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:
- Make the mashed potatoes
- Cook the vegetables
- Make the sauce
- Cook the fish
- Assemble and bake
- Six peeled Yukon Gold potatoes
- 1/4 cup cream
- Butter and salt to taste
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.
- 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
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
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.