Monday, March 31, 2014

Classic Fish Pie

Amazing British Food? Surely that's an oxymoron.

Not so fast, my fine friends.

In the 18th century, there was very little difference between English, French and Italian food. If you look at the recipes, and they are almost all from the upper-crust of society who could afford to have servants and cooks and people who actually wrote the recipes down (as opposed to just make them), you will notice a strikingly similar set of palates and techniques. All the variation is just in what modern-day parlance is referred to as "locally-sourced ingredients" — what other choice was there back then?

It's the rise of nationalism in the 19th century and the extreme productivity of the early industrial society that led to a sharp distinction in cuisines. For lack of a better phrase, it was a form of "nationalistic branding". Even then, assuredly British cuisine could hold its own against the rest. After all, this was the richest society on earth. Surely nobody rational can believe that they ate badly, right?

It is also important to note that Britain's primary source of wealth was its Empire. A young stalwart called America was muscling onto its economic terrain using the power of technology — in this case agricultural and transportation technology. Midwestern grain could reach Europe cheaper than anything they could produce there. It was just economies of scale.There was a long slow decline in Britain's fortunes that has been documented extensively.

What laid utter waste to British Food was the Great War — World War I.

It destroyed the aristocracy. It destroyed the wealth, the food sourcing, the elaborate techniques, and the accumulated knowledge. You have to remember that a British aristocrat using the power of the nascent telephone (and canning technology!) back then could source food ingredients from all over the world. It was the proto-typical Internet.

It was all completely annihilated.

After that, between the loss of reserve currency status, loss of Empire and World War II, the culture turned into an economic wasteland with predictable effects on its food.

It took another 60 years to recover.

So the CC is going to argue quite forcefully that people who deride British food are looking at it through myopic eyes. Was it awful for about a century? Emphatically yes, but that's for non-reproducible reasons in what is but a twinkling of an eye in world history which happens to be the same as food history.

So you are going to have to dial back the clock and not just look at a modern-day recipe but what exactly were its antecedents. Once you do, you see the same "fresh herbs" and "fresh ingredients" and "attention to detail" that you see in other places.

What would classical English spicing be? Any herbs that grow in a colder climate. Just remember than the British Isles are nowhere near as cold as Scandinavia because of the warm North Atlantic Drift.

English thyme, parsley, bay leaves, rosemary, rue and mint (which is basically a weed and will grow anywhere). The entire cornucopia of spices imported from India since Roman times (pepper, cinnamon, cloves, etc.) and also from the West Indies (nutmeg, etc.)

The sauces are a little complex and heavy for modern palates but then the same goes for Classical French Cuisine which has fallen out of favor as well. All that can be easily addressed. You can lighten the sauce to make it more amenable to a contemporary audience. It's not even hard.

What's presented below is a classic fish pie.

Note the extensive use of fresh herbs. Note the careful three-part technique upfront before the final baking where each step neatly turns into the next one so that not even the slightest iota of flavor or ingredients are wasted.

How does it work?

In the old days, you would have sourced whole fish, whole prawns, etc. Our modern fillets and cleaned fish waste most of the parts that are used to extract even more flavor into the whole. This is our loss both economic and culinary.

First you use all the "remnants" of the fish (heads, shells, etc.) to make a fish broth (step 1). Then the fillets and the shellfish are poached with milk and fresh herbs (step 2). The fish is separated and the milk is strained and reserved and made into a classic béchamel (step 3) with vegetables and the fish broth and more fresh herbs are added into which the flaked fish will be folded in. Optionally, cheese might be added. (If it is, it's with a light hand. It would be a traditional cheddar which has nothing like the aggressive flavor of a modern-day cheddar. It's very mellow and has insane umami particularly when combined with the fish broth.)

The vegetables would've been "seasonal". People back then were just as bored eating the same-ol'-same-ol' as they might be today. Leeks, carrots, cauliflower, peas, asparagus, spinach, sorrel.

Separately, you make mashed potatoes. The dish is layered with the fish below the potatoes and baked till you get a British gratin. The killer step which so few people bother to do these days is that the mashed potatoes on top must be carefully raked like a Japanese Zen-Garden with the tines of a fork so that when they bake, you get not only a gorgeous presentation but crispy-brown bits thanks to the Maillard Reaction.

In the old days, the béchamel and the mashed potatoes would have had cream in them. It would also have have been presented in a pastry crust for formal presentations. All of this can be "lightened up".

This is technique at the highest level!


1 large piece of cod
12 clams
6 whole prawns (reserve the shells)

1 cup water
1 cup milk

2 large leeks
8 tbsp. flour
1/2 cup cheddar (grated)

1 small carrot (diced)
1/2 cup peas

1 bay leaf
12-20 black peppercorns


3 large potatoes

sea salt


First make the fish broth. Heat up some water with some prawn shells and let it simmer for about 10 minutes. (If not using prawns, use dried fish or dried shrimp to make a broth. Yes, this is important.)

Filter and retain the broth.

Take the clams and add the above broth to it. Steam them in an open pot until they open. Fish them out. Filter the clam broth through a cheesecloth and reserve. Chop the clams and reserve.

Heat the milk, the bay leaf, some parsley and the peppercorns. Bring to a boil. Put in the cod and let it poach for about three minutes. Fish it out. Put it in a bowl and flake it discarding the skin and bones.

Filter the milk combination discarding the bay leaf, parsley and peppercorns and reserve.

Now make a classic béchamel. Heat up some butter and when it is bubbling, add the leeks and let them cook for a bit. Add the flour and let it cook until light golden. Add the milk combination from above and let it reduce till it is thick. When the milk is denatured, add the broth. Be careful not to add the broth until the milk has denatured otherwise it will curdle. Add the grated cheddar, the remaining chopped parsley, black pepper, grated nutmeg and fold in the flaked cod, prawns, and chopped clams.

Separately, cook the potato in salted water till it is tender. In a bowl, mash it with some milk. Add the chives to this mix. The mixture should be on the thicker side not like traditional mashed potatoes which have more liquid.

Preheat the oven to 350°F.

In an oven-proof dish, layer the seafood in the béchamel sauce at the bottom. Top with the mashed potatoes. With the tines of a fork, rake the surface of the mashed potatoes with deep ridges in an attractive pattern.

Let it bake for 30 minutes till the top of the potatoes are lightly crispy.

Serve with a salad.

1 comment:

macavity said...

I think this one is my favorite article so far. And the technique - totally worth memorizing.