Nowadays, in central Maine, it is dark by 5 p.m., and the days of barbecues and drinks on the patio are over for another year. I must admit that I miss those lovely warm evenings where we could sit outside and listen to the loons, owls, and other night noises.
Still, autumn has its consolations, and one of them is that the nights are now cool enough to enjoy warm, bubbly casseroles for supper. Over the years, I have developed several sauces for casseroles that don’t involve canned cream of anything. (In the past, I’ve written about my aversion to casseroles with canned cream of mushroom soup. Enough said.) The results, as my Yankee husband Clif might put it, are not too bad.
Chicken and vegetables are my usual choice of fillings for casseroles, but recently I started wondering how a fish casserole would taste. What would be the components?
First, of course, the fish, and here I am going to be somewhat of a noodge and urge readers to stay away from wild fish, which we humans are eating at such an alarming rate that the fish populations are seriously depleted. According to the marine biologist Sylvia Earle, “The few fish that really are good choices, I think, are catfish, tilapia and the variations on the theme of carp, the plant-eating creatures that…grow fast. They taste good.”
Accordingly, I chose tilapia, plant-eating fish that are grown in a closed system. The fish is mild but tasty and perfect for a casserole. (The leftovers are also mighty good as fish tacos. Thanks, Mary Jane, for showing me how to make them!)
Along with the fish there would be rice and petite peas. (Mushrooms, carrots, and/or celery would also be delicious, but for my first venture with this recipe, I decided to keep it simple.)
The sauce I would use for a binder would be a simple white sauce with the addition of garlic, dill, and cheese. I guess you could call it a cheesy dill sauce. For the starch, I used rice, which somehow just seems to go with fish.
A tip I learned from the chef Mario Batali was to heat the milk ahead of time before making a white sauce. This is an excellent tip and really cuts down on the time spent stirring the sauce.
As fish cooks quickly, I did not cook the fish ahead of time, the way I would with, say, chicken. The raw fish was cut into bite-sized chunks and laid on top of the rice. Next came the peas, some salt and pepper, more rice, and the white sauce. What about the top? Bread crumbs, of course, with gives a pleasing crunch to the casserole.
The results? “Pretty darned good,” Clif said.
Good enough for company?
So there you have it—a fish casserole made with sustainable tilapia and a cheesy dill sauce that is not only a good supper for the family but is also good enough for company.
Pretty darned good, indeed.
Fish Casserole with a Cheesy Dill Sauce
Serves 4 or 5
For the white sauce
- 4 tablespoons of butter
- 4 tablespoons of flour
- 1 clove of garlic, minced
- 2 cups of hot milk
- 1 cup of grated cheese (I used cheddar, my go-to cheese)
- 1 teaspoon of dried dill
- Salt and pepper to taste
For the rest of the casserole
- 1/2 pound of tilapia, cut in chunks
- 1 (1/2) cups cooked petite peas (As noted above, many other vegetables could be added or substituted, as you like it.)
- 3 cups of cooked rice
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- 2 slices of bread, torn into crumbs
For the white sauce
- Melt the butter and add the garlic, letting it sizzle for about 30 seconds. Add the flour and wisk for a minute or two until the roux is bubbly.
- Wisk in the hot milk then stir with a spoon until a line forms on the back of the spoon.
- Stir in the dill.
- Add the grated cheese and stir until melted.
- Taste and add salt and pepper, as desired.
For the casserole
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
- Butter a large casserole dish.
- Put half the rice in the dish.
- Arrange all the tilapia chunks on the rice.
- Sprinkle the peas or whatever vegetables you are using on top of the fish.
- Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
- Spread the rest of the rice on top of the fish and peas.
- Pour the cheesy dill sauce on top of the rice.
- Top with the bread crumbs.
- Bake for forty minutes or until bubbly around the edges.