Every once in awhile I look at myself and think, “Self, you should peel a few pounds.” Luckily, very shortly after this happens, I get a jolt of cooking inspiration and the thought flies out the window where it belongs. The most recent flitting thought was banished by the arrival in the post of my first deep-fat fryer. My husband smiled wryly. “Diet: postponed.”
Of course, most everything is delicious fried. The crunchy, salty coating transforming the mundane into the magical. A round of onion, a juicy button mushroom, a sliver of squid – all of these become special treats. My daughter has even heard tell of fried Mars Bars and fried ice cream! Fried butter, now there is an idea whose time has come…
To me, French fries are one of the ultimate guilty pleasures, and I’ve rarely had one I didn’t like. Which brings me to the obvious first dish to initiate my new deep fryer. It had to be Britain’s National Dish: Fish and Chips.
After all, we live in a nation that not only boasts an official Federation of Fish Friers, but also gives an annual award to the Young Fish Frier of the Year. This is serious stuff. We’re talking about a national dish whose ingredients were among the VERY few not rationed in WWII. Churchill knew quite well that his people could be asked to give up holidays, new clothes, bananas and sausage, but not fish and chips. “Keep Calm and Carry on Frying” was his motto, for very good reason.
Let’s talk about the raw ingredients.
The fish used to be cod, full stop. About 61% of all fish and chips in the UK are currently made with cod, and Britons represent one-third of the world’s cod eaters. But overfishing of British waters have meant new regulations on how much cod can be taken, and a more open mind toward cod from Russian and Icelandic waters. More interestingly, there has also been a brave public suggestion that we make good on the various fishy clichés like, “Plenty of fish in the sea” and “there are other fish to fry.” Well, are there? As the world was finding ways to fish cod sustainably, the fish-eating public opened its eyes to haddock, plaice and pollack. The key quality you want in frying fish is sturdiness and whiteness of flesh. Cod is what I call a “tall fish,” with big, fleshy flakes. I actually greatly prefer haddock, and have even been known to fry red bream, a succulent fish available at high summer (now!) off the southwest coast of Britain, and the coasts of France. You just want to avoid fish with delicate flesh (like sole), as they will fall apart when frying.
Now then, the chips. England is the land of potato varieties, especially in these days when heirloom breeds of fruits and vegetables are making a comeback. During my American childhood, there were white potatoes, and red potatoes. As an adult in New York, I discovered Yukon Gold. That was it. Here you can buy any number of spuds with wonderful, evocative names like Charlotte, King Edward, Maris Piper and Desiree. All “chip” recipes will tell you something very huffy and bossy about using only “waxy” varieties, not “floury” varieties, but I’m here to tell you that I’ve never found it makes any difference. Possibly waxy potatoes run less risk of falling apart, but a fallen apart chip never bothered me.
Chips (the original French fry, pommes frites) arrived from France in the 18th century, and a century later someone thought to match them with fish, make them thick, and call them “chips.” “To chip” is a verb in England, and it simply means to turn a whole potato into bite-sized pieces for frying.
No musings over fish and chips would be complete without addressing the “thick” or “thin” chips question. I assumed that British people would prefer thick and Americans thin, but a wide canvassing of my fried-food friends revealed no such simplicity. But I can tell you this: “thick” fans are horrified by the idea of “thin,” and vice versa. Friends who are wedded to the “thick” notion describe to me a foodstuff I simply cannot imagine, called a “chip butty,” which is a very funny name for a sandwich of… chips. Yep, chips in a white-bread bun. Think of what the carb police would make of that!
Of course, we’re not talking about fish, and chips, are we? We’re talking about “Fish and Chips,” the perfect marriage of foods, to many people’s thinking. To whom do we owe this bit of fried heaven? The very first fish and chip shop popped up in Oldman, Manchester, around 1860, with stories told that potatoes were originally dropped in the cooking liquid to bring the temperature down, then it was discovered customers loved them. Fried fish restaurants were first mentioned in British literature in Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens in the mid-19th century. Fish and chip shops, or “chippies,” are intensely local affairs with dialect and slang often dictating what you’ll get. I will never forget once in Yorkshire going into a shop and being amazed to find that “fried scallops” were offered at the stunningly low price of £1 each (about $1.50). Lead me to it! You can imagine my disappointment when I bit into them and found that they were nothing more than fried disks of potato in the shape of scallops!
Believe it or not, there’s an actual blue plaque from English Heritage on the site of this first chippie, an honour usually reserved for people, like Handel or Agatha Christie. This tells you how important fish and chips are to the British.
When we lived in the UK in the early 1990s, they were wrapped in a layer of white paper (from the end of a reel of newspaper) and then a layer of printed newspaper. The arguments for this system were twofold: the paper absorbed some of the excess oil, and helped to insulate the fish and chips and keep them warm. When we returned to London after our New York hiatus in 2006, fish and chips were being served in a very unromantic and unappealing Styrofoam container with a lid. It’s not illegal to serve in newspaper, but almost no shop does now, fearing its customers will object to what may be seen as a dirty method of wrapping.
In the 1930s there were around 35,000 chippies providing this essential takeaway (aka “carryout”) dish. For various reasons – some to do with health concerns – they now number about 11,000. The record number of portions of fish and chips sold at any one shop on any one day is 4000! That is a lot of hot oil.
Ah, but what sort of oil? In fact, should fish and chips be cooked in oil at all? What about an amazing product called “beef dripping“? In the old days (not so old days, really, as lots of my British friends can remember it) beef dripping was gleaned from the Sunday roast, being no more or less than the fat that was rendered from the slowly cooking joint of beef. This fat was carefully stored and spread on toast, according to my friends, to be crunched down with a nice hot cup of tea after school. In my next life, I want to be one of those lucky children.
Nowadays, people run screaming from real fat as if it were going to poke them with a hot needle. These same people are, however, perfectly happy to scarf down a packet of crisps (potato chips) containing as much saturated fat as could be slathered on a piece of toast. But it’s fat they CAN’T SEE, so they can tell themselves it’s not there. Beef dripping? Just the words send a shiver down the fat police’s spine, but to me… sounds like heaven. And because England is a land of traditions, one can still buy beef dripping now, in blocks like butter. I have some in my fridge right now, ready for my next frying fest. I am nothing if not a rebel.
Of course, there’s always lard. Another one of those horrific words in our slender-obsessed times, but I determined to get some and USE it. Not just on its own, but in a nice compromise, with the lion’s share of the fat being a good, high-temperature cooking oil such as peanut. But, of course, everything in moderation.
In 2010 British government instituted new standards of thickness to help combat obesity: thicker potato “chips” would mean more potato, and less fat able to be absorbed. But the fish and chips federation asserts that even without the new regulations of thickness, a portion of fish and chips contains less fat than many other fast-food choices: compared to other take-away foods, fish and chips have 9.42 grams of fat per 100 grams. The average pizza has 11 grams, a Big Mac meal with medium fries has 12.1, a Whopper meal with medium fries has 14.5, and a portion of chicken korma (a traditional English/Indian curry) 15. How much takeaway food should any person eat, anyway?
Which leads me to how wonderful it is to make fish and chips at home. The joy of making anything you’ve had out, at home, is the heart-warming knowledge that you’ve chosen every single ingredient yourself and know exactly what you’re eating. So get out your deep-fat fryer, put on an apron, and get cooking.
Since I was a novice, and I wanted to get both aspects – the fish and the chips – absolutely right, I went to the best sources for inventive (but always reliable) English food: Heston Blumenthal and Jamie Oliver. With typical British dry humor, Jamie’s recipe is called “Oliver’s Twist.” But, because I come down on the thin side of the chip debate, I chose Heston’s recipe for chips which are much closer to French fries. Here is my simplified version of that recipe.
Heston’s recipe is remarkable for its insistence on “triple cooking.” It may sound mad to put a tray of boiled potatoes in your freezer once, much less twice, but that way lies the most remarkable fries, chips, or whatever you want to call them. My family stood around eating them as they came out of the fryer, after a delicate shower of sea salt. “Oh. Em. Gee. These put to shame any other fries I have ever eaten in my life,” was the general consensus. First of all, things you fry at home are properly HOT when you get to eat them. Furthermore, not having to wrap your fried food in anything – paper or styrofoam – does wonders for the consistency of Jamie’s beer batter. It’s audibly crunchy! The white fish within glistens with freshness. You will be in heaven.
Now, once you’ve made your fish and chips, you must decide what to serve with it. The traditional accompaniment is the aptly named “mushy peas” included in Jamie Oliver’s recipe. I have never been a fan of mushy peas, wondering why anyone would take the glory that is a fresh English pea and partly cook it down with mint and then attack it with a potato masher. No, instead I opt for another Jamie Oliver’s suggestions and fry up some fresh button mushrooms. After all, the oil is still hot! To each his own.
Then there is the great sauce debate. The British favor malt vinegar shaken over both the fish and chips (I’d rather be stuck in the eye with a fork), the Americans love ketchup, of course, and the Belgians (the kings of frites) take a dollop of mayonnaise for dipping. I will go out on a limb and say that there is nothing, NOTHING on earth as good with both fish and chips as a nice spoonful of homemade tartare sauce. Rich with chopped cornichons, capers, fresh tarragon and lemon juice… oh, it’s divine, and nothing like the glutinous stuff you get in a bottle. Go on, make some, and tell me how you liked your sample of the best of British food: fish and chips.
Hip, hip, hooray!
What’s your favorite carry-out food to make at home?
Photo Credit: Avery Mycroft Curran
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