Ingredient Introduction #31 – Fish

No matter how hard my dad tried to turn me into a fisherman, it never worked.

I remember him dragging me to a pier in the middle of the night. I slept on a bench while he fished all night.

It just wasn’t for me, and it still isn’t.

Shrimp, scallops, crab, and lobster make my mouth water. And boy do I love sushi… the real deal, not a California roll.

I could take or leave a fish filet.

I mean, fish, or at least what we’re told is fish, is so readily available. Fast food joints can take some 6 eyeballed beast with a gimpy gill, run it through a blender, dump it into a square-shaped mold, slather it in fat, bun it and market it to the masses. Supermarkets offer boxed blends of bounty supposedly rescued by yellow raincoat-clad heroes who braved the depths of underwater kingdoms. No sale.

When I eat fish, the kind that has a tail, scales, and the ability to swim, tuna is my first choice. I’m talking the fresh stuff, not the canned kind.

A tuna steak is meaty and smooth. The color is pretty, too!

Mahi-mahi is my second favorite. Have I told you about the tacos at Hoskins in Myrtle Beach? This is another meaty fish that stands up well to cooking.

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I hate salmon. Writing that makes me feel like I’ve committed a crime, but so be it. I don’t like the texture. Maybe it’s because of this horrible encounter I had with a salmon recipe that involved roasting it with vegetables in a foil packet. I plated it in a Hefty bag. Gross.

A few months ago I got this insane craving for fish and chips. I still can’t tell you why. It’s something I equated to the mass-market crap I wrote about above, but the truth is, if it’s done right, it’s wonderful.

I’ve had the British bunch at two locally-owned restaurants. At one place they use flounder, and at the other they use Pollock (similar to cod).

When it comes down to it, I think the flavor is in the batter or crust. That’s another reason I’m not a big fish fan. It’s not much without heavy seasoning. I guess the same could be said about chicken, right? But chicken is much cheaper!

Anyway… I found cod on sale at The Fresh Market, so I went for it. I got one big filet for about $10.

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And that’s another thing. I think you have to be careful about where you buy your fish. I see it at outside markets sitting on ice and in chain supermarkets. In both cases I’m scared. I wish I could be like the TV chefs and have a “fish monger” on speed dial, but I don’t. I trust The Fresh Market, so that’s why I went for it.

Cod is pretty firm. In terms of color, it’s opaque (I consider that to be almost cloudy looking) when raw, and white when cooked. In terms of texture, it’s solid when raw and flaky when cooked.

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It’s always been the popular choice for fish & chips, which supposedly got its inspiration from Spain’s pescado frito (literally “fish fried”). In the Spanish version, fish is dredged in flour and fried. Jewish refugees introduced it to Great Britain.

Traditionally, they used flour, water, baking soda and vinegar (to create bubbles, which lightened the batter). Beer is often a substitute for the water, soda, and vinegar, because it comes with its own bubbles.

I went with beer for my fish. My chips were oven-roasted potato wedges.

Here’s what you need:

For the batter:

1 filet of cod, skin removed
2 cups flour
1 Tbsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
½ tsp. white pepper
½ tsp. paprika
½ tsp. garlic powder
¼ tsp. onion powder
¼ tsp. cayenne pepper
1 bottle of beer

For dredging:
¼ cornstarch
Sprinkle of garlic powder
Sprinkle of pepper

Three things to think about:
1) Use your favorite beer, but I wouldn’t go for a dark beer. I used Dos Equis Lager. I thought about using a Summer Shandy, because it would impart a lemon flavor, and fish goes perfectly with lemon.
2) The baking powder really helps the batter puff up when you fry it. Originally, fish batter included baking soda and vinegar. The vinegar was the acid that made the soda give off bubbles. Baking powder includes the bubble creator. The bubbles from the beer and the baking powder create a puffy crust, like the kind you’d find on fair food.
3) If you’re roasting your chips, you’ll want to preheat your oven to 400 degrees. After the batter chills, put your potatoes in the oven. The guidelines are below the fish recipe. This way everything will be done at the same time.

Now to the recipe:

In a bowl, combine the dry ingredients, then add the beer.

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Stir. It’ll be thick. Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

When the batter is done chilling, heat a pot of oil (I used about 2 inches of canola) to 350 degrees. I used a candy thermometer. Here’s the deal, if you have one, great. If not, go for trial and error with your smallest piece of fish. Keeping the oil temperature constant, especially on an electric stove, is no easy task.

While the oil reaches temperature, pat the fish dry and cut it into 1-inch strips.

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On a large plate, mix the cornstarch, garlic powder, and pepper. The cornstarch helps the batter stick and it keeps the fish dry. You don’t want to add salt, because it would draw moisture out of the fish.

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Line a cookie sheet with paper towels or a baking rack.

Preheat your oven to 200 degrees.

Working in batches, dredge the fish in the cornstarch mixture, then fry.

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You want the batter to puff up, and turn a gold brown on both sides. This will take a few minutes.

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Put the fish onto the cookie sheet, salt it (see tip below), and keep it in the oven as you fry the rest. This will keep the fish warm and keep the crust crispy.
(If you’re making the potatoes in the oven, let the fish rest on a cookie sheet on the counter, then put the pan in the 400 degree oven for about 5 minutes to warm up the fish and crisp the batter.)

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Roasted Chips:

Use 2 big baking potatoes.
Cut them length-wise.
Spread them on a cookie sheet, drizzle them with olive oil, and give a liberal sprinkle of each of the spices used in the batter (salt, garlic powder, onion powder, white pepper, cayenne pepper, and paprika).

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Roast until their crispy on all edges, about 30 minutes.

Now to the dips.

Malt vinegar is to fish as ketchup is to fries.

The vinegar is made with barley turned into an ale. The ale, or beer, complements the beer in the batter. The vinegar also cools the freshly fried fish. My biggest complaint about malt vinegar is that it can make your fish soggy, unless you sprinkle it on just as you’re taking a bite. Food for thought.

Then there’s tartar sauce. To me that’s just a calorie bomb of mayonnaise, so I made my own:

1 small container of Greek yogurt
2 Tbsp. mayo
2 Tbsp. drained capers
1 Tbsp. caper brine
1 tsp. of full-grain mustard
1 pinch of salt
Dash of pepper

Mix together.

This is a runnier version of tartar sauce, but I feel like it coats the fish better.

I enjoyed my version of fish and chips.

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The batter was puffy, crispy, and well-seasoned. You could taste the essence of the beer. The fish was flaky and tender, not dry.

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You get a break from all the oil, by taking a bite of the roasted potatoes. They’re crunchy on the outside, tender on the inside, and packed with flavor.

I definitely have a love/hate relationship with fish, but this dish was fun. I still choose to go fishing in a refrigerated case at a reputable store. No rods and reels in my future.

Cheerio!
(That’s a British bye-bye, not something I found under a couch cushion)

Tip: For a tasty twist on traditional freshly fried-food seasoning, make my lemon salt.
2 Tbsp. Kosher salt
1 lemon, zested

Mix the salt and the zest. Sprinkle this onto your fish as soon as it comes out of the oil.

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