Fish Pie By Naomi Johnson
Fish Pie A British Comfort Food
I was utterly delighted when Charles picked me to write a guest blog post for him, his philosophy of teaching people to cook basic foods is something that I really feel is ignored nowadays. Social media can be useful for any number of life-hacks and easy recipes but for those craving the foods their mothers lovingly prepared for them when they were little it is unlikely they will find the exact recipe. That is because there is one key ingredient in a mother’s food, and it is love, it makes the difference between food and a delicious meal.
British cooking is a strange beast, seemingly stuck in a war-time era of thrifty yet filling foods, pubs are filled with stodgy foods such as toad in the hole, shepherd’s pie, and Sunday roasts or ‘Carvery’. Fish pie is another classic, although less on the thrifty side, it is filling and comforting on a cold day and equally satisfying for a weekend evening meal.
It also includes an important skill, making a béchamel sauce – something which is key to a vast number of dishes all across the world, including lasagna, many classic French dishes, and moussaka. Granted, when béchamel is required it does not usually require the milk to be infused with the fish but nonetheless, the principle remains the same. It was one of the first basic sauces I learnt to cook at school, and it has stood me in good stead.
Fish pie is one of those recipes which can be adapted to budget, for those with a smaller budget you are more than welcome to pick up either a fish pie mix or use frozen fish – if you have a larger budget – go wild – use freshly caught fish, prawns even lobster if you really want; that is the beauty of this dish.
The creamy mashed potato topped with cheese completes this dish and is also a very British trick, the filling carbs mix with the creamy white sauce and pieces of flakey fish. The addition of frozen vegetables is not really traditional, but peas were often added as it was a convenient way to add extra vegetables into the diet.
But truly the most important element here is the ‘love’. This recipe takes some time and care to make, it will of course taste fine with store-bought sauce and ingredients if you really don’t want to make the bechamel but trust me, as a child my nanna would make chicken wings with 3 simple ingredients but until I started consciously putting in the love mine were nowhere near as good.
I hope you enjoy this recipe for fish pie, it is one of my favorite recipes to make. Have courage when making the bechamel – it is intimidating the first few times but a little patience goes a long way – and you will also be able to make lasagne without cheating!
Smoked haddock is by far the best choice in this dish – if you can get undyed even better but that is not essential and it certainly doesn’t affect the colour of the sauce. There are of course a wide range of smoked fishes you could use but if you want to use hot smoked salmon I would suggest simply adding them to the mixture rather than putting the slices in for poaching.
A classic white fish such as haddock or cod is traditionally used along with salmon filets depending on your taste and budget. There are also a wide range of ‘cheaper’ fishes such as basa, it is worth bearing in mind that these are not always the most environmentally or responsibly sourced. Some are river fish which carry a higher risk of pollution and mercury content which is not something you really want. I would advise against oily fish such as mackerel and sardines as they would bring a different flavour palette to the overall dish. Supermarkets often offer a range of cheaper fish in their freezer section, it is fine to use frozen although bear in mind the water content when poaching the fish as it will make the milk boil more easily and if you overfill the pan the results are smelly and messy to clear up. Using a low to medium heat it will take roughly 20 minutes or so with the lid slightly ajar but keep an eye on it, if it looks like it’s bubbling just adjust the temperature so it doesn’t over boil.
If you want to use shellfish such as prawns, squid or even scallops I recommend leaving them until you assemble the pie – they take moments to cook and the heat of the sauce in the oven should be more than enough. Otherwise you will end up with a chewy and rubbery texture in the sauce.
Cheese or No Cheese
This is up to you – I don’t always add it when I make fish pie, sometimes because I don’t have any but also because it’s just as nice without, so it’s up to you. Having said that, do not put it in the sauce – this is not a cheese bechamel the cheese is simply for extra crunch on the top.
Topping Your Pie
Some might be intimidated by the thought of lovingly piping their mashed potatoes across the top, I rarely go to the trouble, largely because a fork and spoon do just as well and you can still create patterns with a fork if you wish.
My mother adds fresh parsley to the sauce – you could also add fresh dill if you like but personally I don’t – again it’s entirely a matter of personal taste. Dill will certainly make it more luxurious if that is your desired outcome.
Whilst this dish is not designed for a plant based or vegan diet (you could use banana flowers but that is not something I have any experience with) it is suitable for gluten free and dairy free. Using a good gluten free flour and plant based milk and butter you can still make bechamel. The principle is the same but you might need to make heat allowances as plant milk is not as stable as normal dairy due to the lactose and casein.British-Fish
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Ummm Fish Pie
When Naomi, and I were talking about the guest post, I said give me something British, impressive and easy to make. I was surprised when I saw that a fish pie was what was selected.
I have visited England many times over the years, both before I retired from the military and after. One of my last trips while still in the military was to a semi-active RAF base near Norwich. For the life of me, I can not remember the name of the base. I do remember it had a small but outstanding museum, the runways were closed, and there were only about a dozen RAF assigned there. The housing area was still active.
The unit I was with was there for a two-week exercise. However, I went two weeks early to retrieve equipment we had at another RAF base and stayed two weeks after. During the two weeks before and the two weeks after, we had to eat in the local community. I and a few of my team would often go to a local pub with a few RAF airmen for some rounds of darts. That also included some drinks and pub food.
My favorite pub foods included Fish Pie. Bangers and Mash and Fish and Chips filled out my top three choices. I have not tried this dish yet, However, you can be sure that I will.
Naomi has written a few food books. Here is a clip from one of them:
Food has been a big part of my life from a very tender age. From remembering the food made by my grandparents to having tea at a friends when I was little. It has stayed with me throughout the years. I hope the recipes in this book inspire you to share food with your own friends & family and make some truly great memories of your own.