Monday, November 23, 2009

Billingsgate Fish Pie

A couple of weeks ago my birthday treat was a morning spent at Billingsgate Fish Market which I loved. It was organised in part to look at sustainable local fish, particularly for catering. A fascinating tour of the market was followed by a demonstration of knife skills by a block man, who skins, fillets and otherwise variously preps fish 12 hours a day with a thin flexible blade. Watching him was like theatre, the speed and accuracy with which he dealt with every kind of fish, including gutting and then butterflying a handful of tiny sliver sprats. I learned a vast amount, having always been aware of flat fish I was delighted to discover that the others are called round fish, obvious as that is once you know. Wild fish offer the best flavour and texture but farmed fish provide a huge market which would otherwise be depleting wild schools. Farmed fish have smaller heads, bigger shoulders and stockier bodies than their wild counterparts. They are also starved for 3 days before harvest to provide a cleaner fish.

Kevin Crowley, the block man, explained how simple it was to tell perfectly fresh fish. They are called stiff alive, which he demonstrated by holding a fish its head and the fish sagged not at all. The sagging fish are dead! Except for dover sole, which should not be stiff alive, as they are too tough to eat fresh out of the sea. It is best to eat them five days after catching, and you can tell they are ready if you hold them by the head the tail should curl back to touch your wrist. Who knew!

The last part of the morning was cooking demonstrations in the well laid out kitchen where the cookery school is based. Lovely cured mackerel on sushi rice - the demonstration showed how incredibly easy it is to simply peel the skin from the fillet once it has been cured which will save me time next time I make some. There was two kinds of fish with chips, whiting and coley, both in a featherlight crisp batter that was delightful. Tasting both I definitely preferred the whiting, it was delicate and lightly textured, a pleasure to eat.

They very generously handed out recipes for the dishes they made as well as one for fish pie. Though I have never been a fan of fish pie I figured that if ever there was a good recipe for it, then it would definitely be the one they hand out at Billingsgate. These people know and love fish. So Saturday night I decided I would make one, to test my theory, and to feed my friend David who came round to join us. Autumn is upon us and the need for comfort is assauged with lovely meals like this turned out to be.

Truth to tell I altered the recipe slightly - it includes mustard powder and I don't eat mustard - and I downsized it to be enough for 3, though it could have fed four without much trouble at all.

Billingsgate Fish Pie

1 whiting, about 500g, gutted but otherwise whole
900ml whole milk
1 bay leaf
90g butter
1 finely sliced leek
90g plain flour
¼ teaspoon ground chilli pepper
¼ teaspoon grated nutmeg
2 hard boiled eggs, peeled and thickly sliced
1 tablespoon chopped dill
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
Salt and pepper

For the mashed potato topping
500g Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
25g butter
120-150ml milk
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons grated Cheddar cheese

Preheat oven to 190C/375F/G5.

Curl the fish into a pan – if like me you don’t have a fish kettle – and cover with milk. Add the bay leaf then gently bring the milk to the boil. Turn down the heat to just simmer and poach the fish for 5 minutes or so until cooked. Strain the milk into a jug and set aside. Take the flesh off the bones, it comes away very easily, and flake it into a casserole dish. Add the chopped eggs and herbs and a good grinding of pepper.

Cook the leek in the melted butter until soft. Stir in the flour, chilli pepper and grated nutmeg and cook for another minute. Gradually blend in enough of the reserved milk to make a smooth paste – about 500ml. Bring to the boil stirring continuously simmer for 2-3 minutes.
Pour the sauce over the fish and mix gently.

For the topping, put the potatoes into a pan of salted water and bring to the boil. Simmer for 10-15 minutes till tender. Drain and allow the steam to rise for a minute or two so that the potatoes are dry. Mash with butter and some milk to the consistency of your normal mash. Season. Spoon the mash smoothly over the fish. Sprinkle with grated cheese.

Bake for 20-25 minutes until the topping is golden brown and the pie hot and bubbling.

Eat with peas! My initial plan had been to serve it with wilted spinach and steamed carrots but the man said Peas! so Peas! it was. He was right - an utterly perfect accompaniment.


Gourmet Chick said...

Hi Bron - lovely to meet you and this recipe is great I am just about to make a fish pie and was going to use an old Jamie Oliver recipe I had but I may work in some of this as well

bron said...

Hope it worked well! It was great to meet you too - hope to do so again

kevinblockman said...

Hi Bron- Thank you so much for your very kind words, It means such a lot when people such as your self take on board and remember what is said. It makes all our effeorts worth while. It would be great to see you at Billingsgate again if you ever want to visit the market to buy fish for yourself but are unsure please dont hessitate to contact me I would be delighted to show you around. Best wishes Kevin Crowley (blockman)

bron said...

Kevin - thank you. I learned a lot that morning and it has given me some confidence to cook more fish and do it well. I will take you up on your offer next time I go to Billingsgate. Cheers!

Brett Warner said...

I don't think I've ever had a fish pie, but I'll try just about anything once!