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When the Chips are Down

fish & chips-4
I suppose I owe you guys one, seeing as my last post didn’t include a recipe.
Not that I want this site to be locked into a formula: story/recipe/repeat. From the beginning, I wanted the blog to be an honest refection of what I’m doing and/or what’s on my mind. If I’m fishing, I’ll talk about that. If I’m cooking, then that will be the topic. If I’m doing both, which is often the case, then you get both barrels.

Earlier this week, I was looking in freezer for some dinner.   Thank the heavens for vacuum sealers & sub-zero freezers, they are truly fisherman’s friends.  Anyway, I pulled out some of the ling cod I still have stowed away, and the package I grabbed was labeled “small pieces for fish & chips”.

Olive Oil Poached Ling Cod

Olive Oil Poached Ling Cod

Mmmm, some crispy fried ling cod and fries would really hit the spot on a chilly winter evening. And as I thought about it, I realized I’ve probably gotten more requests for a fish & chips recipe than I have for any other since I started Bait 2 Plate, particularly right after I did my first ling cod post. I chose to do an olive oil poached preparation then. I steered clear of doing fish & chips initially because it’s so … done.

However, I don’t like being elitist about my cooking.

Oh wait, actually I do like being elitist about my cooking. In fact, I fucking LOVE being elitist about my cooking, and using that as a platform from which to look down on others from over the ruffles of my ascot and velveteen smoking jacket.

However, I also like to show that I’m still able to get down with the street, or in this case, down with the British pub.

I did consider adding some flourish to the dish, maybe by mixing some crumbled bacon and chives into the batter, or doing a curried apple dip for it. However, that would be unnecessary gliding an already delicious lily, or as Jim the B2P first mate would say, needlessly gourmetifying the dish.

fish & chips-3The first battle lines of how to do your fried fish are drawn at breaded or battered. Breaded is popular with restaurants because you can have the fish coated ahead of time. I can tell you from experience, doing battered fish in a busy restaurant is a pain in the ass. It’s messy, time consuming, and easy to screw up. Plenty of restaurants will go through the hassle of battering their fish though, because it’s considered to by a lot of people to be the best way to eat fried fish, and I am definitely one of those people.

There are a few schools of thought on batter as well. Some people prefer that super thin coating, where you can see the fish through it in places. That is good, but I like a little puff to my battered fish, more of a tempura style. Beer batter is very good, but cod has such a light, clean flavor and I like my batter to have a clean flavor as well, so it flows with the flavor of the fish, rather than competes with it.  Don’t get me wrong, the flavor of beer goes very well with fish & chips.  I just like that particular sauce on the side, preferably in frosty cold, 12 ounce bottles.

The trickiest part for most home cooks is the frying itself. This is one area in which restaurants have a leg up on you.   Commercial fryers have powerful gas heating elements that help maintain the temperature of the oil.  Doing without that is the trickiest part for the home cook. That also means you’ll need to cook everything in batches, and you’ll want to keep the fries hot in the oven while you are cooking the fish.

Of course, the drawback of the restaurant situation is that the oil is reused over and over again, and it’s kept at cooking temperature for hours at a time. Both of those things effect the flavor of the oil, and bad tasting oil means bad tasting fish & chips. The take away here is that, although it’s a bit more of a hassle, you can make better fish & chips at home than you’re likely to get in any restaurant, if you do it right.   And I’m here in my ascot & smoking jacket to show you how.

Hot oil boils up when food is added, especially foods with high water content, like potatoes. Begin adding food slowly at first, so you can watch and make sure it doesn't boil over.

Hot oil boils up when food is added, especially foods with high water content, like potatoes. Begin adding food slowly at first, so you can watch and make sure it doesn’t boil over.

There are a few things you’ll need to do this.  A frying/candy thermometer is a must. You really can’t guess that the oil is at the right temperature, plus you’ll want to monitor the temp throughout the cooking process.
Next, you’ll need a proper sized pot. You’ll want one at least 8 inches wide, preferably a little larger. The one I usually use is 11 inches across. It also has to have high sides; this is very important.   Oil boils up a lot when you are frying, and you need to make sure it doesn’t boil over the sides. The rule of thumb is that you want the sides of the pot to be at least three times the depth of the oil inside it.  Because I recommend the frying oil be at least two inches deep, you need a pot with sides at least six inches high.

Finally, you need flame. I have an electric stove in my home and that simply doesn’t cut it for deep frying. My solution is to use a portable catering stove. They cost about $35 at restaurant supply stores and use butane fuel canisters. They are great things to have for those of us without gas stoves, the flame gives more heat, plus it allows you to adjust the heat instantly, which electric stoves just can’t do.

These catering stoves also come with a cool carrying case and make great camp or dockside stoves. In fact, if you have a safe place to put it outside, doing your deep frying outdoors in a good idea for both clean-up and safety reasons.

Speaking of safety, you need to be very careful when you are deep frying, especially if you have little ones running around. Keep that pot back away from the edge of anything, and don’t have any handles placed where they can grabbed or accidentally bumped. Hot oil is no joke; there’s a reason why they pour it off the battlements when barbarians are storming the castle.

Ling cod aren't the prettiest fish in the sea, but the firm, white meat you get from them is beautiful.

Ling cod aren’t the prettiest fish in the sea, but the firm, white meat you get from them is beautiful.

Regarding the oil: I’m a fan of canola for deep frying, but I’ll give place and show to safflower and peanut oils.
There needs to be enough oil to not only completely immerse the food, but also a sufficient amount so that it doesn’t lose too much temperature when the food it added. As I said before, a minimum of two inches, three is better. Again, make sure you have a pot deep enough to do this safely.

Then there’s the fish itself: I’m using ling cod for mine, which I think is just about a perfect choice for fish & chips.  In fact, all of the cods are excellent choices.  The prevailing wisdom is that just about any firm, white fish will work.  Technically just about any fish can be cooked this way.  Some people around here enjoy salmon and chips, but I like to avoid fish that have a higher oil content.  When deep fried, they tend to come out a little to “heavy” for my tastes.

All right, let’s get down to the mea, umm… fish and potatoes of this.

Fish & Chips

makes 2-3 portions

fish & chips-6

  • Canola oil for frying
  • 3 – 4 medium russet potatoes
  • 1 ¾ cups all purpose flour
  • 2/3 cup cornstarch, divided
  • 1 Tbs baking powder
  • 1 ½ tsp kosher salt, divided
  • 1 tsp ground black pepper, divided
  • ¾ tsp Old Bay seasoning, divided
  • ½ tsp paprika
  • 1 10oz bottle club soda
  • 1 egg
  • 1 lb ling cod or other firm, white fish, cut into 1-2 oz pieces

Cut the potatoes into fries. I like ¼ thick, skin-on fries, but you can cut them as you like. Immediately place them in cold water and let them soak for at least 30 minutes.

Combine the flour, 2 Tbs of cornstarch, baking powder, 1 tsp salt, ½ tsp black pepper, 1/4 tsp Old Bay, and paprika in a medium sized mixing bowl. Whisk in the soda water and egg, and beat until any lumps are gone.  The thicker the batter, the thicker the coating you will have on your fish. I like a thin but pillowy layer of coating between the crispy outside and the fish, so I make the batter to be what I think of as pancake batter thickness. If you want it thinner, add a little more soda water or just plain water. If you want it thicker, add more flour.  It’s best to let the batter rest in the refrigerator for an hour or so before cooking the fish.

In a separate bowl, mix together the remaining cornstarch (about ½ cup), salt, pepper, and Old Bay (½ tsp each) and set aside.

The chips get fried twice, once to blanch them, and then again to cook & crisp them.  To blanch them, heat the oil to 300 degrees. Drain the potatoes thoroughly, and carefully start lowering them into the hot oil with tongs or a slotted spoon.  Do not add them all at once, and do not dump the potatoes into the oil directly from a bowl or other similar vessel, because letting any excess water that may be in the bottom of that bowl fall into the oil would be …. bad.
Fry the potatoes in batches for 3 – 5 minutes until they have softened but haven’t colored. Let them rest on a plate or cookie sheet until they cool to room temperature.

Pre-heat your oven to 200 degrees.

Toss the fish pieces in the seasoned cornstarch mixture. Set them in the refrigerator for a few minutes. This gives the cornstarch a chance to adhere to the fish. That’s important.

Now, heat the oil to 350 degrees. Once it reaches temperature, fry the chips in batches again, until they are golden brown and crispy. Keep an eye on the oil temp and let it come back to 350 between batches. As each batch is finished, remove them from the oil and put them in a mixing bowl with a piece of paper towel in the bottom. Once all the fries are done, remove the paper towel from the bowl, then sprinkle them with kosher salt, give them a good toss, spread them out on a cookie sheet and put them in the oven to keep warm. Pro tip: it’s a good idea pre-heat the cookie sheet in the oven ahead of time.

Carefully push the pieces of fish into the batter. Let them rest in the batter for a moment. Just like you gave the cornstarch time to adhere to the fish, now give the batter a few seconds at least to adhere to the cornstarch. Once the oil is back to 350 degrees, remove the fish from the batter, gently shake off any excess and carefully dangle them in the oil until they start to puff before dropping them in.  Again, work in batches of 3 or 4 pieces at a time. Fry them for 3 or 4 minutes, rolling them over halfway through so they cook evenly. Stubborn pieces will sometimes keep rolling back over to the same side, if so, you need to hold them in place so with a pair of tongs so they cook evenly.

In case that isn’t clear, here’s a little video demonstration.

Place the cooked pieces in the oven with the fries while you cook the rest of the fish. You want to go through this process quickly if you can. When they come out of the oil, they will have a nice crispy shell on them, but that luscious fish inside there is going to be letting out steam. So they will not stay crispy long, even in the holding oven. So the sooner you can finish up cooking them and sit down to dinner, the better it’s going to be.

If you are considering what condiment to go with, a lot of people like malt vinegar on their fish & chips, but that never was my thing. I’m a tartar sauce man like my Pappy, and my Pappy’s pappy before him. I also am a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to my tartar sauce. No gourmetifying on this recipe either.

Classic Tartar Sauce

  • 1 cup mayo
  • 2 tsp dill relish
  • 2 tsp sweet relish
  • 2 tsp chopped capers
  • 2 tsp lemon juice
  • ½ tsp kosher salt
  • ½ tsp ground black pepper
  • ½ tsp dijon mustard

Just mix that all together and you are ready to start dipping.fish & chips-5

1 Comment

  • Pat May 1, 2016 at 1:19 pm

    If you want the real, old-fashioned taste of British fish and chips, fry both in beef lard instead of oil. You can also lighten your batter with soda water instead of beer. I’ve also experimented with different coatings instead of batter, such as coarse-ground semolina, cornmeal, crushed Doritos and oatmeal.

    Reply

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