Credit: Earl Carter

Pub staple

Andrew McConnell is the executive chef and co-owner of Cutler & Co and Cumulus Inc.

When I first started thinking about opening a pub, which I did about three years ago, I knew it would serve a fish pie. It’s a kind of comfort food that harks back to my mother’s fish mornay. It’s a dependable, welcoming dish that always delivers: fish, usually a white sauce, and a pastry top.

What I like about pubs is how everybody uses them differently. Whether it’s a beer in the front bar and a pickled egg – a very specific drinker, I admit – or someone after a bottle of wine and a dozen oysters, I really enjoy the social aspect of the way people use a pub as opposed to a restaurant.

People stake claims to pubs. There’s a nice sense of ceremony with a pub in Australia: mates in the beer garden, splitting jugs; families in the bistro for dinner. We’ve been running the pub just long enough to see the same Cup day crowd, the same grand final crowd, the same Anzac Day crowd.

A pub bistro menu has certain staples. I judge a pub by its porterhouse. The assessment’s made on the pepper sauce, how good the meat is, and on the service. It’s a simple benchmark item. The other is fish pie.

A traditional white sauce for fish pie is made of flour, butter and milk.  For the fish pie I’ve developed with the pub’s head chef, Josh, we’ve taken this bechamel and replaced the flour with vegetables. It produces a finer texture and a sauce that is not as thick.

The selection of seafood is important. I prefer a larger fillet of fish that takes longer to cook, as thinner fillets can cook too quickly while waiting for the pastry to finish. This recipe is best cooked in individual moulds rather than as a large pie, as the pastry on large pies takes longer to bake and can leave the seafood overcooked.

What’s nice about this recipe is you can just buy fillets from the fishmonger and don’t have to wrestle with whole fish. It’s good to use a firmer fish, such as snapper or even mackerel.

I would buy skinned fillets for this. But if your fillets aren’t skinned, take a thin long carving knife and with the skin side facing the board, pinch the end of the tail and slide your knife between the flesh and the skin, gently cutting as you go. Perhaps use a dry cloth to grip the skin if it is slipping. Run your hand along the flesh and if you feel any pin bones sticking up, remove them. We find the best tool for this is a small pair of hardware shop pliers – they grip better than the fish tweezers available in kitchen supply stores. 

This pie is also quite adaptable. Mussels can be added in place of prawns. I would even suggest smoked mussels to add more flavour. I’m talking about the shitty tinned stuff, which would work perfectly. And if you were pushing the boat out, you could put some scallops in as they do in Tasmania.

In this recipe I use chicken stock for depth of flavour. Marco Pierre White claims to use stock cubes, but then again he has a contract to endorse them.

1 . Fish pie sauce

Enough for 6 pies

– 3 tbsp olive oil

– 3 onions, finely sliced 

– 2 cloves garlic, finely sliced

– 1 large head of fennel, cored and finely sliced

– 5 prawn heads 

– 180ml white wine 

– 300g peeled potatoes, sliced

– 625ml chicken stock

– 185ml thickened cream 

– salt and freshly ground pepper

In a large, heavy-based pan, gently cook the onions, garlic and fennel in olive oil until soft.

Add the prawn heads to the saucepan and cook until they turn pink.

Raise the heat, deglaze the pan with the white wine and simmer the wine until it is almost totally reduced.

Add the potatoes and chicken stock and simmer gently until the potatoes are soft and the stock is reduced by two-thirds.

Add the cream and bring the mixture to the boil. 

Remove the prawn heads before pureeing the sauce in a blender until smooth. 

Strain the sauce and season to taste with salt and a little pepper.

2 . Pie filling

For 6 pies 

The filling components for the pie can be as many or as few as you wish. This is what we use at the Builders Arms. 

– 300g skinned ocean trout fillets, cut into large pieces

– 6 raw U6 prawns, peeled and halved 

– 950g skinned rock ling fillet, cut into large pieces

– 12 large sorrel leaves, torn

– 6 tbsp chopped dill

– zest of 1 lemon

– 3 tbsp chopped capers

– fish pie sauce (recipe above) 

– puff pastry, enough to cover your pie forms 

– 1 egg, beaten

Preheat your oven to 190ºC.

First, cut shapes out of the puff pastry to top the pies with. You can use one of the pie forms as a template. Just be sure to cut the pastry about one centimetre wider, all around, than the mouth of the bowl.

Divide the seafood, herbs, zest and capers between six deep soup bowls and spoon about 200 millilitres of the fish pie sauce into each bowl. Give it a little stir to distribute the sauce around the fish.

Dampen the edges of the bowls with a little water and place a disc of pastry over the top. Press the pastry lightly onto the rim of the bowl and brush with a little beaten egg. Pierce a couple of holes in the top of the pie to let the steam escape.

Bake for 15-20 minutes or until the pastry is golden and the fish is cooked.

3 . Wine pairing:

2013 Lammershoek LAM Pinotage, Swartland, South Africa ($23)  – Campbell Burton, sommelier, Builders Arms Hotel.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 24, 2014 as "Pub staple".

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Andrew McConnell is the executive chef and co-owner of Cutler & Co and Cumulus Inc.