Traditional British Fish Pie

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Like its cousin, the shepherd’s pie, a British fish pie is a comforting, homely affair of savory stew, topped with a billowy quilt of cheese-gilded mashed potato — though made with fish cooked in a creamy sauce. I’ve encountered the shepherd’s pie from time to time in the U.S., but I’ve never seen fish pie here, which is a tremendous pity given the stellar quality of our local seafood.

In Britain, the pie is saved from blandness by the inclusion of smoked haddock. Since the haddock never seems to have swum to these shores., I instead substituted a piece of smoked salmon and added a few juicy shrimp for extra pink prettiness. But don’t be afraid to experiment; just remember to include a mix of more delicate firm white fish with the more flavorsome varieties. Some sort of green vegetable is a good way to add extra interest. Brits often include some frozen peas or a handful of spinach, but if you can get it, the lemony tang of chopped sorrel cuts through the rich sauce.

For the potato topping

2 1/2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes (or similar), peeled
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons half and half

For the pie

  • 8 ounces Northwest-style hot smoked salmon
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 10 black peppercorns
  • 5 leafy sprigs parsley, separated into leaves and stalks
  • 10 ounces firm-fleshed white fish, boned and skinned (this is a good place to experiment with cheaper varieties)
  • 5 ounces medium prawns, shells removed
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 1/2 cup half and half or heavy cream
  • 1/2 cup white wine (optional)
  • 2 anchovies, finely chopped (optional)
  • 1 large handful sorrel, finely-shredded (or substitute baby spinach)
  • 1 large handful baby spinach
  • Salt and pepper
  • Butter to grease the pan
  • 2 tablespoons grated Gruyere
  • 1 tablespoon grated Parmesan
  • 2 tablespoon stale white breadcrumbs (optional)

Recipe:

Cut the potatoes into similar-sized pieces. Bring a pan of salted water to the boil and add the potato chunks. Boil 15–20 minutes until soft but still firm (alternatively, you can use a steamer).

When fully cooked, drain thoroughly and then mash, using a potato masher or potato ricer. Return the potatoes to the warm pan, stir in the butter and half and half, and set aside.

Pre-heat oven to 400°F.

Place the smoked salmon in an ovenproof baking dish and cover with milk. Add the bay leaf, peppercorns, and parsley stalks, reserving the leaves. Bake 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, cut the white fish into 2-inch pieces and place in a bowl with the shelled prawns, discarding any skin and making sure there are no bones.

Remove smoked salmon from the oven and strain, reserving the infused milk and discarding the aromatics. Discard any skin, break the poached salmon into small pieces, and add it to the other fish in the bowl. Finely chop the reserved parsley leaves.

Melt butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir in flour with a wooden spoon and keep stirring the roux for a minute or two, being careful not to let it brown. Then add the poaching milk a little at a time, whisking the mix constantly — using a whisk will ensure the sauce has no lumps. Bring sauce to the boil and simmer for about five minutes until it thickens and can coat the back of a spoon. Stir in the cream, white wine and anchovies, if using, and turn the sauce down to a gentle simmer. Add parsley leaves, sorrel, if using, and spinach, and season to taste with salt and pepper, remembering that the smoked salmon will be quite salty.

When the leaves have wilted into the sauce, remove from heat and pour over the fish, stirring gently until coated.

Butter a 9-inch oval oven-proof baking dish.

Spoon the fish mixture into the buttered dish

Spoon the previously made mashed potato over the fish, taking care to form an even layer with no obvious gaps. Ridge or swirl the top of the mash with a fork and sprinkle on the cheeses and breadcrumbs, if using.

Bake at the top of the oven 30–40 minutes until golden brown. This is lovely served with any green vegetable.

Serves: 6 | Active time: 20 minutes + 35 minutes additional cooking time

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