As good as it looks

ELIZABETH LATHAM
Last updated 17:20 27/07/2012
Mendocino fish pie
MARION VAN DIJK/FAIRFAX NZ

ONE-POT WONDER: This Mendocino fish dish proves that you don't necessarily need pastry to make a great pie.

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The right taste combinations are what make a dish. Whether it is a simple or complex dish, the success of it ultimately lies in the taste. That is not to say that colour and form aren't also important, but the final deciding vote has to be based on the taste.

My personal view is that too much time can be spent crafting the visual splendour of a dish, only to be totally let down by the taste.

The letdown can be even greater if a huge amount of effort has gone into the form and not enough concentration on how it tastes.

Even more complicated in the taste department is marrying tastes - knowing what works together and what doesn't.

This is ultimately a matter of practice, as well as having a fundamental knowledge about tastes and the way that different cultures combine them.

It would be boring if we only cooked lamb with mint sauce, when lamb combines so beautifully with Middle Eastern spices and with garlic and anchovies.

We all know that garlic and onions go together and chili and lime, potatoes and leeks, coconut and cinnamon, but we may not know the other myriad flavours that can work together. This takes experimentation, curiosity and reading recipes, particularly those from other cultures.

I never stop learning about food, which is one of the reasons it is so fascinating and never becomes dull.

One of the more interesting challenges in taste combinations is making one-pot meals.

Some people see these as easy to make, but they can be vile - a hodge-podge of flavours and textures with little to redeem them in the taste department.

Pies or cobblers are an interesting example - not traditional Kiwi pies with pastry on the top and bottom, but pies in the more loose sense of the term that have a crust on the top with a filling that has been cooked gently until tender and juicy.

The crust helps to contain the filling and adds a crunch or crispness to the dish that should finish it perfectly.

The best rule is to keep it simple, with a few ingredients chosen well and finished with a topping that will complement the filling perfectly.

Toppings can be many things. Breadcrumbs are a perfect example, wholemeal or white, by themselves or mixed with herbs and cheese for extra taste and crunch. The topping can be a layer of grated cheese or cheeses or it can be pastry, of course - short or puff - mashed potatoes or pumpkin, or even hardboiled eggs chopped finely and mixed with herbs and some bread crumbs or a little parmigiano reggiano.

I have chosen three pies that I love to make that exemplify the principle of simplicity and that use different toppings. They can all be served with a crisp green salad to provide a counterpoint to the soft textures of the pies. They are wonderful at this time of the year.

LEEK AND FISH PIE

Serves 4

300g smoked fish, such as warehou
100g firm white fish
2 leeks
4 potatoes
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 Tbsp butter
2 Tbsp flour
1 cups milk
cup chicken stock
cup white wine
2 Tbsp fresh marjoram
cup grated grana padano cheese

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Boil the potatoes until tender. Drain and set aside. Slice the leeks in thin rounds and saute in the olive oil until they begin to reduce. Add the stock and cook until the leeks are soft and tender. Make a bechamel sauce by cooking the flour in the butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan for a few minutes until it begins to turn slightly golden. Take it off the heat, add the wine and whisk briskly to stop it from forming lumps. When it is thickened and well incorporated, put it back on a low heat and add the milk gradually. The sauce should be thickened but not too thick. Add a little more milk to get the right consistency. Add the marjoram and season well with salt and pepper.

Flake the smoked fish and cut the fresh fish into chunks. Layer in a baking pan, first the sliced potatoes, then the leeks then the fish. Pour over the bechamel and make sure it goes all the way through to the bottom. Top the pie with the grated cheese and bake in a moderate oven for about 30 minutes.

POTATO, TOMATO AND MOZZARELLA PIE

Serves 4

4 large potatoes
200g of mozzarella cheese
3 medium tomatoes
3 Tbsp butter
3 Tbsp olive oil
3 hard-boiled eggs
Whole basil leaves
4 Tbsp chopped Italian parsley
2 Tbsp chopped chives
3 slices french bread

Boil the potatoes, drain and cut into thick slices. Cut the cheese into fat slices and slice the tomatoes into rings. Make the topping by combining in a food processor the hard-boiled eggs, parsley, chives, bread and olive oil. Blend to a chunky consistency.

Melt the butter and place in the bottom of a pie dish. Layer the potatoes first, then the tomatoes. Place a leaf or two of basil on top of each slice of tomato, followed by the cheese. Season the potatoes and the tomato layers well with salt and pepper. Lay the topping over the cheese in an even layer to cover the dish evenly. Bake in a moderate oven for about 20 minutes.

MENDOCINO FISH PIE

Serves 4

1 red onion
3 Tbsp olive oil
2 cloves garlic
600g firm-fleshed white fish
cup dry white wine
1 Tbsp green peppercorns
400g can Italian tomatoes
10-12 black olives
10-12 green olives
1 Tbsp chopped basil (in season) or use fresh oregano
For the topping
4-5 slices of ciabatta bread
3 Tbsp chopped Italian parsley
2 cloves garlic
3 Tbsp olive oil
Freshly grated parmigiano reggiano cheese

Make the topping by combining the bread with the herbs and oil in a food processor. Process until it forms large breadcrumbs.

Saute the chopped onion in the oil in an ovenproof pan. Add the garlic and cook until the onions wilt. Add the wine and cook for a minute, then add the tomatoes, olives and peppercorns and basil or oregano.

Add the fish chunks and cook gently. The fish should be partially cooked but not completely. Season to taste and take off the heat.

Add the topping to the fish and smooth it out to make a complete layer. Grate the cheese on top. Put into the oven and cook for about 15 minutes until the top is golden brown and the fish is cooked through.

- Nelson

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