Saturday, June 4, 2011

Buttermilk fish & chips

It was a dark but not yet stormy night. The storm was on its way, though. Rain was in the air as the trees bent in the wind. An ideal night for some comforting pub food.

This recipe started with an idea to use a thinner, lighter batter but still have moist, flavorful fish. I did not want to fool with beer batter, yeast, and a thick crust with a lot of flavor, since the goal was to bring out the fish's natural flavor and just use the batter for a bit of crunch and as a coating. The fish should be the star, after all. Instead, the fish is left in some salted buttermilk to act as a brine and get more moisture into the fish before frying. The buttermilk will also act as glue to hold the flour mixture onto the fish during frying.

I suppose I should mention that this type of cooking has an element of risk. Doing things the old school way is not the same as sticking things in a microwave and waiting for the "bing". 

Hot oil overflowing onto an open flame creates a grease fire - not a good thing, and definitely best avoided. This typically happens when your fryer has too much oil, too close to the rim. When you add the food, the moisture on its surface will flash into steam, creating bubbles. All those bubbles - combined with the food itself, will raise the level of the oil. If you have too much oil, it will overflow right onto an open flame (if you're doing this over a burner). Badaboom! Danger! No eyebrows! Always add the food slowly, even when you're certain that the oil level is fine. Dropping the food into the oil is never a good idea in any case, since hot oil hurts, leaves unsightly red welts on your skin and is overall bad form if you're trying to appear expert and cheflike.

Maybe this is a good time to check that you have appropriate materials on hand to extinguish a small kitchen inferno appropriately, too.

Never, ever use water to put out a grease fire! Remember the Wizard of Oz? Do you really want that fireball in your kitchen or in your face? No, I didn't think so. Water is heavier than oil, so what happens when you get a lot of it in the fryer is that it sinks to the bottom of the oil and flashes into steam, shooting burning oil everywhere.

If all this sounds too scary, maybe you should bake the fries and fish instead - but that's another recipe. This recipe is the real thing, hot oil, potatoes, fish. If the oven is too much a challenge, well, there's always frozen stuff and a microwave, the mainstay of cooking-challenged people everywhere - although at this point I'd rather brave the approaching storm and head for a local pub.

The Fish 


The Fish
  • Black rockfish fillets, sliced into four inch chunks. Debone the fillets first (fish or needlenose pliers work great for this). You could also use some other type of white fish with firm flesh. If you opt for salmon, remember that your oil will be forever imbued with a good dose of fishiness. Remember to use sustainable seafood, whatever your choice!
  • Buttermilk to cover fillets
  • Sea salt
  • Aleppo pepper (chile flakes)
  • Black pepper
The flour for dredging
  • All purpose flour
  • Morton sea salt flakes
  • A bit of kosher salt (since the flakes won't all stick)
  • Aleppo pepper
  • Black pepper
  1. Mix the buttermilk, salt and peppers together, pour over the fish, mix everything together so that each piece of fish is well coated. Place in refrigerator for at least two hours.
  2. Mix the flour, salt, peppers together and set aside in a large mixing bowl suitable for dredging the fish.
  3. Heat a suitable vegetable oil to a point where a chip (piece of potato) bubbles energetically when dipped into the oil. It doesn't have to be smoking, and it's probably a good idea that it's not.
  4. Dredge the fish in the flour mixture, making sure that the pieces are well coated. When removing the fillets, shake them a bit to remove excess flour.
  5. Your oil should be nice and hot at this point. Slowly dip the fish into the hot oil and let go. Don't drop it in unless you like oil burns all over your forearms. The fish will cook much quicker than the fries, so stagger the two processes.
  6. When the fish is golden brown, remove it from the oil, turn off the heat and set it on a rack or screen to let the excess oil drip off.

The Chips

The chips should not come out of a large bag that's been in a freezer for an unknown amount of time. They should be cut from scrubbed Russet potatoes, sliced and done in a three step process just like in Belgium. No, they're not French. Just ask a Belgian if you don't believe me.

  • Russet potatoes, julienned. If you have a mandoline, you can slice them quickly. If you're a gadget freak, you can get a gizmo that mounts on the wall and slices them just about instantly. If you have a really great, razor sharp knife you can do them all by hand.
  • Salt, pepper for tossing on the finished chips
  1. Soak the potatoes in water, preferably overnight. If you're in more of a hurry, you can rinse the potatoes until the water is clear and soak them for less time. This is to remove excess starch for crispier chips.
  2. About an hour before showtime, heat a suitable high temperature vegetable oil. Use a frying pan or fryer that's deep enough to cover the fries yet have ample room between the top of the fryer and the surface of the oil. The fries will bubble energetically when they go in, raising the surface of the oil so it's essential that this can all happen inside the fryer. 
  3. Place the fries in the oil slowly. This lets you avoid splashing and consequent burns, and also lets you verify that you didn't put too much oil in the fryer. If the bubbles get almost to the top, save the rest of the fries for a later batch. 
  4. Fry the potatoes until they start to get limp, not golden. That's the next step. Leave the potatoes to cool off. Don't worry about draining off excess oil at this point, since you're going to re-fry the chips anyway. Turn off the heat under the oil.
  5. Before meal time, start heating the oil. Since you may need to fry the chips in batches, allow time for multiple fryings as needed (you can heat the oil for the fish so it's ready too - just be careful not to overheat it while you're doing the chips).
  6. Fry the chips until they're just a nice golden brown. Drain off the excess fat.
  7. Toss the chips with some salt and pepper and serve immediately. If all went well, you've also cooked the fish and everything is in perfect synchronization. 
Place the fish over the fries, garnish with a lemon wedge and dinner is ready. If you insist on being very British, make sure you have some malt vinegar on hand.

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