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“Mama’s Food”: Phyllo Crust Fish Pie

john barry

This morning I overheard Paul and Emmett talking. Paul asked Emmett what he liked to eat and Emmett said “Mama’s food.” I played it cool and pretended not to notice but I felt a wave of happiness and pride wash over me.  I love that “Mama’s food” is an actual category of food to him.  It’s a bonus that he thinks it’s good.  That  it’s what he likes. Most of the parents I know, myself included, feel pressure to be feeding our children the “right” things and so often it seems like an uphill battle in a world full of convenience foods and toddler palates - not to mention busy work and activities schedules.  

When they are very young, it’s easier to control what they eat but that becomes more and more difficult once they are out in the world.  Even at age three, they notice what their friends are eating, what snacks everyone brings to school. They want to go to McDonald’s.  And I’m not going to lie. It’s hard to feed a family. Real food. Night after night. It takes planning, dedication and as much organization as even this Type-A-Lawyer-Mama can muster. And  believe me, perfection is not the standard I’m holding myself to here. I don’t beat myself up over putting a frozen pizza in the oven when I get home late from work, ordering Thai food or calling it “everyone just eat whatever you can find in the fridge night”. I’m not nuts about things like whether everything is organic or how many servings of fruits and vegetables they are getting each day.  I just want food to be a source of sustenance, pleasure and joy for them - eating it, cooking it and sharing it with the people they love. I’m satisfied with feeding them enough home-cooked meals that “Mama’s food” is a category.

Cooking at home requires the ability to adapt recipes so that they can be made with ingredients you already have or are easy to find, on sale, etc. This fish pie is something that I created in order to use some smoked trout that was hanging out in my fridge.  After reading a handful of recipes for fish pie (there's one in Irish Country Cooking, the book I recently got from the Paddy's and blogged about here) and cullen sink (Scottish fish chowder) I felt prepared to embark on my own take. Instead of using a pie crust or puff pastry for the lid, I decided to use the phyllo dough I had in the freezer. Fewer trips to the store, more cooking in the kitchen.

Here goes…

Phyllo Crust Fish Pie

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, Irish if you have it

2 leeks, washed and thinly sliced

2 large yellow potatoes, cubed

3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

⅓ cup white wine

2 cups whole milk

8 oz smoked trout

About 6 black peppercorns

1 bay leaf

Salt and ground black pepper to taste

2 tablespoons all purpose flour

2 tbsp chopped fresh parsley

1/2 roll chilled phyllo

In a large, heavy-bottomed pan or dutch oven, heat 1 tablespoon of the butter over medium-high heat. Add leeks, potatoes and garlic, and turn the heat down so that the vegetables and garlic release some moisture but do not brown.  Cook about five minutes until leeks begin to turn translucent. Remove leeks, potatoes and garlic and set aside.


Turn the heat back up to medium-high and add white wine, scraping the bottom of the pan.  Allow most of wine to evaporate and stir in milk, smoked trout, peppercorns and bay leaf.  Bring to the boil, cover, and simmer gently for 7 minutes. Remove fish. Once cool enough to handle break trout into large flakes discarding bones and skin.

Strain the milk through a fine sieve and return the liquid to the pan.  Add the potato-leek mixture, cover, and simmer for 10-15 minutes, until the potatoes are just cooked through. Strain the milk again, this time leaving the milk in a separate pan or bowl, and set the potato-leek mixture aside with the trout.

Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in the pan.   Add the flour and cook gently for 1 minute.

Gradually whisk in the milk and bring it back to a boil, stirring constantly. Lower the heat and simmer for about 5 minutes.

Stir in the smoked trout, leeks, potato and parsley, and season with salt and pepper. Pour into a pie or casserole dish and chill for 1 hour or longer, overnight is fine.

Preheat oven to 375F.

Unroll defrosted roll of phyllo. Run a clean kitchen towel under water and wring it out.  Use the towel to cover phyllo that is not being used so that it doesn’t dry out.

Take your fish chowder out of the fridge.  

Melt the remaining butter (you can also use olive oil or even spray oil).  

Brush one sheet of phyllo lightly with melted butter or oil and place over the chowder.

Do the same with the next piece, rotating it so that it overlaps the first piece.  I just sort of throw them on there.  Keep brushing then layering your phyllo like this to cover the top of your dish.  

Repeat this process with about 10 sheets or half of the roll.

Cut an opening for steam to escape.

Bake for about 40  minutes, until the pastry is crisp and golden and chowder is bubbling underneath. Start checking your pie around the 20 minute mark and cover loosely with foil if the phyllo is getting too brown (mine didn’t need to be covered and I had it in there for the full 40 minutes).

While Emmett's my big fish lover, Isla is into robust, savory foods like blue cheese, extra sharp cheddar, spicy sausage etc.  She loved this one - I think it was the smoked trout.