The Sister has been to visit a lot in the last three months. She's susceptible to a baby magnet in the highest degree and as soon as number two son was born, she suddenly found her work as a flight attendant was taking her to Paris frequently. I'm not offended. As the mother of the baby who is working this magic, I totally agree that there is nothing more exciting in the world than spending time with him. It seems perfectly natural to me.
On her last visit, my sister brought along a friend of hers who also loves babies and small children, Robert. When she described this friend and colleague, oddly enough I knew exactly who she meant. When the (first) Boy and I travelled alone to Chicago last year, Robert was working the flight and helped me enormously with my energetic toddler, keeping an eye on him while I went to the toilet, pretending to be a swing for him, supplying us with empty water bottles and straws to play with, in short making the flight a dream for me. He told me about his children and their travels in Europe and showed me photos. Parent stuff.
When he arrived, it was clear that this memorable (for me) trip was just one of thousands for him. Well, that's normal enough - how many busy mothers had he helped before me and has he seen since? But I remembered and I wanted to make a memorable dinner to thank him. Because our on-again-off-again summer was distinctly off that night I opted for a warming fish pie to combat the wind and rain outside.
I based the pie on Nigel Slater's fish pie, an old dear favourite of mine. As the Critic couldn't find smoked haddock at the store (and the piece I was sure I had in the freezer seems to have disappeared) I decided to substitute some parma ham to bring in the smoked note. And this led to a few other changes...until I had a new fish pie to add to my stock of recipes.
Note: I was afterwards informed by the Critic that "Mushrooms have no place in a fish pie." Personally, I thought they were nice and silky, but you might want to drop them if you have a picky Englishman in the house.
Ham and Fish pie (serves four)
Nigel's fish pie just keeps getting simpler and less work in my hands. The original recipe called for mussels (which the Critic sometimes thinks he doesn't like) that needed to be washed and cooked before assembling the pie, and haddock, which also required pre-cooking in milk. In this incarnation, only the potatoes and onions need to be cooked before assembling, meaning the preparation time is only about half an hour.
350 g white fish, such as cod
150 g shelled shrimp
125 g parma ham, shredded in bite-sized pieces
3-4 shallots, sliced in fine strips
4 mushrooms, sliced finely (optional)
2 Tbs flour
1/2 litre milk
100 ml créme fraîche
50 g grated parmesan
450 g potatoes (about 10 small ones)
6 Tbs butter, divided
2 Tbs fresh thyme or 1 Tbs dried
Peel the potatoes and set them to boil in lightly salted water. While they are cooking, melt 2 Tbs of the butter in a deep frying pan and add the shallots. Fry the shallots until limp and sweet, but not browned. Add the flour and stir for a few moments. Slowly stir in the milk and bring to a simmer. Add the thyme, mushrooms (if any), ham, fish and shrimp and cover. Simmer for five minutes, until the fish breaks up easily when you stir. Gently stir in the crème fraîche and remove from heat.
Preheat the oven to 180c/350f.
Next, mash the potatoes with the remaining butter and half the Parmesan. Add some of the milk from the fish mixture if it seems a bit dry. Pour the fish mixture in a small deep soufflé dish. Pile the potato mixture over the top, and smooth it over with the back of a spoon. Sprinkle the remaining Parmesan over the top of the pie and bake for 30-40 minutes, or until the pie is slightly browned on top and bubbling away. If you are smart (as I was not) you'll place a sheet of tin foil on the floor of the oven before baking to catch any fish sauce that bubbles over while it's baking.
Serve with a nice dry white wine at the table. As mentioned in my earlier recipe, fish pie looks lovely before you serve it but is not so pretty on your plate. It's an ideal dinner for guests, though, as it can sit on the table for as much as 15 minutes (while you herd guests to the table) without losing much heat.