© Patricia Niven

A homemade pie is not a weekday undertaking for most of us. But for a grand occasion, it is a worthwhile luxury and a source of pride for the cook who goes to the trouble of making the filling and the pastry, then perfecting the assembly and the baking. The effort is evident and, when the result is good, much appreciated.

The sea bass filo pie here is a true party piece. A dear friend was the first to make it outside of our kitchens, on Christmas Day no less. We have served it at the restaurant to many happy customers, a fair few of whom have asked for the recipe.

The preparation does have a few stages but a mildly competent cook will get it all done without too much sweat. There are some nifty little tricks that boost the flavour without increasing the effort, such as roasting the bass dry to get the taste going, then adding water as it cooks. Not only does this keep the fish moist, it also provides a ready-made stock to make a light, velvety sauce that binds your filling ingredients. The flavouring will bring a slight north African accent to the dish; tarragon, preserved lemon skin, pickled chillies or capers will add a tangy burst; parsley will keep the whole thing fresh and sweet. No one is expected to make filo pastry at home. Those of us who are pastry-phobic or just can’t be bothered should always have a pack in the freezer. Wrap your filling with a few sheets, brush with butter to help it become irresistibly golden, and your work is done.

Bring the pie to your table, piping hot. As you cut through the crisp shell to reveal the creamy filling inside, you can relax in the knowledge that you have toiled in the kitchen and can now enjoy your reward.


© Patricia Niven

Sea bass filo pie

To roast the fish
1leek, slit in half lengthways and washed
2sticks of celery, washed
1/2lemon cut into 4
1head of garlic halved through the middle to expose the cloves
1large whole sea bass (1kg-1.2kg), scaled and gutted
1 tspwhole fennel seeds
1 tsp whole black peppercorns
1 tspwhole coriander seeds
1 tspsea salt
2 tbsolive oil
For the filling
300gor one small pack of smoked haddock, diced into small cubes (we prefer the undyed type but only if you can easily find it — the yellow one works just fine too)
Skin from four small preserved lemons, chopped
6pickled green chillies, chopped (or you can use capers)
1small bunch parsley, chopped
1small bunch tarragon, chopped
For the béchamel sauce
1leek, washed and sliced thinly
80gplain flour
Generous pinch of salt and pepper
700mlstrained poaching liquid from the fish (top up with water if necessary)
To assemble
1pack of filo pastry or eight large sheets
60gmelted butter
  1. Heat your oven to 200C fan.
  2. Place all the vegetables and lemon quarters in a large, deep roasting tray. Make three or four large slits on the side of the fish through the skin. Place the fish on top of the vegetables, drizzle with the oil and then sprinkle with all the whole spices and salt. Place in the centre of the hot oven and roast for 15 minutes. Add a litre of hot water to the tray, pouring it in carefully all over the fish. Return to the oven and bake for a further 10 minutes — don’t worry if the water doesn’t cover the entire fish, it is there to make a great stock. Remove from the oven and allow to cool before gently lifting out the fish on to a clean tray. Strain all the stock into a jug and set aside till later (it should make about 700ml-800ml stock). Carefully pull the skin off the fish, and flake all the flesh off the bone into a clean bowl; don’t worry if the fish breaks up into little pieces, just take out as much of the bone as possible. You can now discard all the skin and bones.
  3. Mix all the ingredients for the filling together in a large mixing bowl and add the flaked sea bass.
  4. To make the fish béchamel, melt the butter in a small saucepan and add the chopped leek, sauté a little until softened, about one minute, then add the flour in one go and season with salt and pepper. Mix well to coat and cook out for about 30 seconds, then add the liquid gradually while mixing and bring back to the boil. Let it thicken, stirring all the time. Once big bubbles appear, remove from the stove and cool a little before adding to the fish mix and mixing well. This stage can be prepared up to 24 hours in advance and left in the fridge until you are ready.
  5. Spread the filo on your workbench, butter the top sheet and lift it into a large ovenproof frying pan or casserole. Butter the next sheet and add to the pan, allowing lots of overhang off the side. If you are using smaller sheets, do not place the layers directly over one another, but rotate each new one so they overlap at different points to create a large rim all around the pan. Add the fish filling and fold the overhang back over to cover the filling entirely. Let the pastry settle in natural waves and brush the top with butter. Return to your oven (at 200C fan) and bake for 20-25 minutes until golden all over. Serve hot with a green-leaf salad.
© Patricia Niven

Photographs: Patricia Niven

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