I have tried to avoid this, it’s a such a tricky one as everyone has a personal favourite version. Some people like hardboiled egg sliced into the sauce along with the fish, others think this is simply sacrilege and smacks of parsimony. Some people insist that a fish pie is not a fish pie without smoked fish whilst others rail that there is no place for an oyster in the potato topped volcanically hot fishy wonder of a dish that is the fish pie. One thing is for sure we are not going to settle that here and now, nor ever, so I have decided to share my version of fish pie with you, or at least my version of fish pie this week – I change my mind like the weather and that I think is the secret to the very best fish pie; use what you want that week, what you have, what is good at the fish shop and even, tactically what you know other people don’t like to keep the leftovers safe in the fridge from marauding visitors!
A few things to think about before we start. A white sauce is a base for flavour, not a finished product, you get out what you put in and if all you put in is milk, flour and butter that is all you will get out. I like to flavour my milk first – for example, if I’m going to prawn up my fish pie I will simmer the prawn shells in the milk to get the flavour level up and save on waste, if I want a smoked edge to the sauce I can simmer the skin from some smoked haddock in the milk to get it going that way. I will add garlic, onion, bay, thyme or / and even white wine or a drop of cider. You can even remove the milk all together and make your classic sauce with a stock instead of milk, or a combination of the two but whatever you do make sure it is a little thicker than you think it needs to be or it will end up runny when you cook the pie.
Finally, before we dive in, think about your spuds. Mash them very well and then whip them up with butter and an egg yolk or two and loads of seasoning, a good trick is to add some finely chopped Dulse to the mash for that authentic costal feel and make sure it is warm when you try and spread it on to the bed of fish and sauce otherwise it will refuse to spread and you will end up in a pickle.
OK, here’s this week’s version in the Maddams household, based on what I have in the freezer and what I want to use up – you can chop and change your fish as much as you like, trout and salmon are more or less interchangeable in this situation depending on how you feel and crab, prawns, shrimp and even a little lobster are all very welcome. I don’t go in for egg but you can if you like and I always include some smoked white fish if I can, it’s just better that way, like cheese is better at room temperature.
For the sauce
A handful of fish trimmings, smoked fish skin, a few prawn shells (as discussed above)
½ an onion
2 fresh bay leaves
4 pepper corns
4 cloves of garlic
A sprig of thyme
A drop of sweet white wine
A few parsley stalks
100g plain flour
Bring everything except the flour and the butter to a simmer in a sauce pan and allow it to simmer for a few minutes, then turn off the heat and allow it to all just sit for a further 10 minutes, then strain off and discard the straining’s, you will now have a lovely, hot, aromatic and fish scented liquor ideal for our purpose.
In a fresh pan, melt the butter and scatter in the flour, stirring to make a looser than usual roux. Slowly add the warm milk mixing all the time and allowing the mixture to return to a simmer between additions so you can keep an eye on smoothness and consistency. Continue until all the milk is added and you have a smooth, flavoursome white sauce. Season with salt and pepper as needed and allow to cool a little.
You will want around 800g of mixed fish for your pie, I have used (because that’s what I had)
300g rainbow trout fillet / you could use responsibly sourced salmon if you prefer
100g smoked prawns / or even brown shrimps, I love brown shrimps
200g smoked haddock / or unsmoked – perhaps salt it a little though to help with the flavour
100g turbot frills and trimmings / any fish you like really, gurnard is excellent or grey mullet
100g brown crab meat
I simply slice all of this into fairly chunky pieces, or not at all if already cut up a bit – I like big chunks of fish in my fish pie, not little bits of nondescript flakes – and scatter this over the bottom of a suitable baking dish that I have buttered well. I prefer to make these things deep rather than shallow, you lose a little crispy potato but you gain better fish chunk integrity, each to their own.
Pour / spread the sauce over the fish.
Simmer your spuds until tender but not falling apart, well drain them and mash 1kg of floury potatoes, such as Edwards or Estima and beat in 200g melted butter, 2 egg yolks, a dash or two of milk, a pinch of ground mace and some chopped dulse or chives if you prefer.
I am pretty laid back about most things but if you attempt to offer me a fish pie that has had the mash piped on the top you will cause me to raise an eyebrow at the very least, save it for the Black Forrest gateaux please. Think about topping your fish pie like you are trying to plaster over thin air, use the dish to scrape large quantities of mash from your trowel and then lightly skim over the middle so you do not squidge the potato down into the fish. You can tart up the top a bit with the end of the pallet knife if you feel the need.
Bake the pie in a moderate oven, say 40 mins at 180 c for a fan oven until golden brown on the top and bubbling underneath. Allow the pie to rest without digging in for 5 minutes to let everything clam down a little, and for me it has to be garlic buttered peas on the side.