The nights really are drawing in now – it gets dark at about 4 o’clock round our way at the moment and we’re talking about changing the timing on the heating. Brrrrr! Christmas is pleasantly on the horizon: the Christmas lights were switched on in the town centre last Saturday and television ad breaks are peppered with the festive offerings of Marks and Spencer, Tesco and Coke but haven’t yet reached that fever pitch when we’re bombarded with this season’s ‘must-have’ toys for our kids and Old Spice gift sets for our dads.  The local radio station is running competitions to win Christmas turkeys but Slade, Shakin’ Stevens, Wham! and Jona Lewie have not yet hijacked their playlist. So it’s close enough that I’m starting to feel a bit festive but not so close that I’m rushing around doing food shopping/present shopping/laundry/changing beds.

So, not a Christmassy recipe – those are to come over the next few weeks! – but another comfort food one. Fisherman’s pie is one of my, and my family’s, all-time favourites and even my toddler scoffs it down. It’s not the best-looking of dishes, I’ll grant you, but it more than makes up for it in flavour – the smokiness of the fish, the fluffiness of the mash and the ooziness of the cheese. To unashamedly steal from Gregg Wallace’s lexicon, it’s a hug on a plate.

Gluten-free fisherman’s pie

You can mix up the fish in this recipe. You can add more (not less!), use different fish or perhaps swap prawns for mussels. What I would say is, make sure one of them is smoked.

Serves 4

300ml milk
320g mixed fish, cut into bite-sized chunks (I used a mix of salmon, haddock and smoked pollock)
1 bay leaf
10 black peppercorns*
1/2 gluten-free fish stockpot or stock cube** (if using 1/2 a stock cube, finely grate it)
200g cooked and peeled prawns (shrimp)
25g butter, cubed
25g gluten-free plain (all-purpose) flour
500g Maris Piper or King Edward potatoes (peeled weight)
100g cheddar cheese, grated
Salt and pepper

You will also need a 1.2-litre capacity ovenproof dish and a potato ricer (or masher).

Place the milk in a heavy-based small saucepan along with the mixed fish, the bay leaf and the peppercorns and bring up to a simmer over a low heat. As soon as the milk looks like it’s about to boil, strain the fish and return the milk to the saucepan. Pick out the bay leaf and peppercorns from the fish and discard. Scatter the fish over the base of the ovenproof dish and scatter the prawns over the top.

Add the stockpot/stock cube to the milk and gently heat, stirring so that it dissolves. Leave over a gentle heat. Meanwhile, in a separate saucepan, melt the butter with the flour, whisking continuously to form a roux. Continue cooking for about a minute then, add the hot milk in a slow, continuous stream, whisking all the while to form a smooth, creamy béchamel***. Don’t season at this point. Pour the béchamel over the prepared fish and leave to cool****. Avoid stirring to incorporate it: you run the risk of breaking up the fish. As it bakes in the oven, the sauce will become more liquid and will seep down to coat all the fish.

Preheat the oven to 180C. Cut the potatoes into large chunks and place in a large saucepan of cold water. Bring up to the boil and cook for 10 minutes or until the chunks are tender to the point of a knife. Drain and leave to dry for a couple of minutes. Rice (or mash) the potatoes and season well with salt and pepper. Resist the temptation to add butter/milk/cream to the potatoes. You want the top to remain fluffy in the oven. If the potatoes have anything added, they will collapse. Spoon the mashed potato over the top of the fish – I use two dessertspoons to dollop it over. Leave it rough and craggy rather than smooth. Sprinkle the cheddar over the top and bake for 30 minutes or until the cheese is golden and you can see the béchamel bubbling away under the crust. Serve with steamed green vegetables or, if there aren’t enough calories already, some buttered leeks.

*I know it sounds finicky to specify exactly 10 peppercorns but, if you know exactly how many went in, you know exactly how many to take back out again. Biting on a whole black peppercorn when you’re not expecting it, is not a pleasant experience!

** Most stock cubes aren’t gluten-free. I use Knorr stockpots. The beef and chicken ones are labelled gluten-free but the fish ones aren’t. I checked the label and it doesn’t include any gluten-containing ingredients. I use them and they don’t make me ill. Their fish stock cubes ARE labelled gluten-free, so if you don’t want to risk it, I used those instead.

*** I always used to end up with a lumpy béchamel until I started using hot milk rather than cold. If there are a few lumps, just take the sauce off the heat and whisk furiously for a minute or so.

****This is really important. The bechamel needs to cool and set so that the mashed potato doesn’t sink into it.

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