It can be difficult to write a column from the other side of the world – in addition to writer’s block, there’s the seasonal hurdle to overcome. As I write this, it’s a sticky midsummer’s evening, and my appetite has been sapped by the heat still rising from London’s grimy pavements. Besides, I’m newly in love, at that light as air stage where anything more substantial than the bubbles in a glass of champagne is just too corporeal. Food is the last thing on my mind.
Though, having been here before, I know it won’t last – before the summer is out food will become my all-consuming passion and I will spend far too many of my waking hours dreaming of delectable tidbits, shopping and chopping and stirring, composing menus to feed my love (my mother has a lot to answer for – all that stuff about the way to a man’s heart being through his stomach).
But in New Zealand, it’s cold, really cold, or so my mates there tell me. So while I’m fantasising about intense nectarines to quench my thirst and dribble down my chin, sweetly luscious berries exploding in my mouth, snappy string beans and new season’s spuds, barely-there salads and icy beer to wash it all down, at home you’re hankering for richly spiced cabernet in front of the fire and weighty winter fare to keep the frost at bay and warm you to the marrow.
This smoked mackerel and kumara pie from Kiwi food queen Annabel Langbein should fit the bill nicely then. Hearty food rather than heartfood, there’s nothing ephemeral about it. It will nonetheless win you good friends and inspire true love.Trust me.
two cups of cooked rice
five tablespoons of butter
one large onion, finely sliced
quarter of a cup of flour
three cups of full fat milk
a few grates of fresh nutmeg, salt and pepper
450g smoked mackerel, flaked
a couple or three tablespoons of capers
one and a half cups of grated tasty cheddar
two medium kumara and two large potatoes
First put the rice on to cook quietly while you get on with the rest of it. Next turn the oven on to 220C so it’ll be nice and toasty when you’re ready to brown the top of the pie (has the added advantage of heating the kitchen so you don’t freeze before dinner).
Then make the white sauce: melt the butter in a heavy pan, add the onion and cook gently for five minutes, until soft. Stir in the flour and cook for another minute. Gradually add the milk, stirring continuously. Season to taste. Cook, stirring all the while, until the sauce thickens and comes to the boil.
Take off the heat, stir in the fish, the capers and the cooked rice, and spread into a well-buttered ovenproof dish (by all means, leave out the capers if you don’t like ’em, but they do add a certain piquancy which lifts the entire dish – if you just can’t bring yourself to do it, perhaps squeeze a lemon in instead. The rice too, is not essential, but it makes it go further, feeding six instead of four).
Now cut the kumara and spuds into chunks and cook in lots of boiling salted water until tender, about 15 minutes. Drain, mash with a little milk, season, and spread over the fish mixture. (If you’re wondering why I didn’t tell you to put these on to cook earlier; it’s easier to spread the quite heavy mash on top of the pie once the bottom layer has settled and cooled slightly.)
Sprinkle the cheese over the top (if you like, the dish can be prepared ahead up to this point). Finally, bake in the pre-heated oven for 20 minutes, until golden brown and bubbling.