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February 14, 2019
Sloppy, Messy, Second-Try Fish Pie

Follow the simple steps in a pie inspired by Darina Allen’s Forgotten Skills of Cooking. Failure is an option.

We do not speak of failure. We do not cite its name.

We, the people who tell stories about food and recipes, exalt only the glossy termini of the kitchen. The recipes that work. The images that denote effortless perfection. The cooking experiments that wend their way to success, always. The endgame shines and sells; the messy, mussy process to arrive there does not.

The last 12 months have been hard. Finding new footing after my boyfriend and I stopped dating last year after 10 years together has been painful in a fresh way. The cold anvil of ruination drops into my stomach daily. I, like everyone, am alone in the world. I know, too, that I need other people, and my ex-boyfriend’s absence is omnipresent. The days when I drag myself and my dog to Crescent Park, a lush public space that abuts the Mississippi River near where I live downriver in New Orleans, are momentous accomplishments. Most days, even the good ones, I feel like I have failed.

A few months ago, there was a glut of leftover mashed potatoes in my refrigerator after the first Thanksgiving without him. The mash was rich and tangy with sour cream. I thought of uses. Shepherd’s pie. Cottage pie, which is shepherd’s pie with beef in lamb’s stead. Then I remembered: fish pie! For years, I have been drawn to the recipe for Classic Fish Pie in Darina Allen’s Forgotten Skills of Cooking, published in 2009.

Allen founded and runs the famed Ballymaloe cooking school in County Cork, Ireland. The book’s title implies that these are universal cooking skills, which we all know is inaccurate. There are no universal cooking skills. Instead, these are the forgotten kitchen skills of Allen’s Irish home. The kind of longstanding cooking know-how, once the sustaining backbone of Ireland, that Allen fears is eroding. Bacon and cabbage with parsley sauce; brown soda bread; colcannon, the rugged mix of potatoes and kale; gooseberry and elderflower tart. Much of Allen’s style of Irish food is what I want to eat. Much of it is also not at home in south Louisiana. Fish pie is. Catfish, black drum, redfish, and their piscine kin are found all over New Orleans, and I was at an advantage because I already had mashed potatoes on hand.

Fish pie requires many steps, but each is easy. You sauté onions and mushrooms in butter. Then you poach fish fillets in milk, along with thyme, bay leaf, and parsley. Best is a mix of kinds of fish, including a touch of smoked fish, if you are into smoke and the sea. Which you should be. The poaching liquid is then thickened with the palest of roux. A roux so blond it would madden a south Louisianan keen on the dank roux of the region’s gumbos. Into a baking dish it all goes, then fluffy mashed potatoes are piped or scooped on top. Enter failure.

My leftover mashed potatoes were wrong for this fish pie. I thought I was being economical. Leave no leftover unemployed. The potatoes glopped, when they should have stood firm. The potatoes did not brown either, for they featured no eggs to incite darkening. I thought I was being resourceful; I was foolish.

I came of age in the 1980s, when the predominant American narrative thrown at a closeted gay teenager like myself was that being gay equals death. So I, and so many people I know, calcified a narrative to survive. We were told that the source of interpersonal happiness is couplehood. We are not taught that an ease with our own aloneness is good and right. We fumble and fall and break ourselves trying to mesh and match with another person. Like a gaggle of Humpty Dumptys, if Humpty were adhering to a frayed road map written in a language he only thought he read fluently. A language that he was taught is the best, rightest language. When it is not.

We learn from our failures. Such is their power: the ensuing discernments. I learned that too much liquid in mashed potatoes creates a sloppy topping for fish pie. I began the pie again, beating together mashed potatoes that stood tall on this new fish pie and went tan in the oven. I continue to learn that I am a different man than what society has intimated. My true birthright is to turn inward, to be at peace with my loneness. With or without other people. This forward motion happens in increments. Those roadblocks, those fumbles have names. I will call my failures by their names. I will repeat them and their names.

A Kitchen in New Orleans. Many years of eating, cooking, and writing about food have left Scott Hocker with many stories to tell. In this occasional column, he re-creates a dish tied to a distant, or sometimes recent, food memory.

Irish Fish Pie

Irish Fish Pie

6-8 servings


  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
  • 1 cup scant all-purpose flour or quick-mixing flour, such as Wondra
  • 2 pounds unpeeled potatoes, preferably Yukon Golds
  • Kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 2-4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 ½ pounds fish fillets (cod, salmon, hake, etc., or a mix of a few kinds)
  • Kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black peppers
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 8 ounces mushrooms, sliced
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2-3 tablespoons heavy cream (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon chopped thyme leaves
  • 2 tablespoons chopped parsley
  • 1 cup frozen peas

Employ a mix of fishes, if you like. A few ounces of smoked fish would be sublime. Variety is wise in a pie like this. Note, too, the roux measurements make a lot of roux. It is easier to cook a lot of roux than it is to cook a little. After, you’ll have leftover roux in the fridge. Always handy.

  1. Make the roux: Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat, then add the flour and cook, stirring occasionally, until the flour’s raw scent slips away, about 2 minutes.
  2. Make the mashed potatoes: Put the potatoes into a saucepan along with a hefty pinch of salt, cover with cold water, and bring to a boil. Once at a boil, reduce the heat to a sturdy simmer and cook until the potatoes are about half-cooked, about 15 minutes. Strain off two-thirds of the remaining liquid, cover the saucepan, reduce the heat to low, and steam the potatoes until they are fully cooked.
  3. In a small saucepan, bring the milk to a simmer. Meanwhile, peel the potatoes by pulling off their skins. Mash the flesh using a potato masher or the paddle attachment of a standing mixer. Beat the egg yolks into the mashed potatoes and add the simmering milk in stages. You want just enough to give the mashed potatoes a soft, light consistency. Beat in the butter, adding the amount based on how rich you want the result to be. Taste and season with salt and pepper.
  4. Make the fish pie: Cut the fish into pieces that are about 5 ounces each. Season with salt and pepper.
  5. Add ½ tablespoon butter to a skillet and heat over low heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until the the onion is soft and translucent but not browned. Transfer the onion to a plate. Increase the heat, add a bit more butter, then the mushrooms in batches, cooking each batch until the mushrooms are shrunken and lightly browned. Don’t crowd the skillet. Season the cooked mushrooms with salt and pepper and add them to the onion.
  6. In a skillet large and wide enough to hold both the fish and the 2 cups milk, add the fish pieces in a single layer, more or less, then cover with the milk and add the bay leaf. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover and simmer gently until the fish is barely cooked, about 4 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the fish to a plate. Carefully remove all bones and skin. Discard the bay leaf.
  7. Preheat the oven to 350℉.
  8. Bring the fish-cooking liquid to a boil and thicken it by whisking in a little roux at a time. Start with a tablespoon. How thick you want it is up to you. A good barometer for thickness is melty cheese dip. Add the heavy cream, if using, and the thyme, parsley, mushrooms, onion, fish pieces, and peas. Stir gently, taste, and adjust the seasoning. Spoon into one large baking dish or 6 to 8 small ones. Pipe or scoop the mashed potatoes on top. The pie can be prepared ahead up to this step and refrigerated for about a day.
  9. To finish, bake the pie—or pies—in the preheated oven for 10 to 15 minutes if the filling and topping are warm, 30 minutes if reheating the dish. Use the broiler to brown the top, if necessary.

Scott Hocker

Scott Hocker is a writer, editor, recipe developer, cookbook author, and content and editorial consultant. He has worked in magazines, kitchens, newsletters, restaurants and a bunch of other environments he can’t remember right now. He has also been the editor in chief of both liquor.com and Tasting Table.