When my grandfather died, almost ten years ago now, I took to my grandmother's kitchen and proceeded to make industrial sized quantities of food; dishes that could be reheated easily, that could be frozen, and food that I knew people would be able to eat without giving it very much thought. In part, this was about feeding the hundreds of people who passed through those portals that freezing January. But it was also my way of coping with the heartache. I was able to concentrate on something—anything—that wasn't overly demanding and it was practical.
Fish pie was the number one dish that I made. We refer to it as 'nursery food' here; it's comforting and easy to eat, and reminds you of the safety and security of childhood. It was just what everyone needed.
However, despite its funerary connotations (interestingly, Nigella Lawson includes a fish pie recipe in the 'Funeral' chapter of her luscious book Feast), fish pie is something that I cook on a regular basis. Mostly, I think, because everyone seems to like it, although I won't deny that cooking something that doesn't require much thought is sometimes what I need.
This recipe is good for four.
- 500g (1lb) mixed fish — I work on the premise of something pink (salmon), something white (pollack is a good sustainable option in the UK), and something smoked (haddock if you can find some that's sustainable, or salmon is good, too)
- 5 large potatoes
- 200g spinach
- 2 eggs
- 1 medium onion, finely chopped
- 1 carrot, finely chopped
- 200ml creme fraiche
- Juice of half a lemon
- Handful of grated cheese (Cheddar, or something hard and strong-flavoured, ideally)
- Butter, milk, and horseradish sauce
- Salt and black pepper
Start by boiling the potatoes—skin on or off, depending on whether or not they're organic and your culinary preferences—in salted water until tender. I place a steamer over the top of the pan and wilt the spinach at the same time, usually in two batches. Put the eggs on to hard-boil, too.
Whilst the potatoes are cooking, make the sauce for the fish. Fry off the onion and carrot in some butter (add a splash of oil to prevent it from burning) until tender, which will take around five minutes. When it's ready, tip in the creme fraiche, add the lemon juice (yes, it will look as if it should curdle, but don't worry), and grind in some black pepper. When the creme fraiche has warmed through, tip in the cheese so that it can melt. Stir it thoroughly and turn out the flame.
As soon as the potatoes have cooked, drain them and return them to the pan. You don't need to worry about them just yet.
Cut the fish into 2.5cm (1 inch) chunks and place in a deep oven dish along with wilted spinach and the hard-boiled eggs that you have shelled and cut into quarters.
Pour the creme fraiche sauce over the fish and mix well.
Now go back to those potatoes. Mash them with butter, milk, and a spoon of horseradish sauce. I'm generous with the horseradish because I happen to like it, but I understand that not everyone is. Even if you're sceptical, do give it a go: horseradish adds interest to the potato and complements the fish wonderfully.
Spoon the mashed potato over the fish mixture and fork a pattern into the top if you're that way inclined.
Place the dish in a pre-heated oven at 190° Celsius (375° Fahrenheit) for 20 minutes. At this temperature and for this length of time the potato won't get much of a crisp on, but any longer will overcook the fish and that's just yukky. If you really like a crunch, blast it under a hot grill.
That is about that. Enjoy it with vegetables of your choice and a glass of white wine. If you can lay your hands on a good Vouvray, that would be the perfect accompaniment to this. Failing that, a Sauvignon Blanc complements the fish; or a Chablis works with the creamy mashed potato.
Music to cook to: Under the Blacklight, Rilo Kiley
A quick note on freezing. Fish pie freezes fantastically, but, hard-boiled eggs don't. If you are making to freeze, please omit the eggs.