In Search of Perfection (Fish & Chips)
There are dishes that we eat, things that are life’s staples that are so often cooked and served poorly. An overdone steak, soggy pizza, lumpy mashed potatoes and limp chips. We all know what they are supposed to be like but often what seem really simple dishes actually take a bit of time to get right. What makes a perfect steak? A brilliant Pizza, and, in my case, what makes the perfect Fish & Chips?
Breaking it down there are really 3 elements. The fresh fish in crunchy light batter, boneless, delicious and flaky inside. The chips. Maybe the hardest thing to get right. Golden and crunchy on the outside. Light fluffy on the inside with the tang of sea salt and maybe a splash of vinegar. Then there is the tartare sauce. Always so much better made from scratch, not from a super market bottle.
There will be quite a few photos attached to this post. A quest for the perfect fish and chips.
Let’s start with a few hours on the water in the bay at this time of year when it is flathead time. Plenty around and a couple of hours flicking soft plastic lures in the shallows rewarded me with 4 lovely fish and this humble but often underrated species is as good as it gets for a battered fish and chip lunch.
Filleted, skinned, deboned and dusted with flour. Tick. Job 1 done.
The chips. Big waxy potatoes, cut to uniform size and triple cooked. First in a steamer for about 8 minutes till they soften. Drain and refrigerate. 2nd cook in fresh oil at 160 degrees for about 4 to 5 minutes till the chips just start to colour. Again set aside to cool, and then, just after the fish itself is cooked, back into 180 degree oil till golden and crunchy. I know this sounds like a lot of messing around just for the humble chip, but, trust me, it is worth it.
The batter. First rule, it has to be cold, really cold. Make it and set it aside in the fridge (or even the freezer) for 20 minutes or so. A lot of chefs use just beer as the batter liquid but I find it has too much sugar and colour and it goes dark brown, often before the fish is cooked. I like to use 50/50 beer and ice cold water and whisk in enough flour to make a batter about the consistency of thickened cream. It has to be set aside to rest. If you use it straight away it will be “fluffy” and full of bubbles when cooked.
On to the sauce (getting hungry yet?). 2 egg yolks, whisked while slowly adding light oil. I like peanut oil. Not strongly flavoured oils such as olive oil. Whisk in about a cup of oil till a thick mayonnaise has formed. Add the fine vest of a lemon, juice of 1 medium lemon, equal parts finely diced dill pickles/gherkins and capers (2 gherkins and about a large tablespoon of capers), a grind of black pepper and done. It should not need salt as this comes from the capers but add if needed to taste.
We are almost done. Dust the flathead fillets in flour, drape through the cold batter, letting the excess drain a little and slide into oil at about 160/170 degrees till golden brown. Turn up the heat on you fryer, smash the chips through for their third cook, crack a nice bottle of chardy and the perfect Fish & Chips is served. Enjoy!