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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Tilapia Fish Pie

Fish pie is a dish that not many people in the United States have had, but it is quite popular in the United Kingdom. In fact, I suspect that many people here in the states might have a negative reaction to the name, and it is likely that no small part of this group has probably had some awful fish pie. However, when done with care, it is delicious and satisfying with almost an infinite amount of variations.

The traditional fish used is haddock, smoked haddock, or cod. But really any fish can be used including salmon, snapper, tilapia, or crustaceans. The key here is firm flesh, since the fish is cooked twice. (update: I have subsequently used salmon, and it works very, very well) The basic principle behind this dish is a layer of fish topped with diced vegetables, a tart creamy sauce, topped with smooth creamy mashed potatoes. Many use sliced potatoes and have variations on the vegetables, but the concept is the same. Layers of contrast are what makes this work so well.

I chose to use tilapia for several reasons. It's an inexpensive fish that has a mild neutral flavor, takes seasoning like a champ, and will hold up to the cooking schedule. To make it a big more fancy you could add shrimp, scallops, or perhaps chunks of lobster meat, but simple works as well. Since this dish is composed of several layers, it isn't the quickest thing to get out the kitchen, but guests and family will love it.

The basic schedule behind this is straightforward:
  1. Make the mashed potatoes
  2. Cook the vegetables
  3. Make the sauce
  4. Cook the fish
  5. Assemble and bake
Even with just those steps many cooks could whip up something great, but the recipe below works well for me.

Mashed Potatoes
  • Six peeled Yukon Gold potatoes
  • 1/4 cup cream
  • Butter and salt to taste
You can use other potatoes in this recipe, but Yukon Gold have a good balance between starch and moisture which give them the ability to make smooth, fluffy mash. Peel the potatoes, boil until cooked through, then this is the important part--you have got to make sure they are smooth and without lumps. Some people use a ricer, I prefer a cheese grater. You can grate the potatoes just like a lump of cheese, and you won't frustrate yourself with those silly ricers.

Add the salt, butter, and cream, mix thoroughly, then set aside. Everyone has their own methods for mashed potatoes, so if you do things differently then by all means keep doing them.

Diced Vegetables
  • 2 large carrot, medium dice
  • 1/2 yellow onion, fine dice
  • 1 tablespoon butter

For this recipe I only used two vegetables, carrots and onions, just to keep it simple. As different produce comes into season it is fun to use what is at it's peak, but these two standbys are fine. Heat a pan with a tight fitting lid on medium heat and add the butter when hot. Add the diced vegetables, cover with the lid, and lower the heat a tad. What you want to do here is to encourage the carrots and onions to cook with the steam from their own moisture so you loose as little flavor as possible.

When the onions are translucent then the carrots are likely done, they should be soft but not mushy. Take them off the heat and set aside as well. If you would like to blanch them with ice cold water to help preserve the color certainly do so, but it is not required.

Tarragon Wine Sauce
  • 1/2 bottle of dry white wine like a Savignon Blanc or Pinot Gris
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1/2 cup grated cheese. The Cheese A Day #6, #8, and #14 would work great for this. Alternatively use a good melter such as gouda
  • 4 sprigs of tarragon
  • Juice of 1 large lemon
  • Salt to taste
Add everything to a pot except the cheese and salt. The cheese goes in last, then add salt to bring out the final flavor. Bring the wine and cream mixture to a boil, then cut the heat to a strong simmer and reduce by about half. This took 35 minutes in this kitchen.

Take the pot off the heat, let it rest for 15 or 30 seconds, then add the cheese. Whisking the mixture will take less effort, but if you can't whisk it just stir it rapidly. Keep stirring or whisking until it is smooth.

The Fish and Final Steps
  • 4 small to medium tilapia fillets, ~1.5 lbs.
  • Salt to taste
  • Oil for the pan
Lightly salt the fish then pan fry on medium to medium low heat until the fist starts to become flaky. Break up the fish into inch or two inch pieces and place in the baking container(s). Layer the reserved vegetables on top of the fish, then gently ladle the sauce on top. Place the mashed potatoes on top and seal the edges as best you can.

Bake at 400F for 30 minutes if you are using small individual containers, or 45 minutes at 350F for larger containers. Serve with a really good white wine.

The topping for fish pie can be as simple or as complicated as you like. Piping mashed 'taters on top is a quick way to make what really is a peasants meal into something special. I have found for piping potatoes that the prescribed advice is a little lacking--using a Glad or Ziplock back, cut one of the corners, add one cup of mash at a time and go to town. Much easier than making you own piping bags.


  1. Thanks! Tastes great too, though what is the first thing I do when I eat one? Hot sauce >:)

  2. I'm making talapia fish pie tonight and came by to check if the fiah would work.

    I'm using corn and green beans instead and serving it with cornbread to please my southern man but as a Brit living abroad -- I miss the comfort food.


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