I spend a depressing amount of time and mental energy tracking what is going on out there in the food-o-sphere while I sit at my kitchen desk in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
Twitter, Facebook, e-mail, repeat. That’s my mantra.
I chastise myself for not blogging enough. I lament my novice ability to self-promote via social media. I see my inadequacy materialize while watching Top Chef. I regret that I could only eat six times during my last 36-hour stay in New York.
But on Sunday I slipped on mental blinders and ignored all that. Well, I did see Amanda Hesser’s final Recipe Redux column in the New York Times Magazine, truth be told, as I’ve always loved her writing and will always be awed by her success.
But putting Amanda aside for the moment, I was perfectly contented to be where I was: kind of in the middle of nowhere geographically in the typically coastal-minded food world, but still at the center of some really good eats: Sunday lunch to celebrate the birthday of the matriarch of my hard-earned, adopted Carlisle family.
Anyone who relocates far away from close, blood relatives understands the importance of building a support system that buoys you in the hard times and rides your wave in the good ones. Establishing this type of network is a daunting task. I remember one January morning back in 2001, when the newness of owning a Victorian house had worn off as I stood amidst the dust of a major kitchen remodeling project. It hit me at that moment that I had no one to call upon for tea.
Johanna – who I’d met as one of a hundred people at a college holiday party weeks earlier and who I’ve come to learn is quite skilled at noticing these kinds of gaps in people’s lives – called me. And then she introduced me to Lucile, another transplant — she’s from France via Providence and Champaign-Urbana. And now we stand as the three legs of our Carlisle family stool.
For most holidays and all birthday celebrations, we three, our husbands and our combined brood of six kids ranging in age from 20 to 4, gather for festive meals and memory making.
Johanna has two standard requests for her late February birthday fete: English-style fish pie and banana cake with lemon cream cheese frosting and raspberries.
I pulled the recipe for the cake out of Cooking Light about eight years ago for Lucile’s birthday party, I think. But it regularly gets requested by one of five banana fiends in the family.
It has a dense, banana-bread like crumb enriched with only a small amount of butter and low-fat butter milk. With raspberries both sitting on top and separating the layers, this one is a stunner that doesn’t kill your caloric intake for the month, which is a good thing when you factor into the rich, creaminess of the sauce that envelops the cod, mussels, salmon and shrimp in the fish pie.
Johanna previously thought she could only ever fancy the full-fat, fussy version of fish pie espoused by British culinary queen Delia Smith. I’ve made that on several occasions for her.
But this year I went off-road and adapted one a wee bit lighter that is still creamy, satisfying and packed with fish and flavor — and topped with cheesy potatoes to boot. Not to brag, but this one, if you serve it with a good ale on a cold and rainy day like the one we have today, it will mentally transport you to a cozy table by the fire in a British country pub.
(Serves six to eight)
2 lbs mussels, scrubbed with beards removed
4 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
½ cup dry white wine
2 lbs white potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
3 cups skim milk
1 bay leaf
1 lb flakey white fish, skin removed
½ lb hot-smoked salmon, skin removed and flaked into bite sized pieces
2 T salt-brined capers
1 large, sweet onion, chopped
2 oz unsalted butter
2 oz all purpose flour
3 oz fresh dill, fronds removed from stems and roughly chopped
15 large shrimp, deveined with shells and tails removed
Salt and pepper
4 ounces of shredded, aged Cheddar
- Put the mussels, garlic and ½ cup of wine in a large covered pot over medium head. Steam the mussels until they open. Remove the meat from the shells and set aside. Strain the liquid and reserve it for use in the sauce.
- Par-cook the potatoes in salted water until fork tender. Drain potatoes and set them aside.
- Pour milk into a large pan with the bay leaf. Add the white fish of choice. Over medium-high heat, bring the milk to a simmer and hold it there for three minutes. Cover, remove the pan from the heat and let the fish poach for five minutes more. Remove the fish from the broth and break it into bite-sized chunks.
- Preheat oven to 400° F.
- Scatter the cooked white fish, mussels, smoked salmon pieces and capers around the bottom of a 9X13-inch glass or ceramic oven-proof dish.
- In a medium-sized sauce pan, melt butter over medium heat. Add chopped onions and cook until they are soft but not at all brown. Add flour to make a roux. Once the flour is combined with the butter and onions slowly add the reserved milk (from poaching the white fish) and reserved mussel stock, stirring constantly. Put the mixture back over medium-high heat and let it thicken up considerably. Once the sauce is the consistency of heavy cream, remove the pan from the heat and adjust for salt and pepper.
- To the sauce, add the chopped dill and the cleaned shrimp and stir to combine. Pour the sauce evenly over the other fish in the dish. Scatter the potatoes across the top of the fish mixture and sprinkle the cheese on top of the potatoes.
- Bake for 25-35 minutes until the cheese is melted and a bit crispy and the sauce is bubbling through.
- Both the potatoes and the sauce hold the heat very well, so it’s best to let the pie sit for about 10 minutes before serving. I like to serve this with something crunchy and green.