The way Brits describe their fish pie is a lot like the way Texans talk about brisket or New Yorkers explain a properly chewy bagel—which is to say, with great conviction and affection. The Guardian columnist Felicity Cloake has compared the beloved casserole to a cozy pair of slippers or a Sunday-afternoon film with a mug of tea, and Manchester-based journalist Tony Naylor dubbed it “elbows-on-the‑table, fork‑in-one-hand, glass-in-the-other eating.” “Fish pie,” he wrote in his own Guardian account, “should be a dish of seamless comfort-troffing.”
Britain’s Coziest Pie
Unequivocally snug, substantive fare that likely evolved as a Lenten dish made with seafood scraps (see “From Meatless Fridays to Fish Pie”), the dish is the surf equivalent of shepherd’s or cottage pie. It’s typically a mixture of fresh and smoked finfish such as cod, haddock, and salmon and shellfish such as shrimp, which is all napped with a creamy, roux-based sauce flavored with stock, wine, and aromatics; sealed with a lid of mashed potatoes; and baked or broiled until the crust is craggy and lightly bronzed. The result is as comforting as it is luxurious, ideal cold-weather fare for family or company.
From Meatless Fridays to Fish Pie
According to British food historian Dr. Eleanor Barnett, contemporary fisherman’s pie likely evolved from simpler, scrappier versions that were eaten on “fish days” (Fridays and sometimes Saturdays) during the medieval and early modern periods, when meat (and dairy) was banned. Unadorned eel and carp pies, she said, show up in 1615 in John Murrell’s A New Booke of Cookerie and are examples of early recipes made with whatever trim could be coaxed from a local fishmonger. It wasn’t until much later that recipes became more prescriptive about the method, such as the version in Jessup Whitehead’s 1889 book, The Steward’s Handbook and Guide to Party Catering, which instructs cooks to “drain off the liquor and add cream in its place” and even specifies the type of seafood to use.
Photography: Creative Commons
Plenty of Fish
For my own recipe, I opted to use cod fillets (widely available both fresh and frozen) as well as smoked salmon in place of the smoked haddock that is traditionally used in the UK but rarely available stateside. Four ounces of cold-smoked fillets added vivid color and rich flavor to the stew, and I preferred their silkier texture to the drier, flakier fillets of hot-smoked salmon (though the latter made a perfectly acceptable substitute). Jumbo shrimp added briny sweetness and snappy bite, especially after I tossed them with salt and a bit of baking soda before cooking. Even though the shrimp are cooked a bit longer than usual in this dish, they stayed moist and springy since baking soda raises the shrimp’s pH and helps them retain moisture.
The Boozy History of Clam Juice
If you woke with a hangover in the early 1900s, you may have downed aspirin with an iced clam juice chaser to cure your ailments. In the same era, the briny blend—made by filtering the salted water used to steam clams—also became popular as a mixer for hot soda-fountain drinks such as the clam and ginger and the malted clamette. Since then, the bivalve‑based brew is mainly used to add marine savoriness to seafood soups and stews, though its role in drinks persists in cocktails such as the bloody Caesar. –Rebecca Hays
Sautéed aromatics (leek instead of onion for its milder allium flavor plus fresh thyme) were the flavor base for my creamy sauce, which I thickened to a chowder-like consistency by whisking in flour and bottled clam juice. The latter delivered the clean, briny flavor of the sea without the extra effort of making a seafood stock. Then came the dairy: Heavy cream got the nod over milk for the lush richness it added.
How to Spread the Spuds
To neatly spread the thick topping over the loose filling, start by applying spoonfuls of mashed potato around the edges of the baking dish and then arrange the remainder in the center of the dish. Smooth the potato topping with a rubber spatula, making sure to seal the edges so that no seafood or sauce is exposed.
There are two common routes for cooking the seafood: combining it raw with the sauce in a gratin dish, topping it with mashed potatoes, and then baking the assembly until the fish is cooked through, or parcooking it in the sauce on the stove before smoothing the potatoes over the filling and broiling the pie to color and crisp the topping. I preferred the latter because it was much faster, and it also allowed for close monitoring of the seafood as it simmered, ensuring moist, tender results every time. But regardless of the method, there was potential for the sauce to break, since the exuded seafood jus and cream don’t readily mix.
The solution was to frequently stir the seafood and sauce while they gently bubbled together on the stovetop to ensure that juices given off by the seafood were fully incorporated.
To finish up, I adapted our Shepherd’s Pie potato topping for this pie, swapping cream for the milk (as I was already using cream in the filling) and eliminating the scallions. I kept the egg yolk to help the russets soufflé. Its protein and fat—along with a drizzle of butter—also encouraged browning on top of this seafood pie that I hope will earn plenty of fans on this side of the pond.