) and smoked haddock (right), with luxury prawns featuring far right. The eggs feature later in the story.

You probably noticed that the smoked haddock pictured above has a distinctly yellow tint to it. Smoking is, of course, a traditional way of preserving fish. Other notable smoked fish over here include smoked mackerel, the ever-popular kipper (smoked herring), and the famed Abroath Smokie (also haddock, but treated differently). Originally, haddock was salt cured and then smoked over oak. The combination of the natural colour of the fish and the smoke gave it a yellowish colour. When more industrial smoking methods were introduced, some of the colour was lost and it became usual to add it back in with yellow dye - sometimes artificial, and sometimes more natural (based on onion skins or turmeric). Amusingly, when doing the in-depth research that I always undertake for the blog (Note: for “in-depth” read: no less than five concentrated minutes of googling, with breaks for watching tiny house videos on YouTube), I encountered websites that claim the undyed article was traditional, with the garish yellow colour of dyed haddock being emblematic of the worst sort of Un-Britishness. And I also found at least one online fishmonger offering “traditional yellow dyed” smoked haddock for people who grew up with the bright yellow stuff.

And so back to the fish pie. I have to admit this is a bit of a production, with many different processes and resulting in quite a few dirty pots and pans and baking dishes. Normally I don’t go in for that sort of thing, but it was a good excuse to avoid doing anything else on that cold and rainy Saturday, so here’s how it went:


4 large red-skinned potatoes, boiled and mashed
2 hard boiled eggs
Butter, milk and salt for the mash
About 450 grams of assorted fish
About 100 grams of prawns
1 large onion, peeled and halved
1 token bay leaf
2 cups milk
More butter
3 tbsp white flour
1 tbsp grainy mustard
1 cup frozen peas
1 tbsp capers
Chopped fresh parsley
Chopped fresh dill
Lemon zest
Yet more butter
(Note: as usual, all of these amounts are a bit approximate. Deal with it. It’s not like any of us in on Masterchef.)

First, cook and mash the spuds in whatever way you normally make mash. Naturally, this should include a generous amount of butter and milk and salt and pepper to taste. I added some fresh chopped parsley, which I think gives a festive touch. I’ve sometimes made fish pie with a mix of white and sweet potatoes, which is also nice. You could even add garlic, or grated cheese, or both, if you’re feeling particularly wild. For my fish pie I used red-skinned potatoes and left the skin on because it’s good for you and rustic and life is too short to peel potatoes. And to add to the rustic nature, my mash was pleasantly uneven. This is mostly because I was halfway through cooking the potatoes before I realised, for the first time, that I don’t seem to own a potato masher. Happily it turns out that a slotted spoon + fork combination is perfectly adequate for optimally rusticated mash.

One non-standard thing you’ll want to do when cooking the potatoes is to add a couple of whole eggs to the pot in the last 6 or 7 minutes of cooking, hard-boiled eggs being a traditional addition to the filling of fish pie. (Grated hard cooked eggs are also part of Stargazy Pie. Go figure.) Note it’s advisable to removed the cooked eggs from the pot before mashing.

With the mash safely mashed and cooling in the pot, it’s time for the fish. Peel the onion and chop it in half and then make a cut in one half of the onion and insert the token bay leaf. (I did not do this because my bay leaves are apparently stored in the same place as my potato masher. Also I’m not a fan of tokenism, but several recipes I looked at called for this touch, so I include it here, despite the fact that I’m not convinced this onion bit, and especially the accompanying bay leaf, actually bring much to the party.) Place the token onion/bay leaf in a large pan and add the milk and the uncooked fish (if you’re using prawns do not include them here). Bring the milk almost to a boil and then turn down the heat and simmer gently, poaching the fish in the milk. Once the fish is barely cooked, remove it from the milk and set it aside in another dish. (I used the eventual baking dish for this rather than adding to the growing pile of dirty crockery.)

Mash and poaching fish

Meanwhile, prepare to dirty a third pan by finely chopping the remaining onion and sautéing in butter and olive oil. Once the onion is cooked, gradually add the flour, and continue sautéing until the flour has cooked down. Then start slowly spooning in the poaching liquid, creating a white sauce. I eventually dumped the onion/flour/milk back into the poaching pan, which was bigger, and stirred it all together. Salt and pepper are good here, and I added a nice dollop of mustard to give a bit of zing.

Once the sauce is done gently stir in the cooked fish, prawns, frozen peas, capers and chopped dill. This is also where you’ll add the hard-boiled eggs, peeled and cut into quarters. I say “you’ll add” because I, in fact, did not add the eggs at this stage. I studiously ignored the lovingly boiled eggs until the entire edifice was tucked into the oven and enough debris was cleared for me to notice them lurking on the spoon rest. Do not make this embarrassing error.

The incomplete filling, sadly lacking in eggy goodness

Spoon the filling into a deep baking dish and top with chopped parsley and lemon zest and then dot on the cooled mash. Keep the top of the mash craggy and uneven, and top with more butter before popping in the oven at 190C / 375F / Gas Mark 5 / 464 Kelvin for about 30 minutes, or until it’s warmed through, golden brown and delicious. Lots of recipes add grated cheese on top of the mash, which would of course be very very nice.

Top Tip! Put the dish on a layer of tinfoil loosely shaped like a bathtub to catch the inevitable gooey spillover.

Once the pie is in the oven, your kitchen may look a bit like a bomb has dropped.

I was a bit surprised at how much mess this made, though I was gratified that it didn’t take long for me to clean it up. Perhaps this is due to my unique genetic makeup which combines my mother’s cooking instinct, free-form approach to recipes and amounts, and ability to dirty every pot in the kitchen with my father’s need to wash the dishes in between supper and dessert.

Done before the pie was out of the oven!

So I sat down to my supper of fish pie with relatively clean kitchen and a glass of cold Pinot Grigio, and a few cherry tomatoes to add to the veg-count.

As mentioned above, we're not on Masterchef here, so presentation was limited to a mostly unsuccessful effort to arrange the tomatoes. 

So that's fish pie. A nice alternative to similar meaty dishes and good if you need to warm yourself and your environment and dust off an unusual number of pots and pans. Especially recommended if you have a dishwasher.

Next time on Grub!: Devilled Eggs...


Piran said...

I don't just recommend London visits, I also do interiors.

Here's the dishwasher you need:

daphne said...

Was watching a BBc drama last week, and lo and behold, a stargazer pie was a prop. I was delighted to tell my husband that I knew what it was, thanks to your blog. Thx

Kathryn Davies said...

Not so secretly happy you didn't make the whole fish one...

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