With our legs dangling over the side of the quay in southern Spain we’d sit and wait patiently with our home-made bamboo cane fishing rods baited with the soft white part of leftover bread that we’d fashioned into doughy balls on tiny fish hooks.
Together the four of us, my brother & my Spanish cousins, would sit still, watching for a sign that our bait was being nibbled. We’d squeal if we managed to hook one. I could never take a fish off the hook – that was my father’s job. The tiny fish glinting as the sun flashed on their bodies as they slipped into the depths of our large bucket of water. We called out to the larger fish we saw in the shadows by the rocks… the ones that always seemed to get away. The fish we caught were only small and were always released back in to the sea, after we’d tallied up who had caught the most that night.
These memories are so sharp in my mind. I can smell our sun-kissed skin, browned after weeks on the beach jumping from rocks into the sea, playing pirates, wave jumping, making elaborate sand castles and burying each other up to our necks in the golden sands.
Days on the beach often involved a late lunch that went on until the sun set. Sitting at a chiringuito on Gregorio’s Beach, with endless platters of fish, calamari, boquerones, gambas and almejas thick with garlic and lemon juice. Days full of laughter and hair thick with sand and salt. Piling into the car to take the short ride home to sleep the kind of deep sleep that always follows a day spent in the sea air.
I still eat a lot of fish these days and the very thought of fish transports me back to these childhood memories. Fish is so easy and quick to prepare. Some people complain that they don’t like the smell or that it’s too messy, but there are some great recipes out there and simple cooking methods (like baking in paper parcels in the oven), that minimise any smell and washing up.
Fish pie with its creaminess and pops of colour from the vibrant peas and fat, pink prawns can be indulgent comfort food in the winter and autumn months, but is also a delicious summery bake when it’s served with a large green salad.
Rumour has it that the Romans encouraged us to eat more fish, which previously was mostly eaten only on Fridays. During Lent when meat consumption was avoided, people consumed more fish and created fish pies fragrant with spices, sugar and rosewater.
Fish pie is not normally topped with pastry like meat pies, but with soft billows of buttery mashed potato like shepherd’s pie. Sometimes recipes combine cheese, cooked onions or leeks with the potato topping. Don’t let buffet memories of watery fish pie put you off, as made right fish pie can be melt in the mouth perfection.
Today we often look for ‘fast’ and ‘easy’ recipes, given that we can feel pressed for time. The lockdown over the last weeks has given us all more time to think and yet for many lockdown has also piled on the pressure to do everything and keep smiling at the same time. Smiling while we worried about family members, our health, finances, home schooling. Even though we might have evaluated how we would like to send our time, and we might feel less pressured to tag ourselves with the ‘so busy’ badge, as if being busy was like a mark of status to be aspired to, it’s still great to have recipes that are ‘fast’ and ‘easy’ without compromising on taste and nutrition.
When I googled ‘easy fish pie’ recipes’ I was so very sceptical when I discovered Healthy Living James’ dairy free, gluten free fish pie recipe. How could this fish pie recipe create something creamy and wonderful? Even as I chopped and prepped the ingredients I couldn’t stop thinking to myself that this recipe was going to be a waste of such gorgeous pieces of fish and that the pie would turn out dry and miserable.
But this is a recipe that is simplicity.
This statement is worthy of its own line. Simplicity is something we can all value.
Just prep the ingredients and mix them together. There’s no poaching of fish in milk. Zero faffing around. Time-saving without the compromise on taste.
Start by prepping your potatoes. I used sweet potatoes with a few white potatoes, but you could use all white or all sweet. Use up leftover cooked potatoes by simply mashing them up. Otherwise you can gently scrub the uncooked potato skins to remove any dirt and then chop them up into similar sized pieces. Put them in a saucepan of cold water with a pinch of sea salt and bring to boil, simmering until softened. About 15-20 minutes depending on size of chunks. Drain and leave until beginning to cool. Remove any skins, before mashing. You can add 1/4 cup of olive oil, a mixture of some oil and butter, or as James suggests vegan milk or non diary milk. Mash up well, until smooth, using a hand masher, fork or a stick blender. Set aside.
Now for the rest of the colourful plant bits.
I always add more garlic than any recipe calls for. The original recipe here says 1 clove – I used 3 or 4 cloves – chopping them finely and popping them in my old-fashioned enamel baking tin. This tray and its blue edge takes me back to my childhood too. Then finely chop 2 sticks of celery, coarsely grate two carrots and just tip all of these into your baking tray.
My tray measures approximately 11 x 14 inches (old school measurements add to the nostalgia). I popped in a whole chilli, seeds and all – simply slice it up, with 2 large handfuls of spinach leaves, a generous cup of frozen peas, a large handful of flat leaf parsley, with some chopped mint leaves. Dill would be another great herb to use. Use the herbs that you love. Just prep it all and pop in your baking tray.
Then select your fish. I used 2 pieces of cod fillet, 2 pieces of smoked fish, 2 small keta salmon fillets and some raw prawns. Chop the fish fillets into large bite-sized cubes. Remove the skin before you chop. Hold the fish fillet with the flat of your hand and run a sharp knife carefully between the flesh and the skin. As you make headway, you should be able to hold the skin that you’ve managed to separate from the flesh and this will make your job easier. Take care of your fingers!! Add the chopped fish fillets and raw prawns to the dish. Leave out fish you don’t like my mum swears that she hates smoked fish, but a little smoked fish in a fish pie gives the flavour a hidden depth.
James’ recipe is dairy free so he uses 200g of vegan cheese, whereas I used the same amount of hard goat cheese which I grated coarsely into the baking tray.
Drizzle olive oil over everything in the baking tray and give it all a good mix up together with the zest and juice of 1 unwaxed lemon. If you don’t have an unwaxed lemon – just add the juice and similarly if you don’t like garlic or chilli just leave them out. Stick a fork in the flesh of the lemon halves and squeeze against this to get the juice out. Season with some freshly ground black pepper and some sea salt flakes. Steady on the salt as the fish will have some salt already.
By now you will be struck by the beauty of this dish – the vibrant colours and textures all in one baking dish. So far for washing up you will have a chopping board, a fork and a baking tray to wash up. Simple! Perhaps like me you will be worried about how this is going to turn out. Keep going! Don’t feel despondent.
Even out the contents of the baking tray with the back of a spoon and then spoon the mash potato on top. Covering all the fish pie mix with an even layer of potato. You can use a spoon or fork to make some swirly patterns. I also dotted the top of mine with a little Kerrygold butter, but you could add an extra drizzle of olive oil if you’d like to keep it dairy free.
Pop your tray in a pre-heated oven at 200C for about 35-40 minutes and wait until the topping is turning golden-brown on the forked peaks and around the edges. It’s a poorly kept secret that the crispy bits are the best bits of the fish pie.
For the warmer months, serve this fish pie with a salad and I added a boiled egg to my salad, though you could add some boiled eggs to your fish mix if you wanted to. Drizzle the salad with olive oil and fresh lemon juice, add some chopped fresh herbs.
Sit down. Admire your fish pie. Breathe in the aromas and tuck in! Leftovers can be gently reheated the following day so it’s always good to use frozen prawns in your original dish to make reheating it again safe.
My Ingredients based on James’ recipe (see link to James’ full recipe below):
3-4 garlic cloves – finely chopped
2 sticks of celery – finely chopped
2 large carrots – coarsely grated
1 cup frozen peas
1 red chilli – sliced up with seeds
2 handfuls spinach leaves
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
Large handfuls of flat leaf parsley and mint
200g goat cheese – coarsely grated – or use vegan cheese if diary free
180g raw large prawns
2 small fillets keta salmon – skin removed and chopped into bite-sized pieces
2 small smoked haddock fillets – skin removed and chopped into bite-sized pieces
2 small cod fillets – skin removed and chopped into bite-sized pieces
1.2 kg of sweet potatoes or a mixture of sweet and white potatoes
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Small amount of butter (optional)
Gluten Free, and dairy free (optional)
You can find James’s fabulous original recipe here: https://healthylivingjames.co.uk/wprm_print/recipe/2604
History of the fish pie: http://blog.regalfish.co.uk/2020/03/05/a-brief-history-of-the-fish-pie/
6th June 2020 Jo Lee @vitalife_nutrition