One of my biggest restaurant disappointments was when I visited Richard Corrigan’s Bentleys for a much anticipated meal many years ago. I had come across him on the first series of Great British Menu and was immediately drawn to his simple style of cooking: using the best fresh and local ingredients, fussing with them as little as possible, and producing something delicious.
Bentleys was over our budget really, but I was so desperate to try his cooking that we saved up for a birthday treat, and I couldn’t wait to sample his menu (I doubt he was actually cooking there, even then, but I naively assumed he would be). We dressed ourselves up and made our way to the west end after work, and were instantly impressed with the buzzing oyster and champagne bar downstairs, and the cosy atmosphere upstairs.
Well, many years later (and still a fan of his) I can’t remember everything we ate, although Andrew definitely had a ceviche to start. What I do remember is the fish pie, which I picked because it seemed so luxurious (scallops and lobster tails in the filling, and a sauce made with lobster bisque and double cream) that I knew I would never justify being able to recreate such an extravagant dish at home.
Whether we were particularly unlucky that night or I just happened to pick a bad ‘un, I don’t know, but the fish inside the pie was cold and undercooked, the sauce was claggy and over seasoned, and the mashed potato was beaten to such an extent that there was no obvious difference between the texture of the sauce and the topping. I was too embarrassed to send it back as it wasn’t awful or disgusting, just incredibly disappointing … Andrew tried it as well and said “but your fish pie is so much better” which was the most damning indictment of the evening for the Bentleys version, being that mine is about as far removed from luxurious as you could possibly imagine.
So now whenever I make my fish pie I remind myself that there is at least one thing I know I can make better than a michelin-starred celebrity chef, and I thoroughly enjoy every mouthful! Saying that, I am not sure I have ever made it exactly the same each time – one version will have cod, the next salmon, sometimes with frozen peas mixed in, sometimes some sweetcorn. Sometimes the mash will be plain, sometimes mixed with leeks. What always remains constant is the use of undyed smoked haddock and prawns in the fish mix, the poaching milk from the fish is used to make the bechemal sauce, and the potatoes are always cooked with the skins on so that the mash has some texture. One other thing – thanks to a tip from my colleague John (aka Tory Boy), I always add a couple of quartered hard boiled eggs between the fish mix and mash.
A large fillet of undyed smoked haddock, 200g peeled tiger prawns, 2 small salmon fillets (or you could use cod or any other reasonably robust fish), a large knob of butter, a spoonful of flour, milk, bayleaf, anchovy sauce, capers, parsley, 3 large potatoes, 3 leeks, salt and pepper
Chop your unskinned potatoes into chunks and boil in salted water until tender. While the potatoes are cooking put your fish selection (not the shellfish) in a saucepan and just cover with milk. Add a bayleaf to the milk and put on the heat until the milk starts simmering. Take off the heat and strain the milk into a jug and allow the fish to cool until you can handle it – then remove the fish from its skin and remove any bones. Note at this point the fish will not yet be fully cooked – it will continue to cook during the next stage. Mix with the prawns in the dish you intend to cook the pie in and set aside while you make the sauce.
Melt a lump of butter in a pan (around 50g) and add a spoonful of flour, mixing the two into a paste. Slowly add the strained milk to the paste, stirring or whisking constantly to avoid lumps, until you have a thick sauce. Allow it to simmer gently while you add all or none of the following – anchovy sauce (around 4 teaspoons full), capers (a couple of teaspoons full), parsley, salt and pepper. You want a sauce which has some flavour to it, but nothing too strong so you maintain the flavour of the fish. It should simmer for at least 5 minutes so the flour is cooked out, and then you can pour it over the fish, and mix it to ensure all fish is coated in the sauce. If you have hard boiled eggs, now is the time to add halved or quartered peeled eggs to the top of the pie. They will soon be covered by the mash.
The potatoes should be cooked at this stage so drain them and use the saucepan to lightly sautee some sliced leeks in butter. This only takes a couple of minutes as the leeks start to soften and go a vibrant green colour. Tip the potatoes on top of the leeks and mash with a little milk, salt and pepper. Once as smooth as you can get them bearing in mind the skin and leeks will be mixed in, top the fish with the mash. At this point you can stop and leave the pie until the next day to cook (then you need an hour minimum at 170 degrees – check the inside of the pie is piping hot before serving). Or you can immediately put the pie in the oven for 20 minutes so that the fish finishes cooking and the top of the potato becomes golden and crispy. Serve on its own (my preference), with crusty bread (Andrew’s preference) or with some cooked veg such as peas, green beans and spinach. It’s also delicious re-heated the next day for lunch.
Enjoy it more than if you had spent too much money on an over-rated restaurant version, and then had to wait so long for pudding that you eventually tell them not to bother, and then have to wait so long for the bill as you are ignored by the waiting staff that you eventually have to go and queue up next to the cash register and force them to swipe your visa card so that you can finally leave … and expect no apology for the disappointing experience because you won’t get one, not even a michelin starred one.
Disclaimer – Andrew re-visited Bentleys recently and his experience was completely different from our first one. The food was without exception delicious and well-cooked, and the service was second to none. I am not sure if we were just really unlucky or Bentleys just wasn’t that good before, but I hope it was the former. One day I’ll go and try it again, but there are too many restaurants in London which are further up the list for me to go any time soon …