Who says beige has to be dull? A meal with mashed potatoes as a splash of color isn’t going to win any style awards, but fish pie knows how to play to its strengths. It’s the warm, cuddly equivalent of settling down with a mug of tea for a Sunday afternoon flick – and the ideal vehicle for Hugh Fearnley-latest Whittingstall’s campaign’s sustainable seafood message. When flounder is covered in a creamy, savory sauce behind a crowd-pleasing crust of fluffy mash, who could not feel a flutter for it, or be passionate about pollack?
We’ve chosen Nigel Slater’s recipe as our control since it’s one of the simplest we could find, plus the man can’t go wrong when it comes to comfort food. The fish is poached in milk until opaque and soft, then drained and combined with a roux to produce a basic white sauce with chopped parsley and dill. It’s comfortingly thick, but indisputably bland – possibly on purpose – and the pre-cooked fish is, dare I say, a little rubbery after 40 minutes in a 180C oven.
Alternative White Sauce
Marco Pierre White uses stock in his fish pie – after all, he has described the cubes he’s paid to sponsor as “the best fucking ingredient in the world” – but his willingness to embrace them doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the earnest devotee of the amateur stockpot. Marco’s recipe is intriguing in that it foregoes the white sauce entirely, so I give it a shot, softening shallots in butter before deglazing the pan with vermouth and white wine, reducing them to a syrup, and then adding fish stock (Marco doesn’t specify what kind in this recipe, so I take his word for it and use cubes from a leading brand) and reducing it again. It’s ready to use once you’ve added some double cream and let it simmer for a few minutes.
A fish pie is a versatile dish; as Jamie Oliver points out, you can use any seafood you like, from mackerel to mussels, so it’s a great way to try out different flavors. I agree with Nigel Slater that the base should be a delicately flavored, hard white fish, preferably something similar to cod but with a larger population, such as pollack or coley.
Something smoked is also a must (the savory richness adds depth to the sauce; superb smoked haddock is readily available online), as is a little of shellfish for diversity. Mussels are “cheap, juicy, and add gobs of flavour,” according to Nigel, but I find the texture off-putting; sweet small North Atlantic prawns are better to my taste, and offer a splash of color as well. (I believe scallops, tiger prawns, and other seafood are wasted here.) Some people like to add salmon for a pop of color; but, if you chop it too small, it will be woolly and overdone. Sautéed leeks and spinach work well in a fish pie to bulk out the filling, and spinach has the extra benefit of not requiring any pre-cooking.
A word about that seductive golden top I mentioned earlier; Angela Boggiano’s smoked fish and cider recipe in her succinctly-titled Pie uses a pastry crust, and Nigel Slater suggests a most unorthodox crumble mixture (which I consider 10 kinds of wrong), but nothing beats a cloud of fluffy mash for sheer comfort – nothing else soaks up the sauce in quite the same way. You can also top yours with a few breadcrumbs to give crunch in homage to J Sheekey (purveyors of the best fish pies in London): adding anything further to a properly seasoned mash is gilding the lily in our opinion, but you can follow their lead and sprinkle over a little Parmesan if you’re feeling luxurious.
Here are all the ingredients needed for your perfect fish pie:
1kg floury potatoes, eg Maris Piper or King Edwards
Splash of milk
500ml fish stock
100ml white wine
Small bunch of parsley, separated into leaves and stalks
350g white fish fillets and / or salmon
350g smoked white fish
200g small peeled prawns
50g plain flour
200ml double cream
2 anchovies, finely chopped
Handful of white breadcrumbs
This is a beautiful traditionally British dish that you and your co-eaters will surely enjoy.