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Sea Pie

Serves 4-6

Sea Pie has nothing to do with fish. Instead it was a dish that could be assembled on board sailing vessels before the advent either of canning or refrigeration, when preserving meant salting or drying. It therefore is not surprising that there are a lot of variations. More antiquarian and less tasty versions use corned beef and crumbled hardtack. This recipe adapted from Theodora FitzGibbon is simple and perfect and hard to ruin.

The Brodie Ship’s Stove
The Brodie Ship’s Stove

For the filling:

- 2 Tablespoons neutral oil, lard, beef dropping or a combination of them

- 2-3 cups chopped onions

- 2 ½ - 3 lb. flank steak cut into 1 ½ -2” tiles

- 1 heaped Tablespoon flour

- 1 heaped teaspoon brown sugar

- 2 Tablespoons minced parsley

- 2 teaspoons (more or less to taste) dried thyme

- 12 oz Porter

- salt and pepper to taste

For the pastry:

- 2 cups self raising flour

- 4 oz shredded suet

- 4 oz shredded sharp cheddar

- ½ teaspoon salt

- white pepper to taste

- dry mustard to taste (optional)  

- about ½ cup water


Preheat the oven to 325 °  

  1. Put the oil, lard or fat in a large heavy skillet over medium-low heat, then cook the onions until clear and soft: Do not brown them. Transfer the onions to an ovenproof pot or casserole.
  2. Increase the heat to high and add a little oil if your skillet is dry after cooking the onions. Brown the steak in batches: The meat will cook very fast. You are not trying to cook the beef: You only want to color it for depth of flavor. Do not crowd the beef or it will steam.
  3. Transfer each batch of browned steak in turn to the pot with the onions except for the last batch.
  4. When the last batch is done, reduce the heat to medium-low, then sprinkle the flour over the meat and add the parsley, sugar and thyme. Stir everything together quickly, then pour in the beer.
  5. Scrape the bottom of the skillet to deglaze it, then pour everything into the pot with the rest of the beef and the onions.
  6. Cover the pot and bake it for 1 ½-2 hours, then season the filling with salt and pepper to taste.
  7. Toward the end of this baking period, or any time afterwards if you want to prepare the filling in advance, make the pastry.
  8. Gently spoon together the flour, suet, cheddar, salt, white pepper, and mustard if you are using it, until evenly mixed.
  9. Slowly dribble in water until you have added enough so that the dough just sticks together, kneading it gently by hand (it helps to sprinkle your hands with a little flour). The idea is to use just enough water so that the pastry will adhere to itself without getting soggy.
  10. Roll the pastry into a ball.
  11. Transfer the filling into a 9-inch pie dish at least 1 ½“ deep (slightly beveled ceramic ones with fluted rims are excellent for this pie ). You want the gravy just to surround the meat (and probably will have too much liquid: Good! Reserve the extra and serve it hot as sauce with the finished pie).
  12. Put the ball of pastry on a floured surface and gently flatten it with the palm of your hand until it is just the size of the outer rim of your pie dish. Then (rather obviously) put the pastry on top of the filling. Crimp the edges at 90° angles to the rim of the dish: If the pastry will not adhere to the rim in spots, brush a little water onto the rim before pressing down the troublespots again with your fork.
  13. Tear off a sheet of aluminum foil no more than big enough to cover the dish, pleat and lightly grease it with butter and gently crimp it to cover the pie.
  14. Bake the pie on a cookie sheet for half an hour, then remove the foil and continue baking until the center of the lid sets and the pastry just turns golden, usually about another half hour longer.
  15. Serve it with the hot, reserved sauce. Astounding.


Notes:    The recipe looks long but it really is easy.

- If you make the filling in advance remember to re-preheat the oven to 325°

- In the Editor’s experience the pastry always requires more water than other cookbooks recommend to keep it from disintegrating into gooey scraps. We therefore tend to use more than their recommended drips and drops of water but still manage to produce the desired light and fluffy crust.

- The amount of pastry you make and the ratio of suet to flour are entirely up to you. A heartier pie can take a thicker lid and the richness of the pastry is variable by tweaking its proportions with a little more or less fat.

- We admit that we always cheat and add a little Kitchen Bouquet to the filling before baking it (Worcestershire and hot sauce too).

- Do not be tempted to include delicious additives like kidney, mushrooms or oysters: This is not those pies. They are excellent and have their own recipes.

- If you cannot get Porter (but, really, you can), substitute a dry German dark like Beck’s or St. Pauli Girl. Good American Porters include Anchor, Geary’s, Narragansett (one of the best, but seasonal and limited to wintertime),Otter Creek, Red Hook and Sierra Nevada among others. Better beer stores will stock or order Fuller’s and Young’s from London. I do not use stout in this recipe.

- If you do not have self-raising flour, use all-purpose flour mixed with 2 teaspoons of baking powder.

- The cheese in the pastry is a historical nod to the fact that the Royal Navy issued cheese to the pursers aboard its warships during the long eighteenth century (1688-1815). Enterprising cooks livened most savory dishes with portions of the cheese ration to combat the monotony of galley fare reliant on salt meat and dried pease.

- Mrs. Beeton offers a simpler version of sea pie with a floating lid of suet pastry. Her filling consists only of stew meat, carrots and onions simmered in plain water. She cuts 2 pounds of beef into 3-inch square slices, adds 2 chopped onions and two thinly sliced carrots seasoned with salt and pepper, pours boiling water over the filling and simmers it covered, for half an hour. She then lays the suet pastry onto the filling so that it does not reach the edges of the pot, recovers the pie and simmers it for another hour and a half. Extremely plain but not bad: Four servings.