I‘m hardly an angler of substance, but I will never forget my first fishing rod. My sister and I must have been around 5-7 years old when we woke up one Christmas morning to find a pair of very tall, thin gifts sticking out of our Santa sacks. Our shiny child-sized rods were immediately put to use fishing for sprats off the wharf and real fish from Dad’s boat out on Doubtless Bay. We fed the sprats to our pet cats who instantly turned feral, issuing low, threatening growls if we ventured too close to their meal.
My extended family are all keen fishers and holidays were punctuated by fishing trips. Everyone took turns so that we all had a go in the boat. For those who stayed behind, the ritual was to listen out for the fishers return, then head outside to admire the catch, wow at the stories and commiserate over the sunburn.
In late March we flew home to NZ to see our families for a week. It was a busy time but we couldn’t resist Dad’s offer of an early morning fishing excursion on beautiful Doubtless Bay. The 5am wakeup was a little painful (we hadn’t yet adjusted to the 3-hour time difference), but it ensured that we were on the water by 6.30am. Almost immediately we started pulling up snapper, and when they stopped biting we moved and caught several kahawai. The semi-vegetarian in me struggled a little with each moment of death (and I even threw one back – some things have changed since I was a kid) but I still got caught up in wrestling fish into the boat, scanning for birds and marvelling as fat skipjack tuna fed on the surface. It was a beautiful crisp autumn day and the water gradually became still and intensely blue. By late morning it moved so languidly that it looked like oil.
One of best ways to eat perfectly fresh fish is simply to dust it with flour and fry it in butter. I was fortunate, then, that Mum and Dad agreed I could filch several fillets of snapper to make a fish pie for dinner. This recipe for Fish & Fennel Pie is originally Donna Hay’s but I’ve been cooking it for about 10 years now and favourite recipes like these tend to become your own as you enhance them over time. In this pie, the fish is combined with fennel, onions and carrots then brought together with cream, wine and lemon zest. This simple and fragrant filling is topped with bread, brushed with butter and baked until crisp in the oven.
The pie turned out well – how delightful it was to cook and eat fish that was barely a few hours old! Later that week, back in Brisbane, I decided to cook the pie again. I paid an arm and a leg for fish from the supermarket and sourdough baguette from the bakery. The pie was good, but it just wasn’t the same.
Fish & Fennel Pie
750g firm white fish, such as snapper
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, thinly sliced
2 medium fennel bulbs, thinly sliced
1 celery stick, thinly sliced
2 carrots, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 Tbsp flour
Zest of one lemon, finely grated
1/2 cup dry white wine, such as Sauvignon blanc
3/4 cup cream
1/2 tsp Thai fish sauce
French stick or baguette, sliced thinly into rounds
30g melted butter
Preheat the oven to 180°C / 350°F. Rinse the fish and pat dry with paper towels. Cut into pieces, about 2cm by 2cm. Cover and set to one side.
Melt the butter and oil in a large, heavy bottomed pan over a low-medium heat. Add the vegetables (all thinly sliced into whichever shapes please you) and the crushed garlic along with a generous pinch of salt. Cook the vegetables for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until tender but not brown. Add the flour and stir through. Add the wine and cream then raise the heat to gently simmer for a couple of minutes. Drop the heat back again add the lemon zest, fish sauce and a good grind of black pepper. Taste the sauce and adjust as required, adding more wine, fish sauce, salt or pepper until the sauce tastes balanced and good.
Add the fish pieces to the vegetables and stir to combine. Transfer the mixture to a baking dish. Top with sliced bread, overlapping the slices like fish scales. Brush the bread with melted butter and bake for 20 minutes until the bread is golden.