A Big, Fat Fish Pie For The Weekend

A busy day in the kitchen yesterday. A fresh loaf, a blueberry cake, and hell, I’m in the kitchen anyway, I might as well go the whole hog and make a fish pie.

This is more or less Nigel Slater’s famous recipe, and I’ve been making it for long enough that I can quote it from memory. It’s a messy job, there’s no doubt about it, but I’ve tweaked it enough that it’s reasonably straightforward. Even if it wasn’t, fish pie would be worth the fuss.

I start with about half a pound of fish in my big saute pan. Enough milk to cover goes in, with a bay leaf if you’ve got one and some peppercorns. Bring it to a simmer, and cook until the fish is about done. Should take about ten minutes. While that’s bubbling, chop a couple of big leeks and some mushrooms (enough to give you a couple of big handfuls of dice) and a stick of celery. I also put four fist sized potatoes in the steamer to cook, as they are, in their skins.

Fish done. Fish comes out of pan, and put somewhere to stay warm. If you’re a big ole cheaty-head like me, you’ve used a fish pie mix that’s skinless, boneless and already chunked up. If not, the skin and bones will come away easily from the cooked fish, which you should keep in chunky pieces. No mince here. Pour the fishy milk into a jug through a strainer. Keep this with the fish.

Wipe out the pan. Back on the heat with a little oil and butter, and cook the leeks and celery over a lowish heat with the lid on until the leeks are soft and bright green. Whip those out, reheat the pan and do the mushrooms, letting them soak up the oil and butter. You can do these in two pans if you like, but do them separately to stop the mushrooms going wet and sloppy, rather than flavoursome and slightly caramelised.

Once the mushrooms are nice and brown, add the leeks back in, and sprinkle over a couple of tablespoons of flour. Let this cook for a minute of so until you can’t smell the flour any more, then throw in the milk. Let this bubble until the sauce you suddenly have in the pan thickens a bit to a nice creamy texture. A big spoonful of creme fraiche, lots of salt and pepper, then stir the fish back in. If you fancy chucking in any fresh herbs, flat leaf parsley, maybe some celery leaves, hell, even basil, now’s the time. Give this another five minute love in. The sauce should be creamy and rich, not at all runny or sloppy.

While that’s doing, check your spuds. They should be done. Do what you have to do to turn them into mash. I’m not going to tell you how to do it. You’re a grown up. Be comfortable with your mash-making technique.

Pile the mixture into a baking dish. Now the spuds. I use a ricer, and squish cooked unpeeled potato straight on top. Saves on peeling, and gives a nice light result. Then cheese. People say you shouldn’t put cheese on a fish pie. Screw them. I like cheese. I used a nice strong Wyke Farm cheddar with horseradish for a little doink of heat. If you’re going to be all huffy about it, just dot some butter over your mash.

Hot oven (about 200C, Gas 6) for 15 minutes or until there are nice brown toasty peaks on your mash.

Serve to someone you love (you’re not gonna go to all that effort for someone you don’t at least fancy) with some peas and a little soft music.

Worry about the washing up later.


So This Cake Happened


I have no explanation for the fact that I have started baking cakes, other than the fact that I like baking, and I fancied a challenge that moved me away from bread. It’s very much a weekend thing, and fills me with a certain pride to be able to offer tea and homemade cake to TLC in the afternoon.

It also appeals to my economical nature. I can use ingredients that would otherwise be binned. Old, hard lemons and limes left over from Christmas are no good in your G&T. But they still have plenty of juice and useful zest for a lemon lime syrup cake.

The cake I’m going to tell you about came about because I had made a pot of coffee that we didn’t really drink. I fancied a coffee and walnut cake. But most of the recipes out there seemed to be as much about the filling and frosting as the cake. That seemed like a shame.

So, with guidance from this source, I struck out on my own. Is it any good. Well, let’s put it like this. There was more cake than the photo above when I put it away last night, so someone likes it…

Nutty Coffee Cake

Preheat your oven to 180C/Gas5, and grease a springform baking tin. Springform’s great. I love the solidity of unclamping your cake when it’s done. You might want to put some baking parchment in the bottom too. If you’re really flash, you can make a cartouche.

Chop some nuts. About 75g. I like almonds and pistachios, largely because that’s what I had at the time. Macadamias and pecans would be good too. The almonds might need toasting, if they’re blanched. Give ’em five minutes in a hot dry pan, and watch ’em. They burn in a second if you’re not careful. They just need to be golden.

Get a big bowl. Your biggest. Into it goes 175g of butter, 100g of caster sugar and 100g of brown sugar. Mash ’em together until they turn into a light, fluffy mousse-type thing. I started trying to use a fork and whisk for this, then remembered we own one of those food mixers with the interlocking whisks. Brilliant. Job done in moments.

Using your magic whippy machine, beat two eggs into the mixture. Now it looks like cake batter. Then add 100mls of hot coffee. That’s about two espressos. Now it looks like something that came out of a drain.

Now put in 200g of self-raising flour, and beat until it looks like a batter again. Throw in all but a palmful of the nuts, and beat again. Lot of beating going on. Baking is violent.

Now the whole gloopy mess goes into your baking tin, and into the oven. Give it 25 minutes, then poke it with a skewer or toothpick. You’re not taunting it, you’re seeing if it’s cooked through. If your implement of torture comes out clean, you’re done.

It’s fine like that, but this is Sunday, so make some damn effort. Throw together an icing.

200g of icing sugar in yet another bowl (your kitchen should look like a dirty bowl store by now). Add 3 tablespoons of coffee to that, then enough boiling water to make a runny icing. Think the sort of thing that goes on a doughnut. If you have lemon zest, half a teaspoon would be good here. Drizzle your icing over the top of the warm cake. It’s gonna go everywhere, so don’t try and be fancy. Scatter the nuts you held back from earlier (snicker) over the top. Let it cool a little more. Just a bit. Just to torture yourself.

Serve with fresh coffee, or if you’re a total heathen like me, the remains of the morning’s pot reheated with some milk. Sorry about that. Waste not want not.

Done To A Turn: The Things TV Cookery Shows Get Right

Cookery shows are entertainment gussied up as having some educational value – which for the most part they do not have. Important steps in the preparation of a delicious meal are either skipped, glossed over or mangled. I speak from bitter experience. There’ve been too many times when I’ve served TLC something barely edible that I’ve taken from a cooking sketch. The expensive hardbacked books that these shows are designed to hawk have the same problem. As Nigel Slater says, recipes don’t take your kitchen into account. Your oven might be calibrated differently. You might not have been able to get hold of all of the ingredients. The more precise the recipe, the greater the chance that it’s going to go wrong somewhere down the line. If you’re trying something from Heston Blumenthal, you’re SOL unless you’ve got a laboratory and a tame hunchback to hand.

A real annoyance is the moment when, when in the interests of entertainment, a cook will take a stone classic and needlessly muck about with it. TLC doesn’t cook much, but her specialties have a purity and forthrightness of purpose that shines through. When a TV chef starts throwing bacon, double cream and breadcrumbs into a mac and cheese, her disdain is palpable. She’s right, of course. There’s no need for it. Better to teach the viewers how to make food properly. Here’s TLC’s tip for perfect mac: “When in doubt – MORE CHEESE.”

Frankly, a philosophy to live by.

You can get valuable tips and tricks out of cookery shows, though, if you’re prepared to watch out for the telling details. The way a TV cook handles a knife, for example. Compare the cack-handed way Nigella chops an onion to the way Gordon Ramsay renders it down to fine dice in instants. Watch the pro chefs at work, and you get some inkling of the short cuts they use to make their lives simpler.

I always get something useful out of Jamie Oliver. He grew up in a professional kitchen, cooking for punters. And it really shows. He’s a natural around a rolling pin. I’m embarrased to say that it was Jamie that showed me the right way to crush a clove of garlic (twat it with the flat of a big knife, while still in it’s skin. Peeled and chopped in one easy move, without the un-necessary investment in presses, rollers or those funny neoprene sleeves. Yes, ok, you have to pick the garlic out of the skin and maybe chop it about a little more. If you have a problem with touching garlic, then maybe you shouldn’t be using it.) Watching him and others like him at work has moulded the way I operate in a kitchen environment, taught me the importance of sharp knives, solid implements and a worktop that can take a beating.

Every so often the shows will come up with a recipe that you just know is going to hit big. in that case, it’s going to be everywhere. Both Nigel Slater and new girl on the block Lorraine Pascale (the perpetrator of the criminal mac and cheese) have featured a no-knead quick soda bread made without yeast. It’s the reappearance of a great idea (it’s in Mrs Beeton, donchaknow), and means you have a warm loaf on the table 40 minutes after putting flour in a bowl. I’m not accusing anyone of plagiarism. In the culinary world, as in fashion, ideas are there to be taken and tweaked. But this one is going to run. Betcha the Hairy Bikers grab it next.

In fact, sod it, here’s my take on it.


Rob’s Sody Bread

Half and half measures of strong wholemeal and plain flour to make up 500g or 18oz go in a bowl.

Throw in a teaspoon of sea salt, another of sugar, the browner the better, and one more of bicarb of soda, and mix the dry ingredients together.

Throw in 350ml or 12 fl oz buttermilk, and scoosh it into a soft dough. Don’t got buttermilk? Add a tablespoon of lemon juice to ordinary milk before it goes in, and leave for five minutes. Now you got buttermilk.

Tip the dough onto a floured surface, and shape it into a ball. It’ll be sticky. Flour your hands too.

Score the top in a cross with a knife. Go deep. Imagine your enemies while you’re doing it.

Place your slashed dough on a baking tray, then into a hot oven 200C/400F/Gas6 on the top shelf. Give it half an hour.

When it’s nice and brown and risen and filling the kitchen with that bread smell, you know the one, the one they use in supermarkets only this is real, this is YOU making that smell you delicious creature, take the bread out  and let it cool slightly, before rending it asunder and using it to scoop up the juices of the casserole I didn’t tell you how to make. It’ll last a day or so, so you have my permission to be greedy and wolf the lot in one go. You’re worth it.


Undercooked: the three types of food TV

Cookery shows have very little to do with the fine art of gastronomy. They’re aspirational, set in the kitchens that we want, in the houses we dream about. If you try making a dish out of the recipes shown on these shows, you’re pretty much guaranteed to come a cropper. Either that, or the washing up afterwards will be of biblical proportions.

I reckon there are three different kinds of cookery shows. First, there’s the celebrity chef show, which is as close as you get to a standard cooking sketch these days. They take all their cues from the master of the form, dear old Keith Floyd. Four or five dishes will be prepped in a modicum of detail. If there is shopping to be done beforehand, the chef will go to a picturesque deli in an upmarket street, and definitely not Asda.

There will be very little chopping. Some of the ingredients will be in bowls, in tiny dice. Everything will be impeccable. There will be no limp mushrooms or half open packs of bacon here. The kitchen will be spotless, and the size of an aircraft hanger. The chef will waft through it all, airily informing you what a simple mid-week supper a samphire and duck liver souffle can make. Oh, and the word supper gets used a lot. The only supper I’ve ever been interested in is the one that comes out of a chippy.

Then we have the travelogue, where the chef goes on holiday and cooks a few meals along the way. Wacky transport will be involved here – giant RVs, motorbikes, barges, specially adapted VW campers. Inevitably, the cooking sketches are either on a beach, a harbour or in a town square. The food will be cooked on a tinpot gas range, and there will be tame locals on hand to taste whatever comes off that grill and mildly insult it. There will be lots of shots of very pretty scenery. it will be very nice, but faintly dull.

At the bottom of the barrel there are the reality shows. These attempt to redefine cookery as combat, pitting one chef against another in an orgy of ego, tantrum and spilt dairy. There will be lots of fast cutting and sweaty closeups. The host will frown a lot.
The music will be better suited to an action movie, and there will be a pause before the winner of the show is announced that lasts for the length of the last ice age. They have as much to do with cookery as The Weakest Link, and are about as entertaining. Except Iron Chef. That’s so lunatic that it’s crossed over into genius.

Delia is the exception to the rule, but she’s more of a national institution than a cook these days.

Come back tomorrow, when I’ll discuss whether it is actually possible to get decent cooking tips from a TV show. Now, if you’ll excuse me, all this talk of grub has made me a bit peckish. I’m off for a zebra carpaccio with smoked green tea foam on rye. So easy to make, you know.

New Culinary Definitions: SMOZZ

Smozz is the stuff added to food to make it extra perfect. Vinegar on chips. Parmesan. Ketchup. Sweet chili sauce. It’s an embellishment. A grace note, but one without which a meal can be perfectly fine, yet not …quite …there.

Smozz is dependent on the tastes and proclivities of the individual. Most people like a dollop of ketchup with their chips, which to me is a culinary crime. Mayo, on the other hand, is a must. Those crazy Dutch really hit on something there.
Smozz is not just a savoury addition. Sweet smozz can include marshmallows on hot chocolate, or a snappy, plasticy Flake shoved at a jaunty angle into an ice cream. A grating of chocolate on your cappuccino is the very essence of smozz.

Origin: the word was first seen on a bill at an Italian restaurant, where TLC and I had ordered a small garlic bread with extra mozzarella. Garlic bread does not need a blanket of sizzling, string-melty cheese on top, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. The bread was itemised on the bill as s.mozz. A new culinary term was born.

Love And The Pot

Film critic Roger Ebert has one, and loves it so much that he wrote a book about it. My friend Rev Sherlock has one, and claims it’s the heart of his kitchen. After months of whining and pewling from yours truly, TLC caved in and bought me one for Christmas.

I’m talking about rice cookers, Readership. And I think it’s going to radicalise the way I do things in the kitchen.

My proudest new possession is a Tefal, with four functions. (Ebert frowns on this, but I don’t really care). It’s a steamer and slow cooker as well as a rice cooker. It also has a porridge function, which made for the creamiest, most unctuous podge I’ve ever made.

So far, I have steamed broccoli for Xmas lunch and spuds for a fish pie in it. I have made blueberry and cream porridge. I have cooked a full chilli beef stew in it, and the meat was softly giving under light pressure from a spoon. I have even cooked rice in it.

This process has something of the magical about it. Rinsed rice and volume-and-a-half of liquid go into The Pot (after a while, you can’t help but go for the Ebert-style capitalisation). Press the cook rice button. It sits quietly on the counter, venting the occasional polite puff of fragrant steam. After about 15 minutes, it beeps gently. Your rice, sir. It will stay warm in the pot for an hour or so. Fluff it up and get stuck in. No muss, no fuss. The non-stick bowl washes clean in an instant. The simplicity and efficiency of the device has me filled with a profound, calm joy. I want to use this machine every day.

Something of a recipe, as spelled out to me by one of my work oppoes. It’s the perfect restorative after a night out, or indeed a long work day, and will withstand any manner of tweaking.

Tobias Clayton’s Back-From-The-Brink Rice.

Put the rice in The Pot and get it started. While it’s puttering away, finely chop a chili and a green onion. Once the rice has clicked over to stay warm, fluff it up, then throw in a glug of oil and the veg, and clap the lid back on. Give it five minutes. The veg will soften slightly in the heat. When you can’t stand it any more, throw in more soy sauce than you think you’re going to need, lob the whole lot in a bowl and bury your face in it.

If you want to gild the lily, some briefly cooked mushrooms, prawns or chicken would work well. Try flavoured oil stirred through the rice, or cook it in some stock. I’m going to try popping some fish in the steaming basket that comes with the pot next time, just to see how that’ll cook.

All of which sort of jibes with the elegant simplicity of the dish. The salty tang of the soy mixed with the crunch and zap of the chili, all bound with the nutty comforting rice. It’s pure cooking, all about flavour.

Look, I’m sorry, I know I’m gushing here. But this is a transformative moment for me. I’m spending more time than I ought thinking about what to cook in The Pot, and using it makes me grin like a gibbon. As my adventures in domesticity continue, this becomes yet another reason to get home, get comfy and cook.

Now, have I told you about my new pair of slippers?

The Simplest Of Lunches

Half an hour later we were eating these. After washing and cooking them, obvs...
This time of year always gets me thinking about food. I guess that’s because there’s so much of it coming out of the garden. The onions and garlic are safely gathered in, the chilis and tomatoes are ripening nicely. Beetroot this year was a bit of a disappointment, and I’m coming to the conclusion that I love it, but not enough to grow it and have half the crop rot away before I get round to eating it. I was slow planting salads this year, but we have an abundance of tender green leaves now.

On Sunday, I finally upended the potato bags, to be greeted with a trug full of treasure. Masses of beauties, dirt fresh and ready for the eating. TLC, as always, instantly came up with a quick idea for lunch. I love it when this happens. She gives me a shove in the right direction, and I roll off and make something good to eat.

I grabbed a double handful of small spuds, and set them to steam with some dried mint that we’d harvested a few weeks earlier. While the kitchen filled with subtly minty fog (the steamer lid don’t fit so good) I chopped a couple of tomatoes, fresh off the vine, and mixed a tin of tuna with some mayo. When the spuds were tender (about ten minutes, like I said, these were small) I let them cool slightly, before mixing them with the tuna and tomatoes. A last minute spark of inspiration lit up, and I chopped some fresh parsley into the mix. Into bowls. Out into the sunshine.

It was simple but really nice. The spuds were lovely all by themselves, but the mix really brought everything together. Look, I know it’s barely a recipe, but that’s the beauty of it. It’s so vague that you can really open it up to your own interpretation. Some capers would be nice to add a salty twang. Replace the parsley with mint or rosemary. If you’re veggie, try some mushrooms cut into chunks fried up in a bit of garlic butter. Carnivore? I reckon some corned beef would go nicely, turning the whole thing into a de-constructed hash. Actually, some beetroot would go nicely with that too. Hmm, there’s a thought…


(Photo credit: TLC)


It’s funny how you get inspired sometimes. We’ve grown some herb fennel this year, which has grown to about a Rob in a single season (1 Rob = a smidge under six foot). TLC decided the time had come to prune it. “Hang on to some of that,” I said. “I’ll do something with it.”

Which of course meant I had to do something with it. There was a pack of fish chunks in the freezer (sold as a fish pie mix) which would go admirably. So, the rough sketch of dinner started scribbling into being.

At dinnertime, then, I started with one of our (small, red) onions, and three cloves from a decent head of our garlic, a stick of celery, some past-their-best baby corns and at TLCs insistence, one of the house chillies, green and sparkling fresh. All finely chopped. That was fried off in a ping-pong ball sized lump of butter and a little olive oil.

When that panful was fragrant and sizzly, I chucked in whatever white wine was left in my glass at the time (guesstimate: just under half a glass), and a couple of tablespoons of creme fraiche. Once that was bubbling, the fish went in. The mix had white fish, salmon and smoked haddock in it, but anything seafoody would do. Prawns and scallops would be nice. About 300g is enough for 2. At the same time, I lobbed in a couple of good handfuls of chopped fennel, and about the same of parsley, as it’s been going nuts in a pot all summer and I have to keep using it.

I clapped a lid over the lot, and let it burble for five minutes or so until the fish was cooked, while I warmed up some soft ribbon noodles and yelled at TLC to get some knives and forks out.

Noodles on plates, followed by heaped ladlefuls of the fish stew. Lime wedges on the side to squeeze over at the table.

It was as you’d expect. Creamy, spicy, fishy, unctuous, hot, sweet, sour and utterly delicious. Most of the base flavours came out of the garden. I couldn’t be happier with this one. It tasted French Indo-Chinese, with the chilli creaminess playing with the delicacy of the herbs.

And it was all TLC’s idea.

Them’s Good Readin’s


A slumgullion, according to Keith Floyd’s American Pie, one of my favourite cookery books, is a makeshift or improvised meal, usually in the form of a stew or casserole. I sling together a slumgullion on a regular basis, often out of leftovers, half-jars and veg that’s one last sniff from the compost bin. They would, inevitably, fail any and all health and safety inspections. They are, inevitably, delicious. I can, inevitably, never make the same one twice.

Now, the inestimable Dr. Jones has made me aware, through the auspices of the fine magazine of Confederate kulture Garden and Gun, that Southern cuisine owes a huge debt to the art of the slumgullion. Here, for your delight and delectation, are the 100 Southern foods you have to try before you die. I get the feeling that after trying them all, you probably would die, of pork fat poisoning if nothing else. But glory be, you’d die with a smile on your face.

An example, just to whet that there appetite:

Hash and Rice

Neal’s Barbecue

Thomson, Georgia

Trotters go in the cast-iron washpot. Jowls, too. Cooked down, over a wood fire, they become hash, kissing cousin to Brunswick stew. At Neal’s, rice is the preferred ballast, but a half pound of hacked whole hog works, too. (706-595-2594)

Trotters and jowls. Cooked in a washpot. I’m off to Georgia.

(Oh, and a reminder here of my favourite slumgullion, Brunswick Stew:

Recipe from Spanky’s Seafood Grill & Bar

First the sauce:

In a 2 quart sauce pan, over low heat, melt ¼ cup of butter then add:
1¾ cups Catsup
¼ cup French’s Yellow Mustard
¼ cup white vinegar

Blend until smooth, then add:

½ tablespoon chopped garlic
1 teaspoon coarse ground black pepper
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper
½ oz. Liquid Smoke
1 oz. Worcestershire Sauce
1 oz. Crystal Hot Sauce or ½ oz. Tabasco
½ tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Blend until smooth, then add:

¼ cup dark brown sugar
Stir constantly, increase heat to simmer (DO NOT BOIL) for approx. 10 minutes.
Makes approx. 3½ cups of sauce (set aside – to be added later).

Then The Stew:
In a 2 gallon pot, over low heat melt ¼ lb of butter then add:

3 cups small diced potatoes
1 cup small diced onion
2 14½ oz. cans of chicken broth
1 lb baked chicken (white and dark)
8-10 oz. smoked pork

Bring to a rolling boil, stirring until potatoes are near done, then add:

1 8½ oz. can early peas
2 14½ oz. cans stewed tomatoes – (chop tomatoes, add liquid to the stew pot)
The prepared sauce
1 16 oz. can of baby lima beans
¼ cup Liquid Smoke
1 14½ oz. can creamed corn
Slow simmer for 2 hours

Yields 1 gallon)

*stifles belch*