In Tasmania you have to work hard to find land that is not regularly kissed by salt air, so it is no surprise that our national dish is the scallop pie. Scallops are cute, lively shellfish that skitter and flutter along the sea bed, particularly in estuaries, and are delightfully easy to pick up with a trawler. They were overfished to breaking point in the 1980s and the fishery was closed, but valuable lessons about sustainability were learned and now, while lots of other people around the world also snap them up, we Tasmanians can, once again, put them in our pies.
Pies are a great way to stretch a luxury ingredient a long way, although the traditional Tasmanian scallop pie might, by some, be seen as bastardisation. It consists of a flaky pastry case containing a small number of scallops smothered in a sometimes gelatinous bechamel sauce, flavoured with Keens curry powder and tomato sauce. Note that no connoisseur criticises the use of Keen’s curry powder, as it is intensely Tasmanian, but the tomato sauce is controversial – see my friend Scott’s scallop pie ratings for details. Of course they are magnificent if eaten on a cold day, on the end of a pier that stretches into the tannin-stained waters of the Huon and Derwent estuaries, when the flathead are biting. But it’s hard to translate the sensation this far from the sea, so I created this one to capture its essence.
All good pies start and end with the pastry and all good pastry starts and ends with good technique. Please bear with me while I explain my flaky shortcrust recipe and my special tricks. The quantities of ingredients you’ll need to fill a standard pyrex pie dish are: 180g of white flour, 125g of salted butter (100% dairy please), two tablespoons of water (or thereabouts). Rub the butter into the flour with your fingertips, taking care to keep it all cool, until it reaches the consistency of bread crumbs then add ice water. Forget that, grab the butter and flour and chuck it into a food processor. Hit blend, until you have a mix that looks like a pebbly beach:
Then add a tablespoon of water, and boisterously try to pull the thing into a ball. Add another tablespoon but go slowly. Think hard before adding more – a teaspoon at a time. You want a sticky, lumpy mass that will ball up, but only just.
Once you’re there, get some glad wrap, bind it up, then chuck it in the fridge until you are ready. After at least 30 minutes, but preferably two hours, grab a board or table top and some flour. Knead the ball quickly to coat it with flour but don’t overhandle it. Then roll it out lightly, just until it’s pliable and of even thickness.
You will not get a homogenous yellow pastry like you would in a supermarket. What you will get is a marbled, opalescent thing in which streaks of butter are clearly visible. You want that, because as the pastry cooks the butter will melt away, leaving air pockets that are the frames for the flakes.
Lay your sheet over a lightly buttered pie dish, right to the edges, and trim (cut the leftovers into 2cm wide strips). You need to bake blind, so it doesn’t puff right out of the dish. Prick the pie base with a fork a few times and lay a sheet of baking paper over it. Fill it with dried chick peas or kidney beans to weight the pastry down (particularly around the edges, which will pull) and bake for 20 minutes at 200C. It will shrink somewhat, and that’s okay. Sit the dish on a rack to cool.
You have prepared an unbeatable pie base. Next is the delectable filling … you will need:
A beer in your hand (Tasman Bitter, Cascade or Boags) or, if you are elevated, a dry white
300g scallops (with roe please – you can use frozen ones to advantage)
100-ish g flathead fillets, in chunks
a handful of finely sliced leek (I used half the pale bit of a giant leek)
a peeled, finely diced potato (Pontiac or Pink Eye please – if that is meaningless to you, a good boiling potato, not a waxy new one), boiled quickly until nearly cooked (blanched)
4-5 fresh sage leaves
Very gently fry the leek in some butter with the potato and sage. While you are doing that, put the scallops in a pot with the fish, taking care to include ALL the liquor from the scallops. Splosh some beer over them (about 100ml). Not too much! Just warm the seafood up a little until it releases some flavour. Strain them, keeping the liquor, then transfer them to the fry pan on a low heat – be very careful not to cook the scallops through because they’ll keep cooking in the pie. When they are whitened turn the heat off. Now the sauce …
Melt 50g butter in a heavy saucepan and add two heaped tablespoons of flour. Work it hard with the wooden spoon over a medium heat so that it goes pale (a classic buerre blanc). Add the liquor from the scallops/beer (about 1/2 cup). It will immediately go gluggy, so keep working it while you gradually add about 1/2 cup of milk. When that’s in, add a bay leaf and a big sprig of thyme. Keep cooking it until it smells fragrant and is creamy and thick (err on the side of thickness but add more milk if you need to – you want about a cup of sauce). Add a touch of salt, a big pinch of paprika and some cracked pepper, then combine with the fish/leek mixture.
To assemble, pile the fish into the pie shell and grate a good quality parmesan over the top. Lace the strips of excess pastry and press them down on the ends of the plate. Bake it for 40 minutes at 180C. What you will get looks like this …
It’s a creamy pie in a crumbling buttery pastry. The sweetness of the leek, bay and thyme embraces the scallop flesh and carries it through the pie, and the flathead and potato round out the flavour and add texture. I am truly sorry that I only made one. I will have to make it again.
Last minute PS: yes, this does have a lot of butter in it. This is better for you than the trans fat that Choice has found in packet pastries.
Update: I made my friend Scott go and get us a picture of the legendary Keen’s Curry sign in Hobart. This has been a landscape feature since Popeye was a girl, and probably has heritage status or something.