Day 84: Smoked Hake, Parsley Sauce, Spring Onion Mash
inspired by Fish!
Today is all about comfort food.
I think that phrase get’s over used. Comfort food now means a plate of food so large you struggle to finish it. A decadent dessert. Anything covered in melted cheese. Comfort food has basically become the excuse for any food that is bad for us. It might not be good for our bodies, but it’s good for our soul.
Believe me, I am not someone who watches what I eat. I will have that second helping of pasta or that extra scoop of ice cream without thinking twice.
But I think we need to distinguish between comfort food and comfort eating.
Comfort eating is eating to make yourself feel better. That extra melted cheese on a pizza, that entire packet of biscuits. Eaten in times when we are sad or stressed or anxious.
But comfort food, for me, means something slightly different. It means food that makes you happy, food that reminds you of people and places you love. Food that brings a smile to your face and lifts your spirits.
Food and memories go hand in hand. So it makes sense that my comfort foods are all linked to specific times, people and places in my life.
Sometimes my mum would put some cold tortellini in my lunch box to take to school instead of a sandwich. Even to this day the act of eating a filled pasta parcel that has been left to go cold fills me with joy. When I make these at home I always leave a couple in the colander to be devoured later once they have cooled and stuck together.
Cheesy tuna pasta
If I’m ever making a cheese sauce to go with pasta and I stir in a tin of tuna the smell instantly transports me back to being a kid, sitting in my Godmother’s kitchen after a day of playing in the garden or rummaging through the dressing up box with my friends. Even a tuna melt sandwich will bring back memories. The combination of cheese and tuna with carbs makes me smile every time.
The first dinner Aidan ever cooked for me. He didn’t just cook it, he showed me how to make it too. Now risotto is one of my go too comfort foods, because the act of making it is comforting. Stirring the pot as the rice absorbs ladleful after ladleful of stock. By the time it’s ready to eat you hardly need the comfort food anymore.
My Aunt used to make the best shortbread on Earth. I’ve tried many times to replicate those pale, buttery biscuits and I’m still not even close. We always used to go to my Aunt’s house on Boxing day, when the biscuits would be shaped like Christmas trees and holly leaves. I have to resist the urge to get out the festive biscuit cutters when I make these during the rest of the year. But as soon as it’s December they are out the cupboard, and my still far from perfect, shortbread trees reminds me of happy family gatherings.
A taste of parsley sauce, simply a béchamel (or white sauce as we called it) with lots of parsley chopped in, will always remind me of my Grandparents. Sitting at the dining table with my Grandad as my Grandma was busy getting dinner finished in the kitchen, usually singing or humming to herself as she did. Food was passed through the hatch and we all say down to eat. Parsley sauce was normally served with gammon and boiled potatoes. When I make it at home it’s normally about to get pouring into a dish as I’m making a fish pie. If there’s any left I will happily stand in the kitchen with a spoon dipping into the saucepan to eat the last of it. In fact, I often make too much just so I can do this.
That’s basically what I’m making today. A deconstructed fish pie. I think if you were to ask people to list the most popular “comfort food” dishes of all time, fish pie would be pretty high up there. Lots of people (myself included) will boast to making a pretty decent fish pie.
Arguments will spring up about how many types of fish should be used. Should there be prawns? Should there be egg?
The first dish I ever cooked for Aidan was a fish pie. As a relatively new ex-vegetarian this was ambitious. Aidan was incredibly specific. For him a fish pie had to include smoked fish, white fish, salmon, prawns and egg. Nothing less was acceptable.
So that is how I made it. In my tiny (and filthy) student kitchen, following a Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall recipe, which I have used ever since.
Eleven years later I am in our tiny, run down kitchen (some tiles actually fell off the wall yesterday) in our fixer upper new house, getting ready to poach some smoked fish.
Because for all the arguments there is one thing everyone agrees on. Fish pie would not be fish pie without smoked fish.
I’ve never eaten smoked hake before. Never seen it in the shops or on a restaurant menu.
But I saw in on the Fresh Cornish Fish website when I did a fish order and couldn’t resist buying some. They smoke all their own fish, with no colours or additives, naturally over oak chips.
I didn’t want these fish fillets to get lost in a fish pie.
As soon as I saw this on the menu at Fish!, a borough market fish restaurant (the name is a bit of a giveaway there), I knew this is what I needed to cook.
“Smoked cod fillet, parsley sauce, scallion mash“
I’ve never eaten this dish. In fact I’ve never eaten at Fish! full stop. If I’m honest I’ve always been a bit of a snob about the name. The exclamation mark kind of put me off. In the same way restaurants with silly puns in the title or ones that swap out an “S” for a “Z” in their name do.
But reading a bit about it, and looking at the menu, means I’m going to put this prejudice towards their use of punctuation to one side. The food sounds delicious. The restaurant also own a fishmonger business. They pride themselves on the quality of their produce. Sounds pretty good to me.
So I’m swapping the cod for hake.
I wonder why they call it scallion mash? Surely that’s an American term for spring onion isn’t it?
Turns out what we call a spring onion is called a scallion in America. But they also have spring onions, which are the ones that have a bulb on the end, rather than just being straight. And green onions, which is when there is a slight bulge at the base of the onion, but not a fully formed bulb. By this point I am so confused I have practically forgotten what I’m cooking.
I have what we could call normal, straight, spring onions in the fridge. So I’m using these.
If I was making a fish pie I would poach the smoked fish in the milk, and then use that milk to make the sauce.
However, this time I still want the flavour of the smoked fish in the milk but I also want to be able to keep the fillets whole and finish them off in a frying pan. So once the milk is warm but not hot I fish out the fillets (pun totally intended) and pat them dry with some kitchen paper.
Then once both the mash and the sauce are made I pan fry the fillets, skin side down for a few minutes. I add some spinach to the pan to wilt too, as a few extra greens would never hurt.
It’s a delicious meal. The fish is truly amazing. My kind of comfort food. Food that is made from scratch, food that is from sustainable sources. And food that brings a smile to my face as I remember sitting at my Grandparents dining table.
My only regret is that I sprinkle some dill on the finished dish. I sometimes forget how powerful this herb is. Even through I must have used at least five times as much parsley, dill has now become the dominant flavour.
I mentally add gammon to next weeks shopping list. I’m going to make the parsley sauce again.
Smoked Hake, Spring Onion Mash & Parsley Sauce
- 2 fillets smoked hake
- 2 handfuls fresh spinach
- olive oil or butter, for frying
Spring Onion Mash
- 2 large potatoes (like baking potatoes)
- 1 garlic clove
- 4 spring onions
- 25 g butter
- 500 ml whole milk
- 5 whole black peppercorns
- 1 onion
- 1 bay leaf
- 25g butter
- 25g plain flour
- 1 large handful chopped parsley
- In a small, heavy based saucepan add the milk, peppercorns and bayleaf. Chop the onion in half and add it to the pan. Check your fish fillets for bones (removing any you find) and then add this to the milk. Place on a low heat. When the milk gets warm (not boiling) remove the fish and pat dry with some kitchen paper. Once the milk starts bubbling turn off the heat and leave to cool. Strain, keeping the milk and discarding the solids.
- Peel and roughly chop the potatoes. Add cold water and salt to a saucepan and then add the potatoes with the peeled garlic clove. Bring to a simmer and then cook until the potatoes are soft. Drain and mash, adding a little of the poaching milk if needed. Season with salt and pepper.
- Wipe out the saucepan you used to poach the fish and put it back on the heat. Add 25g butter and let it melt. Then stir in the plain flour before slowly adding the milk, whisking as you go to avoid lumps. Let the sauce thicken and then keep warm. Season and stir through the parsley just before serving.
- Finely slice the spring onions. Melt the remainging butter in a non stick frying pan and then add the onions. Cook for a few minutes until soft. Tip the spring onions and all the melted butter into the mash and mix thoroughly. Keep warm whilst you cook the fish.
- Put the non stick frying pan back on the heat and turn it up to high. Add more butter or oil and once hot add the fish fillets, skin side down. Cook for a couple of minutes and then add the spinach to the pan, letting that wilt around the fish. Flip the fillets over, turn off the heat and let the fish finish cooking.
- Plate up the mash and place a fish fillet and the spinach on top. Pour over lots of parsley sauce and tuck in.