There are barely any recipes of fish on this blog, however I love eating fish. I find it a stunning ingredient, much more interesting and subtle compared to meat, with few contestants in terms of complexity of flavour and texture even in the vegetable world (a few mushrooms, maybe?). I am not intimidated by fish as an ingredient: I have a handful of family recipes up my sleeve that are tasty and foolproof. I grew up eating fish. Both my parents cook it with skill, but it was usually my father who wore his apron on Saturdays to cook today’s catch from the market. When we visited our grandparents, it was a fish feast.
Nothing like fish brings me to pure, unadulterated gluttony. I might be able – under extreme circumstances – to be fed up of eating chocolate, or pasta, or cheese, or oranges, or heaven forbid! maybe even pizza, but nothing would ever stop me from being the one who polishes off that monumental fried baby squid dish.
Unfortunately, I had a great fortune: I fell in love. I started to share the vast majority of my meals with someone who does not like fish. Who actually gets sick when he eats it. Who does not want to see any corpses on his plate – though he does eat meat! With the years we have stretched boundaries. There are some things that live in the sea and that he would eat: shrimps, octopus, squids, cockles and mussels, swordfish. That’s it. This did not stop me from eating fish – in moderation, because the last thing I want is that our children won’t be able to taste tuna because I am overeating it. But all my fish recipes are in general very simple, partly because I am cooking only for myself, partly because good fish does not need much else.
A few days ago I was reading an article on the Guardian, and I started to crave fish pie. Since I don’t eat as much fish as I’d like to at home, I tend to eat it when I go out, and in the UK one of the great pub classics is fish pie. I liked the one from the pub down the road, but I probably was not the only one: fish pie was almost always finished. When it was available, it came at lead melting temperature, you had to wait a couple of pints before you could tackle it. It was totally oozing with cheese above it. Below, fluffy mash, soft white sauce, and generous fish chunks, some of them lightly smoked. A world apart from the fish dishes I know: most Italians would probably go without food rather than eating fish with cheese, and the whole comforting milkiness of the fish pie is quite different from our fish recipes, cooked with wine and herbs, usually, and never with heavy and hearty sauces. But once I won over the initial diffidence, I grew to love this ultimately comforting, filling, yet somehow light dish (I’m comparing with other pub grub here). And I do miss it, sometimes.
If you want a fish pie in Germany, you’d better start cooking (surprisingly, at the market they do the best fried fish ‘fish& chips style’ I’ve ever tasted). Here is what I came up with, loosely starting with the advice from the Guardian’s article. It was surprisingly good, given that I bought some random frozen fish for it, and the proportion between potatoes, fish and sauce was exactly what I was after. It is a bit labour intensive, but you’ll end up with loads of fish pie that you can store for a rainy day. Great stuff.
A note on frozen fish: when you make fish pie, you make loads of it, and I felt nervous about keeping it in the fridge for more than one day. So I made two, ate one, and froze the other. Then it occurred to me that you are not supposed to freeze frozen stuff again. I did a quick search and it turned out, it is ok to refreeze if you cook the food in between. There is nothing wrong or magical with re-freezing per se. Somehow the cell structure of the food gets damaged by any large ice crystals created when freezing. If you thaw and refreeze this cell damage gets greatly amplified, and you’ll probably end up with something that has a completely different structure than the fresh product. Besides, while you keep food at room temperature for thawing, bacteria reactivate and start spoiling your food, and when you re-thaw it a second time, there will be much more bacteria than the first time around, so you food might not be safe. This is a bigger problem if you are using big pieces of meat, where, in order to thaw the center, the small parts stay at room temperature for hours. Knowing this, there is a number of steps you can take to guarantee food safety and quality. One of them is to cook the food in between – cooking alters the cell structure anyway, and kills bacteria. So you can thaw your fish, cook it, and refreeze it, and no issues will arise.
Ingredients (makes 4 servings)
For the topping :
800 gr floury potatoes
100 ml milk
10 gr butter
1 tablespoon breadcrumbs
grated parmesan, to taste, or a fat but not strongly flavoured cheese (I used gouda)
For the filling:
2 tablespoon flour
50 gr butter
500 ml milk
200 ml dry white wine
1 tablespoon homemade vegetable bouillon
1 bay leaf
1 small bunch flat leaf parsley
2 garlic cloves
Mixed fish: about 500 gr
I used: smoked mackerel, half fillet
100 gr salmon
200 gr white fish
125 gr small raw shrimps
Take your fish out of the freezer, if frozen, so that it starts to thaw. Peel and cut the potatoes into dice, and steam them (using a pressure cooker) or just boil them until tender.
Chop the parsley, keeping the stalks.
Warm wine and half of the milk, together with the vegetable bouillon, the bay leaf, the garlic and the parsley stalks.
Cut the fish into even sized chunks, about 2×2 cm for white fish and salmon, and smaller strips for smoked fish; if you like cut the shrimps a bit as well. Poach it gently together with the shrimps in the wine and milk mixture.
Let it reach boiling temperature (it might take a while if your fish is frozen), and let simmer for about five minutes. The milk may curdle, leaving lumps of coagulated proteins, but this is not a problem. Strain out the fish (and the milk lumps in case) and keep the liquid.
In another big pan, melt the butter, whisk in the flour, then thin it with the remaining milk, hot. Mix well so that there are no lumps, let it thicken a bit, then add the poaching liquid and let the sauce bubble until it is a bit thick (not too dense). Take off the heat. Adjust salt and pepper, add the chopped parsley. Mix in carefully the fish pieces and coat them in the sauce.
Mash the potatoes, and add the hot milk and butter to them. Add salt and pepper, and if you like, a bit of parmesan.
Arrange the fish pieces on a deep oven dish (I used two sized 15×15 cm). Cover with a layer of mashed potatoes. This part is a bit tricky because the potatoes are usually denser than the fish but you don’t want the fish and sauce to go out, so be delicate when you arrange the potatoes (if you are a control freak a sac à poche is probably the best tool, however a pair of forks and spoons can work). Decorate with ridges if you like. At this point you can cook the pie immediately, or keep it in the fridge for a day, or freeze it.
Preheat the oven at 200 Celsius. Cook the pie, covered with aluminium foil, for about ten-twenty minutes until the sauce below is bubbling: depending on the initial temperature of the pie, this could take more. Cover with a generous layer of cheese (if you are unsure, use parmesan) and a little sprinkle of breadcrumbs for extra crunchiness. Put back in the oven until the top is golden, about 10 more minutes.
Serve piping hot.