4 August 2013

Cheesey Seafood Gratin - fish is delicious on a budget!

Now, don't go looking at the title of "Cheesey Seafood Gratin" and immediately think "oh, I can't afford that".  I know that there are people out there for whom the price of this dish would be prohibitive, lord knows I've been one of them, but it really is about the cheapest way short of having a friendly fishmonger nearby or going out and catching your fish.

Most supermarkets, these days, are selling what they call "Fish Pie Mix" in their frozen food section.

These fish pie mixes contain a selection of fish - mine had smoked haddock, salmon and cod - and are obviously there to catch all the little bits of fish that are offcuts from making bigger chilled dishes.  They also provide an outlet for all those tiny fish that are caught along the way.  You only have to look at a cross section of one of the fish pieces to realise that it had to have come from a teensy fish.  Well that's fine, because at the price they're offered - mine was £3 for 300g - they aren't exactly cheap, but then they're not exactly THAT expensive either.  Now, across 3 people, 300g of fish isn't that much, so I added one of Asda's "cheap as chips" 200g bags of coldwater prawns - which at £1.50 made the price of the fish up to £4.50.

Once upon a time, I'd have been looking to spend no more than £3 on meat or fish for a meal - but no longer.  The upper limit has had to be moved to no more than £5 these days, so this just fitted.  The only thing you have to remember, when using frozen fish of any kind, is to squeeze it gently between some kitchen paper before adding it to your dish - otherwise you'll find it releases a ridiculous amount of water and turns your lovely sauce to soup.

I found this particular recipe in the BBC Good Food magazine for September and don't seem to be able to find it anywhere else online at the moment, otherwise I'd send you there.  So, just for the moment, this is about the only place you'll find this particular recipe!

Just out of the grill and as hot as the surface of the sun!

I was immediately attracted to the photograph - I'm a total sucker for anything remotely gratinated.  Show me a cheese sauce, white sauce, seafood sauce - you name it, if it's with a roux style sauce, I'm interested.  The combination of cheese and fish was attractive too, not least because so many of the t.v. chefs who cook Italian style food are adamant that cheese and fish should not appear on the same plate.  Oh, I'm just a little rebel at heart, you see.  What?  That's news to you?  Just ask my Mum, she'll tell you.

What you can't see in these photographs, though, is that hiding under the fish and prawns (which I do accept, you can't see those either) is a layer of sauteed leek.  Now for me, that little layer of soft green leek really made this dish.  Without it, the texture would have been too squishy.  However, with the addition of the leek, they gave the texture a lovely soft crunch that, along with the wholegrain mustard, brought the dish together beautifully.

As for the mechanics of making the dish, well it couldn't have been easier.  I opted to make my own cheese sauce because I find making a roux based sauce extremely easy, but if you were in the market for a quick meal or have physical challenges in the kitchen, just buy a pot of cheese sauce.  Yes, it adds to the price - but it will speed things up.  I simply made the sauce, sauteed the leeks, assembled the dishes (I made it in three individual dishes as you can see from the photographs) and while it was in the oven, put together the simple salad and buttered some bread.  I even had time to do the small amount of washing up that had accumulated.

A word must be had about the type of cheese you use.  I used an extra mature cheddar because I like the way it behaves in a cheese sauce and we like our cheese sauces to be really, really cheesey.  However, there is a slight problem with extra mature cheddar in that it really doesn't like being grilled.  Doesn't like it at all.  So when it came to grilling the tops to provide a nice baked crust, as you can see, it didn't really work.  What I should have done, was buy a less mature cheese to use in grating over the top - but for the sake of a few moments grilling, it seemed an unnecessary expense.  However, if you aren't so bothered about a REALLY cheesey sauce and like the baked top, opt for a medium cheddar and that should work better for you.

The mustard is a must-have in this dish.  Without it, the sauce wouldn't have that piquancy that stops it from becoming sickly.  I dare say it doesn't have to be wholegrain mustard - I should think that a good slug of English would do nicely and at a pinch maybe Dijon, but I'd be careful about the Dijon making the sauce a little bit too piquant.

The original recipe required 10g of fresh parsley to be chopped and half added to the sauce and half reserved to sprinkle over at the end.  I, stupidly, had forgotten to order the parsley so we did without.  I didn't miss it, although it would have made the end photograph a bit prettier!  So, it's up to you whether you include it or not.

I should also think that this is one of those dishes that could transcend the seasons.  In the spring and summer, serve it with salad - and in the autumn/winter it would be lovely with mashed potato, carrots and peas.  You could also jazz it up with lovely things like lobster (yes, I know, I'm laughing at the very idea too) and scallops (sometimes you can find some affordable scallops, depending on the time of year).

In short, this is a really flexible but truly delicious meal that everyone here enjoyed.  Son & heir liked it so much he even bothered to stop long enough to wipe his dish clean with a crust of bread.  Now that's a seal of approval, if ever there was one.


Ingredients :

50g unsalted butter
3 dessertspoonfuls of plain flour
sea salt & freshly ground black pepper
1 pint of whole milk
2 tsp wholegrain mustard
200g cheddar cheese, with some held back for sprinkling
2 tsp rapeseed oil (or olive oil)
2 large leeks, cleaned, halved and thinly sliced
300g frozen fish pie mix, defrosted
200g frozen prawns, defrosted
salad and wholemeal bread slices, to serve.

Method :

1.  Pre-heat your oven to 200degC/400degF/Gas 6.

2.  Skip this bit if you've bought yourself a pot of cheese sauce - except to add the mustard to the sauce, then go to stage 4.

If you haven't bought cheese sauce, take a small saucepan and melt the butter in it.  Once melted, add the flour and stir to combine.  Let it cook for a few moments, but without turning brown.  Add a teensy tiny pinch of salt (there's loads of salt in the cheese and the fish, so go carefully) and a good twist or four of black pepper.

3.  Reduce the heat and add the milk in instalments, stirring like a mad thing in between instalments so as to remove the lumps.  However, don't stir too madly or you'll be washing floury milk off your walls.  Once you've added approximately half the milk and the lumps are (hopefully) all gone, increase the heat and stir until the sauce thickens.  I was left with just a touch of milk in the bottom of the pint container, but it all depends on how much flour you put in as to how much milk you will need to achieve the right consistency.  You're looking for a really quite thick sauce, as the addition of the cheese will let it down a little.  So, remove the sauce from the heat and add the mustard and cheese.  Stir to combine them through the sauce while the cheese melts.  Once it has all melted, set it aside while you take care of the leeks.

4.  If you're clever at multi tasking, you could do this stage at the same time as the sauce.  I can't - I'm rubbish at multi tasking and generally only have one hand to stir with as the other is holding myself up.  Ooh, arthritis is such fun!

So, gently heat the rapeseed or olive oil in a frying pan and add the leeks.  Cook them slowly, stirring often to prevent any from going brown, until they are softened but still have a soft crunch to them.  Remove from the heat and begin to assemble the dish.

5.  Decide whether you are going to make this in one big dish, or in individual dishes.  I'll assume that you've gone with the individual dishes route, for the sake of this recipe.

6.  Take the leeks and divide them equally between the dishes.

7.  Take the fish pie mix and drain off the water.  Drop the pieces of fish onto several pieces of kitchen paper and lay another couple of sheets on top.  Squeeze gently, to remove the bulk of the water from the fish.  Then divide the fish equally between the dishes.

8.  Do the same process for the prawns - drain, kitchen paper, squeeze, divide equally.

9.  Take the cheese sauce and again, divide it equally between the dishes, making sure all the contents are covered and the top is levelled.

10.  Sprinkle with the remaining grated cheese and place the dishes into the oven for 15 minutes.

11.  To achieve the baked cheese effect on the surface of each dish, place under a hot grill for a few minutes, or even give them a blast with a blowtorch.  However, take note of the fact that an extra strong cheddar just won't bake in the way that a medium cheddar will.

12.  While the dishes were in the oven, assemble some salad ingredients on each plate and butter some wholemeal bread.  Once the dishes are done, add one to each plate and serve amidst dire warnings as to the temperature of the gratin, which is something akin to the surface of the sun at this stage.  Blow a lot on the first few forkfuls!

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