October 3, 2017
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Shepherd’s Pie of the Sea

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But if a classic potato dish could use a little color and a little sweetness, why not turn to the sweet potato?

Irish fish pie, a sort of fisherman’s version of shepherd’s pie, combines milk-poached fish and an herby béchamel, blanketed with a creamy mashed potato topping. It is worth hunkering down with a Guinness on a rainy afternoon in a pub in Dingle, but for weeknights, or even dinner parties, I’ve found the original to be a bit overbearingly monochromatic.

As TASTE’s resident potato columnist, you might ask why I would turn my back on the classic starchy white nightshade in favor of its sweet eponymous counterpart in this instance. It is because I just spent the last couple years writing a whole book on sweet potatoes and found that they are an excellent substitute, and in some cases an improvement (I’m talking to you, gnocchi), where white potatoes are typically used.

Swap white potatoes for sweet potatoes in Irish fish pie and they’ll amplify the natural briny sweetness that exists in fresh fish and shellfish. Sweet potatoes’ light sweetness plays off the fish without taking center stage, and the bright orange topping offers a bit of visual variation.

To nail a fish pie, it is essential to individually poach the cod, shrimp, and scallops to ensure each is perfectly cooked. In addition to even cooking, simmering the fish helps to draw out any water from the flesh that would otherwise dilute and eventually help to split the béchamel as it bakes below the sweet potato topping. Feel free to substitute any mild, white-fleshed fish for the cod, and shucked clams for the scallops.

Thickening the poaching milk with beurre manie yields a fish-scented béchamel, something akin to creamy clam chowder base. The béchamel is poured over the cooked fish before the whole casserole is topped with sweet potato puree. I find that piping the sweet potato onto the casserole is the easiest way to seal in the filling, though carefully spreading it with some patience also works.

After a quick bake and rest, scoop the pie generously into shallow bowls. Like most casseroles, no side dish is necessary, but a tart salad is always nice alongside. And Guinness, naturally, is the perfect pairing.

Irish Fish Pie

Irish Fish Pie

4-6 servings


  • ½ pound fresh cod
  • ½ pound large shrimp
  • ½ pound bay scallops
  • 6 tablespoons (¾ stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1 small onion, finely chopped
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 fresh thyme sprigs
  • Kosher or fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • ¼ cup chopped fresh chives
  • 2 cups Sweet Potato Puree
  • Sweet Potato Puree
  • 1½ pounds orange-fleshed sweet potatoes

A staple in Irish and Irish-American households, fish pie is usu­ally topped with a puree of white potatoes. But swap white pota­toes for sweet potatoes, and it turns out that the mild brininess of the fish is fantastic with the slightly sweet topping. Feel free to substitute salmon or a mild white-fleshed fish for the cod, and shucked clams for the scallops. I find that piping the sweet potato puree onto the casserole is the easiest way to seal in the filling, though carefully spreading it with some patience also works.

    Sweet Potato Puree

  1. Peel the sweet potatoes and cut them into 1-inch cubes. Put the sweet potatoes in a large saucepan and add cool water to cover by 1 inch. Set the pan over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low to maintain a gentle simmer and cook until the sweet potatoes are fully tender, about 15 minutes. Drain the sweet potatoes, reserving the cooking liquid.
  2. For a perfectly smooth puree, first pass the sweet potatoes through a food mill or press them through a potato ricer, discarding any pulpy, stringy flesh that remains. Give the milled sweet potatoes a good stir with a spoon, and add a tablespoon or two of cooking liquid if the puree seems dry or tacky. For a coarser puree, simply mash the sweet potatoes with the back of a fork or a potato masher. They will collapse into a relatively smooth mass that should not require additional liquid to remain moist. To store, let the puree cool and then refrigerate it in an airtight container for up to 3 days. To freeze, place cupfuls of puree in sandwich-size plastic zip-top bags, flatten the bags as you seal them, and stack them in the freezer.

Irish Fish Pie

  1. Preheat the oven to 375°F.
  2. Cut the cod into 1-inch pieces. Peel and devein the shrimp. Pick over the scallops for bits of shell, and if there is a tough band of muscle adhered to one side of each scallop, remove it. Refrigerate the seafood until ready to use.
  3. Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a medium saucepan set over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring, until translucent and soft, about 5 minutes. Pour the milk into the pan and add the bay leaves and thyme sprigs. Bring to a gentle simmer, stirring often. Stir ½ teaspoon of salt into the milk.
  4. Poach each type of seafood individually: Place the cod in the simmering milk and cook until the fish is nearly cooked through, 1 to 2 minutes. Lift the cod from the milk with a slotted spoon and place it in a 2- to 3-quart casserole dish. Add the scallops to the milk and poach until opaque, about 30 seconds. Lift from the milk with a slotted spoon and add to the dish with the fish. Add the shrimp and poach until they just begin to curl, about 1 minute. Lift them from the milk with a slotted spoon and add them to the dish. Use your hands or a fork to flake the cod into bite-size pieces. Season the fish with ½ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper.
  5. In a small bowl, mash 2 tablespoons of the butter with the flour. Remove the bay leaves and thyme sprigs from the milk. Bring the milk to a simmer once again and whisk the butter mixture into the milk until no lumps remain. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, stirring, until the mixture thickens, about 5 minutes.
  6. Pour the béchamel over the fish in the casserole dish. Add the chives and fold gently to combine everything. Taste the filling and adjust the seasoning with salt or black pepper, if needed.
  7. Reheat the sweet potato puree in the microwave, stirring every 30 seconds, or in a pot, stirring constantly, until warm. Stir the remaining 2 tablespoons butter into the sweet potatoes until it melts and season lightly with salt. If desired, transfer the warm sweet potato puree to a piping bag fitted with a star tip. Pipe or spread the puree over the filling, sealing the edges.
  8. Bake until the filling is bubbly and the topping is browned, about 20 minutes. Let stand for a few minutes before serving.
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