I was a little shocked to discover that it is actually over 2 years since I hosted an Unseen Restaurant. I love these events (and I hope my guests do too) but, you know, running a café left me with little time to do anything else for a while there. So, now that I have time on my hands again, I dusted off the Rayburn, put out the word and planned an event.
I wanted to do a fish themed dinner and so started browsing my book shelves.
Now, about 18 months ago, Martin and I celebrated our 30th Wedding Anniversary in magnificent style by eating at The Fat Duck; home of the legendary Heston Blumethal. I can honestly say that it was not only the best meal I have ever eaten, but also the best date night my lovely husband and I have ever had together. The restaurant, the amazing staff, the sheer theatre of it all, were everything we had hoped for and more. It’s a good job too as we ate there instead of having a holiday that year but it was definitely worth it.
To help me remember (as if I could possibly forget) Martin also bought me a copy of Heston’s lovely recipe book: Heston Blumenthal at Home. This book is well thumbed and its pages are stuck together with drool but I have never actually cooked from it. I know! Ridiculous isn’t it? But there you go – I have recipe books I use and recipe books I read – but no longer, it seems.
If my lovely friends are prepared to part with money to eat at my house (profits this time went to our local food bank) then they deserve the very best I can give them. I sent out the simple-sounding menu (smoked salmon with pickled cucumber, fish pie and chocolate tart) without telling them I was using Heston’s recipes. And they came anyway. (I will post the starter and dessert recipes at a later date).
Now, I live in Cornwall. On the coast. I can make fish pie. My guests can all make fish pie. It is an average mid-week dinner. It is on the menu at each of the 5 pubs in the village so this had to be something special.
I have never, in my life, made a fish pie which has 61 ingredients! OK, so I counted some of them more than once; onions for example appear in the sauce and the stock but I don’t think it is too much of an exaggeration.
Nor have I ever made a fish pie with 8 separate elements but, as Mr. Blumenthal points out, cooking everything together is never going to suit all the component parts and will muddy the flavours. I paraphrased wildly there but suffice to say this is not your average Wednesday night pie.
Please don’t let this put you off. Ok, so it took me all day to produce the three courses but every process was a joy to do and the finished pie was a joy to eat. I have never made a foam before, I have never had to go to a garage to buy ingredients before (de-ionised water; it is usually used for topping up car batteries) and I have never bought soya lecithin or agar-agar flakes before but everything is in there for a good reason – and that reason is either flavour or texture – both of which are essential if you want to enjoy your food.
So, enough of the wittering; this is how I made Heston Blumenthal’s fish pie. I hope you try it too.
The key to this pie is to work methodically. The recipe is nowhere near as daunting if you work through it a stage at a time. You can even make each of the component parts the day before then all you have to do, when you are ready, is assemble, heat and eat.
First, cure the salmon because it needs to rest in the fridge for 6 hours. This process intensifies the flavour and completely changes the texture of the fish by removing moisture.
Make the fish stock next. You will need it to make the sauce and the foam. Unlike a meat stock, which requires long, slow cooking, the key to a good fish stock is to cook it quickly to keep the flavours fresh.
I have included the recipe for Heston’s fish stock just as he made it but I actually made a couple of changes: I left out the mussels because one of my guests was allergic to shellfish and I don’t actually own a pressure cooker so I made it in a heavy based saucepan with a tight fitting lid. It worked out fine. Ask your fish monger for fish bones. We don’t have a fish monger close by any more (I know, it’s criminal isn’t it) and when I asked at a supermarket fish counter they looked at me like I was mad. I had to travel. Find someone who knows what they are doing and maybe ask in advance.
If you really don’t want to go to this much trouble there are simpler fish stock recipes around (just Google them) or you could even buy your fish stock ready made but I challenge you, just once, to go the extra mile and try this out. It is worth it. Make extra and freeze it so that next time you can take the easy route without compromising on flavour.
Next, make the confit onions. It’s a simple job but when it is done it is done and they taste divine.
The next step is to make the sauce. This is the most important component of the dish. This is the power house of flavour so take your time and make it count. I have never thickened a sauce with agar-agar before. When I whisked it into the hot sauce I expected it to thicken there and then but it didn’t. I also thought it looked pretty smooth so I decided I probably wouldn’t blitz it and strain it. Wrong! Once the sauce had cooled it actually set, kind of like a savoury panna cotta. I blitzed and strained it and promised never to doubt Heston again. It makes an incredibly smooth textured sauce and I will be using agar-agar lots in future.
Next up is the sea foam. I realise for some of you that this will be a step too far but hear me out. It is a bit of a faff but what you are trying to create is a taste of the sea and a bit of theatre. This is not a sauce that you would want to eat much of but just a dribble of foam adds fun to the dish and a really curious flavour; salty and earthy, it really does seem to mark the point where sea meets land. For me it was worth it just to see the looks on my guests’ faces. If you can’t be bothered with the foam, leave it out. You will still have an amazing fish pie but you will always wonder what might have been.
The panko sand is fun too but, more than that, it adds a little crunch and texture to the smooth pommes puree.
The pommes puree itself was a revelation. I am a real mashed potato fan; to me it is the ultimate comfort food, but even I was a little shocked by the quantity of butter in it. I normally use a potato ricer but if you don’t have one you could just mash. However, it IS worth the effort of pushing it through a sieve afterwards. This is the smoothest, creamiest mash you will ever taste. I don’t eat with my guests at the Unseen Restaurant (I am too busy cooking, serving and washing up) but I did eat a bowl of leftover mash for my lunch the next day and I don’t even feel guilty.
And finally, the finish. Use good quality un-dyed smoked haddock and that’s about all I have to say. Regular readers will know that I cook using a Rayburn and I don’t have a grill so, once the pie was assembled, I had to re-heat it in the oven. This was tricky as I wanted it to be hot but I didn’t want to overcook the fish or undo all the good that had been done by making all the component parts individually. The pie survived.
I actually made individual pies rather than one big one, partly so that everyone could have some foam and some panko (I was cooking for 12 people) and partly so I could leave prawns out of one for my allergic guest.
If you decide to make this please let me know how you get on. Have fun.
The Cured Salmon
125g White Granulated Sugar
250g Salmon Fillet
1.25 kg White Fish Bones
Groundnut or Grapeseed Oil
2 Medium Onions (peeled and sliced)
1 Large Carrot (peeled and thinly sliced
2-3 Sticks of Celery (finely sliced)
100g Fennel (finely sliced)
100g Button Mushrooms (finely sliced)
1 Clove of Garlic (finely sliced)
2 Medium Tomatoes (sliced)
180 ml Dry White Wine
75 ml Dry White Vermouth
¼ tsp Saffron Strands
½ tsp Fennel Seeds
50g Flat Leaf Parsley
2 Sprigs of Thyme
12 Basil Leaves
6 Tarragon Leaves
4 Strips of Lemon Zest (removed with a peeler)
The Confit Onions
15 baby onions
15g Unsalted Butter
2 Medium Onions (peeled and thinly sliced)
4 Cloves of Garlic (peeled and thinly sliced)
40 ml Dry White Wine
20 ml Dry White Vermouth
50g Smoked Haddock (undyed)
200 ml Fish Stock
125ml Whole Milk
125ml Double Cream
2 Tbsp Agar-Agar Flakes
The Sea Foam
10g Unsalted Butter
20g Peeled and finely sliced Shallot
1 Clove of Garlic (peeled and finely chopped)
10ml Dry White Vermouth
20ml Dry White Wine
200ml Fish Stock
400ml De-ionized Water
5g Dried Konbu Sheets
10g Dried Shiitake Mushrooms
2 Parsley Stalks
1 tsp Soya Lecithin
Groundnut or Rapeseed Oil
150g Panko Crumbs
The Pomme Puree
1 kg Waxy Potatoes (peeled)
300g Unsalted Butter (diced)
240ml Whole Milk (warmed)
10g Horseradish Sauce
12 Drops Worcestershire Sauce
15g Wholegrain Mustard
16 raw Peeled Prawns
250g Smoked Haddock (cut into 2cm pieces)
80g Frozen Peas (thawed)
5g Chives (chopped)
5g Parsley Leaves (chopped)
5g Tarragon Leaves (chopped)
Cure the Salmon
Combine the salt and sugar in a bowl. Place half in the base of a shallow container and put the salmon on top. Cover with the remaining salt mixture and then with cling film and place in the fridge for 6 hours.
Make the Fish Stock
Chop the fish bones into small pieces and place them in a bowl of cold water. Leave them for 20 minutes. Drain the bones and pat dry on kitchen paper.
Heat a frying pan over a medium heat and cover the bottom of the pan with a thin layer of oil. Fry the bones for a few minutes without colouring. Set aside.
Heat a thin layer of oil in the bottom of a pressure cooker. Add the onions, carrots, celery, fennel, mushrooms, garlic and tomatoes. Sweat over a low heat until soft – approx. 20 minutes.
Add the wine and vermouth and boil until the liquid has almost disappeared.
Add the fish bones, 1.5 litres of cold tap water and put the lid on the pressure cooker. Bring up to full pressure over a high heat, then reduce the heat to low and cook for 15 minutes.
Take the pressure cooker off the heat and leave to cool completely before removing the lid. Place the pan over a medium high heat and add the mussels, saffron, fennel seeds, herbs and lemon zest and heat until the mussels have all opened (approximately 5 minutes).
Leave to cool before straining through a sieve lined with 2 layers of wet muslin. Refrigerate or freeze for later use.
Make the Confit Onions
Trim the roots and peel the onions. Place them in a single layer in a saucepan and just cover them with olive oil. Place the pan over a medium heat and cook gently until the onions are soft and just turning golden.
Drain the onions and leave them to cool. When they are cool enough to handle cut them into halves and set aside until you are ready to assemble the pie.
Make the Sauce
Melt the butter in a saucepan over a medium heat and sweat the onions and garlic until they become translucent (about 10 minutes). Deglaze the pan with the wine and vermouth and boil to reduce to a thin syrup.
Add the haddock, fish stock, milk and cream and bring to a simmer for 20 minutes.
Remove the pan from the heat and leave to infuse for 20 minutes before straining into a clean pan without pushing through. Discard the onions and fish.
Add the agar-agar flakes to the liquid and bring it to a simmer over a medium heat. Allow to simmer for 4-5 minutes, whisking occasionally.
Allow to cool then blitz with a hand blender until smooth and pass through a sieve. Set aside until needed.
Make the Sea Foam
Heat the butter in a saucepan over a low-medium heat and add the shallot and garlic. Gently sweat for 4-5 minutes until translucent.
Add the vermouth and white wine and boil to reduce to a syrupy consistency.
Add the stock, water, konbu, dried shiitake, and parsley stalks and bring up to 65°C. Hold at this temperature for 30 minutes.
Pass the liquid through muslin and allow to cool. When cool skim off any solidified butter.
Make the Sand
Heat 5cm of oil in a small saucepan over a high heat to 180°C.
Add the panko crumbs and fry until golden brown. Strain the breadcrumbs through a sieve and drain onto kitchen paper.
Make the Pomme Puree
Bring a saucepan of (unsalted) water to 72°C over a medium heat. Cut the potatoes into even sized pieces and drop them into the water. Bring back to 72°C. Hold the potatoes at this temperature for 30 minutes, adjusting the heat as necessary.
After 30 minutes drain the potatoes and rinse under cold running water.
Bring a saucepan of fresh salted water to the boil and add the potatoes. Cook until extremely soft and falling apart.
Drain the potatoes and then return them to the pan over a very low heat to dry them out.
Put the potatoes through a ricer onto the butter in a bowl and mix together. Put this mixture through a sieve and then add milk and salt to taste. Stir in the mustard, horseradish and Worcestershire sauce.
To Finish and Serve
Pre-heat the grill.
Rinse the cured salmon thoroughly under cold running water and pat dry with kitchen roll. Cut into 2 cm pieces.
Cut the smoked haddock into 2cm pieces.
Heat the sauce in a large saucepan to a simmer and add the prawns; simmer until they are almost cooked (about 1 minute).
Add the cured salmon, smoked haddock, confit onions and peas. Stir in the chopped herbs and season to taste with salt. Warm the mixture through and spoon into a pie dish.
Top with the warm pommes puree and make a wave pattern if you want to. Place under the hot grill for 7-10 minutes until the potatoes begin to brown.
Meanwhile, gently reheat the sea foam mixture. Add the soya lecithin and blitz with a hand blender until light and frothy.
Top one end of the pie with the panko “sand” and spoon a line of foam over the edge of the breadcrumbs to simulate the tide meeting the beach.
I served it with a side of fresh steamed vegetables because I like to eat lots of veg with everything. You might like to do the same.