Robin’s favourite favourite is fish pie. Closely followed by fish pie. It is not mine, on several counts: a) I find it a bit on the mushy, school-dinner, nursery-fare, side; b) it doesn’t look very appetising once it’s slumped onto the plate; and c) it is a right faff to make, what with having to pre-cook the fish, cook and mash the potatoes and then make a bechamel sauce with the cooking liquid. You feel as though you need to start thinking about dinner roughly five minutes after you’ve put the cornflake bowls in the dishwasher, and you’ll need more pots and pans than Jamie Oliver.
But help is at hand. I was idly watching a Mary Berry programme back in the summer and she made a fish and cauliflower gratin – a kind of fish pie by any other name. Now, I am not overly keen on cauliflower and I certainly don’t think it goes with fish – it’s just about OK if it’s been swathed in a particularly Cheddary-mustardy sauce and baked to a golden crisp in the oven, as a bit of a mid-week tea, but as a component of a fish pie, well, yuk. However, I decided Mary definitely could be on to something with her idea for a more simplified method and, with a few judicious tweaks in the ingredients department, I came up with a yummy alternative.
The potatoes, fennel and leeks do have to be par-boiled, but the spuds don’t need peeling and the veg can all be lobbed into one pan (only one pan to wash and you can re-use it for your greens). The ingredients for the sauce are simply stirred together cold and poured over the pie, and the fish sits on the top underneath a bubbling cheesy crust. The whole thing can be assembled ahead – even the day before – and then thrown in the oven not much more than half an hour before you want to eat. If you don’t like fennel, leave it out, or feel free to swap the veggies around, according to what you have in the fridge. You could go with broccoli, a few handfuls of squeezed-out frozen spinach, or even Mary’s cauliflower suggestion if you don’t share my personal prejudice about that particular combination. All it needs on the side are a few peas or some other simple greens.
This week, I used a mix of smoked haddock and cod from Asda’s frozen section, which was lurking in my freezer in an unloved way, but any smoked or white fish would be perfect. I’ve also made this several times with salmon and prawns, which is probably my favourite. Do add plenty of fresh herbs, as they really contribute to the overall flavour of the dish. If you are cooking this for children and don’t want to add the wine, just slightly increase the milk and cream quantities instead. If you are using smoked fish, remember that it is usually quite salty, as is the Cheddar, so be careful about adding more.
If you are making this for a special occasion and want it to be more luxurious, dispense with the milk and use all cream. It will be highly-calorific, of course, but really rich and delicious.
No-faff fish pie
You will need an oven-proof dish or tin, greased – just large enough to take all the ingredients without too much spare space – it doesn’t matter if the fish sits slightly proud of the dish.
400g new potatoes (or other waxy variety – you don’t want them to fall to pieces)
100g fennel (approx half of a medium bulb, trimmed weight)
1 medium leek
2 tablespoons chopped parsley (or a mix of parsley and dill or tarragon)
2 tablespoons cornflour (corn starch – the white squeaky stuff)
150ml double cream
50ml dry white wine
1 heaped teaspoon Dijon or grain mustard (optional)
120g Cheddar cheese, grated (or you could use Gruyère or Comte if you are feeling flush)
350g fish (approx) – you can use smoked haddock, cod, pollack, salmon, prawns or other fish that you like, or a mix (thaw the fish, if frozen)
A little sweet or smoked paprika for the top
Extra chopped parsley for sprinkling
Pre-heat the oven to 180ºC.
Cut the potatoes into chunks roughly the size of a Brussels sprout (don’t peel). Trim and wash the leek, and slice into rounds. Cut the fennel bulb into quarters, trim off the stalky heart, then slice horizontally. Chop the herbs.
Put the potatoes into a pan with slightly salted water. Bring to the boil, turn down the heat, then cook (covered) for about five minutes. Add the leeks and fennel, return the pan to the boil and then reduce the heat again, and simmer for a further five minutes. The potatoes should be just about tender (they will cook more in the oven).
Drain the vegetables thoroughly, add the chopped herbs to the pan and toss gently so that everything is evenly combined. Season with black pepper – you probably won’t need salt if you are using smoked fish.
Spread the potato/veg mixture over the base of your greased tin, then scatter over a little more than half of the grated Cheddar. In a measuring jug, mix the cornflour with a little of the milk and stir well until there are no lumps. Add the rest of the milk, together with the cream, white wine (if using) and mustard. Season with a little pepper.
Cut the fish into chunks and spread over the top of the cheese and the potato mixture.
Carefully pour over the milk and cream, then scatter the rest of the cheese over the top. Shake over a couple of pinches of paprika, which gives a lovely piquant flavour and makes the top of the pie a fantastic colour.
Bake in the pre-heated oven for about 25 minutes* until the pie has a lovely bubbling crusty top. Scatter with chopped parsley before serving.
*If you assemble the pie ahead, don’t pour over the milk/cream mixture until just before baking – and if everything is fridge cold, it may need an extra five minutes in the oven.