Sunday, 19 May 2013

Oi! Fish and Chips!

I have a deep affection for British culture. I love Shakespeare, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens just as much as I do the Beatles, the Clash, the Sex Pistols, Nick Hornby novels, James Bond, "Blackadder" and "Downton Abbey". All this Englishness gave me a really bad case of anglocreep: I use random and sometimes rather obscure British slang... all... the.. time... My boyfriend loves to make fun of me when I ask him if he wants to watch something on the telly, and when I call the Bruins a bunch of fucking sods (which, you know, they ARE!). Well, he can piss off; I am not giving up my British slang! On to the food then, mate!

While admittedly, cuisine is not really the British's forte (there should be a law against boiling everything to death...), there are few typically English dishes that never fail to satisfy. An iconic street food in the UK, fish and chips has been a popular working-class snack since the Victorian era, and just like most popular foods, it's been recycled by the trendy people, and you can now find really upscale eateries serving fancy versions of the good old dish. Some of those are delicious, but my favorite has always been the old-fashioned version they serve at Hurley's Irish Pub: a huge hunk of haddock and a big pile of pub fries. In England and Scotland, you can still find the old-school fish bars, where they hand you the piping hot fillets and fries wrapped in newspapers. Crispy batter around a nice piece of white fish and golden fries... can't resist that!

Sadly, a really good fish and chips is just as difficult to find as a really great burger, and while I do hang at Hurley's often enough, I eventually decided I should learn to make it at home. I was getting ready to watch the latest "Dr. Who" episode and I had two beautiful tilapia fillets and lots of red-skin potatoes in the pantry. I suddenly felt inspired to whip up a traditionally British-themed dinner!

Home-made fish and chips is very easy to make - albeit a bit messy, and while it will still be fried, it will still be much healthier that what you'd get at a restaurant, or out of a box from the frozen food aisle! You can use a deep-frier if you have one, but I make mine in a cast-iron frying pan and I get wonderful results! Use an oil with a very light flavor for the frying: sunflower, peanut or light olive oils are the best. Give yourself a treat and try it with extra-virgin olive oil at least once: I know it's pricey, but you haven't lived until you've had home-fries made with that liquid gold!

Obviously, there are plenty of fish in the sea that you can fry up in your pan. Traditional fish and chip is made with white-fleshed fish like cod or haddock, but you can use which ever fish you like, as long as it's firm enough to handle the coating in batter and frying (be careful when you buy cod, by the way: try to find the farmed stuff, as those little guys are the victims of intense over-fishing). You could go really posh and use salmon, or add Cajun spices to your batter and fry up some catfish! The Australians even use shark fillets in their fish and chips, so feel free to get very creative.

I like to make a beer-batter for this recipe: it somehow feels very English. The beer you use will affect the final taste of your dish just as much as the fish, but given how many amazing micro-brewery beers are available on the market, the possibilities are endless. Pick something you enjoy drinking, and try to make the flavor of the beer complement that of the fish you use. I used a pale ale with my tilapia, and it was delish!

The batter recipe is very basic, so I suggest that depending on the type of fish and beer you use, you add some seasoning to it to round up the flavor. Lemon juice and zest, garlic powder and dried herbs can be whisked in to taste, to give a little something extra to your fillets.

3/4 cup oil
1/2 pound red-skin potatoes, scrubbed and cut into thin wedges
1/2 to 3/4 pound of white flesh fish fillets
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 cups all-purpose flour, and a little extra for dusting
3 heaping tablespoons baking powder
1 bottle of cold beer (about 1 1/3 to 1 1/2 cups, usually) - I used St-Ambroise Pale Ale

Before you can fry the potatoes, they need to be par-cooked, which you can do either by boiling or steaming them until they begin to get tender. With either method, make sure they are nice and dry before you fry them: the less moisture on the potatoes, the quicker they will crisp up in the pan.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line a baking sheet with tin foil. Preheat the oil in the frying pan over medium heat. Season the fish with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper (the salt will help get rid of extra-moisture in the fish, which will make your fillets nice and meaty as opposed to too flaky).

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and beer until well-mixed and shiny. The texture will be like thick, gooey cream.

Dust the fish with a little flour, shaking off the excess (this will help the batter "stick" to the fish).

You may have to fry the fish in batches, depending on the size of your pan. Dip the fillets in the bowl of batter, and make sure that it is completely and evenly covered in the mixture. Carefully place the fillets in the pan.

When you noticed the batter on the bottom is starting to look firm, flip the fillets over using cooking tongs. Cook until the batter is golden and crispy on both sides, about 5 minutes.

Place the fillets on the baking sheet and put them in the oven, which will finish up the cooking and keep them warm until the fries are ready.

Line a large plate with a couple of layers of paper towels. Keep the frying pan on the stove, but raise the heat to medium-high. Using the same oil you used for the fish, carefully (and I mean CAREFULLY! Hot oil splashes are not fun!) put the potato wedges in one layer in the pan. Give them a few minutes, until you can see them getting golden and crispy, then gently flip them over with slotted spatula. When they are golden and crisp on all sides, transfer them to the plate so the paper towels can absorbs the excess oil. Take the fish out of the oven, and serve with the fries and some lemon wedges.

The batter will have fried up golden and crispy, and the fish in the middle will be nice and meaty. If you'd rather not use beer in your batter, cold carbonated water works just as well, but the taste won't be as rich, so spice up that batter a bit more than you would if using beer.

Now doesn't this look awesome?! And it tastes just as good as it looks! So turn up the volume on your Rolling Stones records, grab a Neil Gaiman book and enjoy the Britishness! Oi!

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