One of my favourite bits in Breaking Bad is when Walt White is smuggled away by Saul’s guy, who specialises in creating new identities for people who have worn out their own, to live the rest of his life in the coldest, remotest cabin in New Hampshire.
As the man said, no phone, no internet, no television. He had a wood stove, a month’s worth of tinned food and a winter’s worth of snow. The fixer shows him round the cabin, then points at the log-burning stove and says: “You can cook in there as well.”
It hit a note with me. The getting back to basics thing. Rediscovery of the ancient skills of cooking over wood. I’ve got a wood stove in the cottage I live in, and although I can’t pretend it’s as cold as Walt’s cabin, I bet it runs a close second.
In fact, as I have no TV either, one of my main pleasures is warming my toes in front of the fire, with a whisky in my hand, while watching the flames licking away at the wood (Caveman TV, if you will). Then I make another foray into the darkness of the slowworm-infested garden and reach for the logs and frozen snakes to keep the happy hearth belching its wonderful rays of pale warm.
I sleep in front of the stove some nights, and wake to find cold ash where warmth once lay, and a crick in my neck and cold-numb head from frozen cider. Over the months, I’ve become quite an expert at the fire-burning qualities of beech or oak, and lighting techniques and how many bricks to put in there to retain the heat, and how much to turn the air-inflow knobs to get the embers toasty, without burning through my log collection before the once-a-month supply drop from Saul’s guy, and when to risk a log from the apple tree that died this summer and hasn’t had time to dry.
But one thing I haven’t really tried is cooking in there. My first experience was roasting a fine piece of beef with disastrous results. And I’ll say no more than that. Aside from that, I’ve cooked in a wood-burning pizza oven a friend made. He’d made the thing out of special cement and fire bricks, designed at such an angle that the smoke was kept a few inches off the dough, and so strong a heat that a pizza took barely three minutes. The method was simple enough - just burn a load of logs and once they were embers sweep them into the far corner, and then put the pizza on the red-hot bricks.
I’m trying the same in my stove as I write, burning down five or six sizeable apple and beech logs until they’re reduced to orange coals, and then cooking the smoked haddock pie I’d made earlier.
I was going to cook it in the oven, and heaven knows now it would have been a lot quicker, but I suddenly had a moment of inspiration and thought about Walt’s stove for some reason. And I must admit there’s a lot more skill to this than I first thought. You can’t just buy an RV and drive into the desert, and say: “Let’s cook.” There’s a skill to cooking on a wood stove. This ain’t chemistry - this is art, as they say.
As I sit here writing, I can hear the faint sizzle of roasting pie, but only the faintest, and it’s already been in there an hour. I’ve raked up the embers but now I can barely hear a thing. I’ll check again.
I’ve got to say, it’s a bit of a disaster. The tomatoes on top are barely singed and although the mashed potato top is warmer than it was in the fridge, it barely counts for cooked.
I’ve given the ashes another rake, but next time I’ll definitely start with hotter embers. I could put a couple of small logs on now, and hope they catch, but even if they do they’ll produce flame - which I’m told is not what you want when cooking over wood otherwise the whole thing will just taste of smoke.
Of course, If I’d cooked the fish first I’d probably just eat it now, hungry as I am. But I put the pieces in raw, which is always the best thing to do with a fish pie, so I’m afraid that by digging in, all I’ll find is escabeche.
I’ll give it another five minutes and if the embers haven’t worked their magic by then, I’ll warm up the oven and go back to traditional means...
So anyway back to the pie, which is originally what I was supposed to be writing about, until I got side-tracked by the stupid idea of cooking in the wood stove.
I worked in a small-windowed kitchen above a deli for a year or so, making the sort of wages that a modern day slave would be proud of, and I can’t tell you how many fish pies I prepped. People used to bring their own dishes in so they could pass them off on their own.
It was a dreadful recipe - lovely if you like that sort of thing I suppose, but dreadful if you’re cooking it. And far too rich for me. I’d fillet a huge cod delivered by a racist from Billingsgate Market, then cook a white sauce with onions, white wine and buckets of cream, and then throw in prawns the size of a baby’s fist and chunks of smoked haddock. Then top it all with mashed potato that contained a few blocks of butter and more cream. Then I’d decorate it with grated Davidstow cheddar.
The owner said he followed the Italian school of thought when it comes to fish and cheese and said they should never be served together, but he made an exception for that fish pie. It was rich, creamy and dreary.
This is the exact opposite of that recipe. I suppose once upon a time you could have quite rightly, and without a shade of hypocrisy, called it pauper’s smoked fish pie, but what with the price of fish these days...
What I really mean is, it’s simple, Simple in the extreme. Just the most basic flavours lovingly put together to make that most wonderful of comfort foods - a rip-roaring, bubbling fish pie straight from the oven - or at least it would have been if I hadn’t buggered up the stove.
I’m going to check again. A faint sizzle. I’d be better off holding it over a cigarette. There’s one ember left, and the pie could be described as warm at best.
There’s nothing for it, but to put the oven on, and finish it off using lovely Russian gas. But if you’ve got better wood-burning skills than me, and if you’ve ever lit a fire properly, then no doubt you’ll have better luck.
SMOKED HADDOCK PIE
(Serves 2 with seconds)
4 large potatoes
300g smoked haddock
2 medium onions
2 garlic cloves
Large knob of butter
3 level dessertspoons of flour
I tbsp chopped parsley
1 teaspoon mustard
Peel the potatoes, dice, and boil in a saucepan for 20 minutes or so until cooked. Then mash while hot with a bit of the potato water and a splash of milk.
Meanwhile, chop the onions and garlic finely. Melt the butter in a pan and gently fry the onions and garlic for about five minutes until they are soft. Add the flour, and over a low flame, stir for a minute until the mixture has become a paste.
Then add a ladle of the boiling water from the potatoes, mix well, then add another ladle until the mixture has loosened. Then add half a pint or so of milk, a little at a time, stirring all the time, until you have a fairly thick custard consistency.
Add the mustard, and salt and pepper to taste. Remember to slightly underseason it with salt as the salt from the smoked haddock will also add flavour. Turn the heat off and add the peas and the broad beans. Then chop up the parsley and add to the sauce.
Skin the haddock fillet, running a sharp filleting knife from the tail to the top, at a slight angle to the board, and slice the fish into one inch or so pieces. Get a pie dish - about 10 inches across or so - and fill with the sauce. Decorate the sauce evenly with the smoked haddock pieces. Then top with the mashed potato. Slice the tomato and decorate the top, then sprinkle with pepper.
Put in the wood stove for an indeterminable amount of time, or cook for 40 minutes in an oven at 180C.