Make a luxe update of fish pie with oysters for a hearty dinner

This oyster pie is a hearty, rib-sticking meal for cool weather.
This oyster pie is a hearty, rib-sticking meal for cool weather. NYTimes
Bacon and leeks are other ingredients for this rich dish.
Bacon and leeks are other ingredients for this rich dish. NYTimes

NEW YORK - (NYTIMES) In Britain, not all savoury pies are alike.

Some are wrapped in pastry while others are topped with "mash," the affectionate nickname for mashed potatoes.

There is cottage pie (mash-covered minced beef stew) and shepherd's pie (the same thing, but with lamb). And there is fish pie, the inspiration for the rich, satisfying oyster pie here.

  • OYSTER PIE WITH LEEKS, BACON AND MASHED POTATOES

  • INGREDIENTS

    1 1/2 pounds yellow-fleshed potatoes, such as Yukon Gold, peeled and cut in 2-inch cubes

    4 tbsps unsalted butter, more as needed

    Salt and pepper

    1/4 pound smoky bacon, cut crosswise into 1/4-inch lardons

    2 medium leeks, pale and tender parts only, chopped in 1/2-inch pieces

    1 tsp chopped thyme

    1 cup crème fraîche

    1 cup heavy cream or milk

    1 tbsp whole grain French mustard

    Pinch of cayenne

    12 large oysters, or more if desired, shucked, with juices

    1 cup coarse dry breadcrumbs

    Handful of grated Parmesan

    2 tbsps chopped parsley, for garnish

    METHOD

    1. Bring a pot of well-salted water to a boil. Add potatoes and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes, until completely tender. Drain potatoes, reserving 1 cup of cooking liquid. Return potatoes to pot, add 2 tbsps butter and season generously with salt and pepper. Mash well, adding cooking liquid as necessary to thin. Cover and keep warm.

    2. Meanwhile, render the bacon: Put a medium skillet over medium-high heat and add lardons. After a minute or so, when they begin to sizzle, turn heat to medium and stir them in pan to distribute evenly. Cook for a minute or two, letting bacon soften without browning. When it is just beginning to crisp, tip everything into a fine mesh sieve over a bowl to drain. (Reserve the fat for another purpose.) Set bacon aside.

    3. Put a large, deep skillet over medium-high heat and add 2 tablespoons butter. Add leeks, season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring, until wilted but still bright green, about 1 minute. Add reserved bacon, thyme, crème fraîche, heavy cream, mustard and cayenne; bring to a simmer. Add oysters and oyster juices, cook 1 minute, then remove from heat. The mixture will be rather soupy.

    4. Heat oven to 375 degrees. Transfer oyster mixture to a low-sided casserole dish approximately 9 inches across. Carefully cover the surface with spoonfuls of mashed potatoes in an even layer. Sprinkle with breadcrumbs and Parmesan and dot with butter. Set pan on a baking sheet in case there's overflow while cooking. Bake for about 40 minutes, until you can see the stew simmering at the edges and the top is beautifully browned. Let stand for 5 minutes before serving. Sprinkle with parsley.
    Yield: 4 to 6 servings
    Total time: About 1 hour

    And to drink ...

    For this luxurious rendition of a humble fish pie, I'd want something opulent and inviting, rich enough to stand up to its creaminess while stony and savoury enough to underscore the flavours of the oysters.

    My first thought, not unexpectedly, is of white Burgundy, Meursault in particular. It doesn't have to be from one of the better premier cru vineyards, though if you can afford, say, a Perrières, why not?

    I would choose a village wine from a good producer, and from a recent vintage so the wine is fresh and vigorous. Or perhaps I would go with a good producer from one of the lesser-known villages, like St. Aubin, St. Romain or Auxey-Duresses.

    If you really want to splurge, a Corton-Charlemagne would be great.

    A Burgundy alternative? A good Sicilian carricante, like Benanti's wonderful Pietra Marina. - ERIC ASIMOV

For fish pie, unless you are using leftover cooked fish, you poach a mixture of fresh fish chunks (and usually a bit of smoked haddock, too) briefly in milk, and then use it to make a lightly thickened white sauce.

The fish and sauce commingle, get the mash treatment and head into a hot oven to bake until golden and bubbly. Fish pie represents the homiest of home-cooked meals and is much adored, ever so humble as it is. There are also versions that add prawns or other shellfish, but that is considered a little too posh in some circles.

While experimenting with versions of my all-oyster pie, I first thought of baking oysters in cream with an herby bread-crumb topping.

I was consulting some older cookbooks from the South, in which shucked oysters were moistened with milk or cream (along with their precious liquor) and baked under a shower of crushed saltine crackers. That sounded pretty good.

But then I considered a Yankee oyster stew with bacon and onion, or an oyster chowder with leeks and potatoes. In the end, it became an oyster pie with nearly all of those other influences: fat oysters with crème fraîche, leeks, bacon and thyme, all nestled together under the mashed potato lid.

Concerning oysters, you can buy shucked oysters by the pint, or you can ask your fishmonger to shuck the oysters for you (or do it yourself). The cost ends up being about the same.

This is a perfect use for larger oysters. Pre-shucked oysters in a jar keep for a week while refrigerated, but freshly shucked is obviously that much fresher tasting. Figure three or four oysters per person, or more for larger appetites.

No disrespect to raw oysters on the half shell, which are wonderful in all sorts of settings, but for a cool-weather supper, make it oyster pie. This is a hearty, stick-to-your-ribs kind of meal.