Food & Drink

Surprise Mom with a fish fry this Mother's Day

Making your own tarter sauce is easy with just a few ingredients. (Joshua Tibbetts)
Making your own tarter sauce is easy with just a few ingredients. (Joshua Tibbetts)
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This one’s for my mother. She grew up on a farm in the middle of Minnesota. Bread and butter, meat and mashed potatoes and corn. Topped with more butter. In the ’80s she married an Englishman who loved to cook, and that’s where the trouble started. He liked spices. He liked fish. Shrimp, clams, scallops, calamari, salmon, tuna, you name it. I inherited my mother’s hypersensitive sense of smell. “Fishiness” was pretty much the rock bottom of what I could handle.

But then, there was the fish fry — light and tender, just a little flaky. That crunch on the crust. Those little bits of batter that fell off, just fried batter. I was obsessed with those little crunchy bits. The fish fry was something we could all agree on. Fried fish was my favorite meal when I was a kid. Well, maybe bacon. OK, bacon was my favorite. What can I say? I grew up in Iowa.

I almost never ate fish except for that, other than the occasional tuna salad. Really, I was in it for the crunchy crust. The fish is just a clean, fluffy vehicle to carry that batter up to heaven. Oh, and the hush puppies. Incredible. What the heck was a hush puppy anyway? I never saw them anywhere else, except for the fish takeout joints. They were a rare and magical treasure.

Since we knew we’d be at home cooking a lot, we got a mixed meat box from Big Boy Meats last month. It had some pork loin, ground beef, chuck roast and frozen pollock. White fish. Game on. Fishing season is here, and the same beer batter that coaxes magic out of the ocean whitefish also works wonders on walleye, bass, catfish. Anything white and flaky is the go-to.

The fried fish you get at restaurants is usually an ocean whitefish — cod, pollock or haddock. Cod and pollock are very clean-tasting. Cod is the premium cut; it’s a bit larger and has a fatter steak on it. Haddock tends toward the dank side; it has a slight “fishy-ness” to the flavor. As any seafood lover knows, good fresh fish should never smell “fishy.” Yeah, I’m dying from the irony over here, too. Pollock, though, now that’s a great frying fish. It’s a thinner steak than cod, so that means it has more surface area to grab the crust. More crust is a solid recipe for happiness in this house.

Back in ’88, our family took a trip to England to meet the family. Even back then, I was a fan of Chicago hot dogs and the tiny smattering of other street food available here at the time. Eating on the street was a big novelty for me. In England, those fish and chips food carts were really something else all fried up on the sidewalk and wrapped in a newspaper to soak up the excess grease and a bit of malt vinegar to cut the fat. Just the notion of being served food in yesterday’s newspaper kind of damaged my 12-year-old brain, in a good way. Mind you, I still wouldn’t touch salmon or a tuna steak with a 12-foot pole.

I’m all grown up now, or rather grown up enough, that I’ve learned how any food can be wonderful if it’s prepared well. Shrimp can be soft and juicy, not hard and chewy like a rubber eraser. Scallops and squid, they are all wonderful if you know how to coax their best out of them. But that’s a story for another day.

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They didn’t have hush puppies in England. They had chips. Except the chips weren’t chips. They were more like thick-cut steak fries. I’m not even going to get into the fries recipes in this article. That’s a very complicated rabbit hole that you can write an entire book on. Or make a career out of, as Ray Kroc or Gordon Ramsay did.

Last week, frying up some of that pollock, I played with the beer batter recipe that my pal Joe Barron wrote back at Sauce. I tinkered with it a bit, but this is basically Joe’s Fish Fry. That was a restaurant-sized batch, so I made a half batch. I still had a lot of batter left over, so I thought, what the heck, let’s throw some cornmeal in there and fry it up and see what happens.

What happened was I found the hush puppies that I’ve spent decades looking for! It was so easy, so obvious. I felt humbled. Life is like that when you’re strapped. You’re challenged to use everything life gave you, and let nothing go to waste. I don’t know about you, but I’ll take any small victory I can right now.

So hey, Mom, here’s that beer batter fish fry recipe you asked for. Happy Mother’s Day!

Chef Tibbs, also known as Joshua “Tibbs” Tibbetts, is a Cedar Rapids native who has been cooking as a professional chef for 28 years. He now is in the banquet kitchen at DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Cedar Rapids Convention Complex.

Recipes

Joe’s Fish Fry

This recipe also works well with white flesh game fish such as bass, catfish, walleye, pike, perch, crappie, bluegill and even carp.

1 pound (500 grams) ocean white fish, such as cod, pollock, halibut, mahi or haddock; thawed, cut into 4- or 5-ounce filets.

BEER BATTER

20 ounces (600 grams) beer. I prefer a plain golden lager beer or Czech Pilsener

1/2 stick (4 tablespoons) butter, barely melted

2 egg yolks, separate and save the whites

1 1/2 tablespoon salt

1 tablespoon black pepper

2 1/2 cups (350 grams) all-purpose flour, maybe more, if needed

Measure the beer out. It will want to foam up a lot, so that makes it hard to measure. You’ll need to let that foam settle. Or if you have a digital scale, you can weigh it out to 600 grams. Foam weighs the same as liquid beer, so weight is a bit easier to measure.

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Melt the butter gently, until just melted. You still want to see those white milk solids in there; don’t take it so far it clarifies (looks like oil.)

Separate the yolks from the whites. Save those whites!

Put the beer, salt and pepper, butter and yolks in a big bowl and whisk them together until smooth. Add 2 cups of flour and whisk it in. We’re looking for a pancake batter consistency. Lift the whisk up and let the batter fall back in. It should mound up on the surface a little and then sink in. If it seems too runny, add a little more flour until it looks right.

It will look like you’re putting a lot of salt in there. You are. We’re not going to salt the fish itself, so it’ll all balance out in the end.

Cover the bowl, and let it rest at room temperature for an hour. Let those egg whites rest on the counter, too.

After an hour, whisk up those egg whites until they have soft peaks. You’re looking for a mayonnaise texture, not a hard whip cream texture. This can take a while if you’re doing it by hand. Whites will fluff up faster at room temperature, but still take a while. A stand mixer will do this very quickly, or one of those old electric egg beaters that you find at thrift stores. If you’re using a powered whisk, be careful not to overwhisk them. Hard peaked whites won’t mix into the dough; they’ll just break into chunks.

Fold the soft peaked fluffed whites into the rest of the batter. Gently, so you don’t pop those bubbles. Those bubbles are what is going to give your fish a good crunch as they sit on the plate.

Source: Joe Barron

HUSH PUPPIES

1 cup leftover beer batter

1 cup cornmeal

1/2 teaspoon baking powder (powder, not soda)

Take your leftover batter and mix it with an equal part of cornmeal. Add 1/2 teaspoon of baking powder for each cup of batter you have left over.

Source: Joshua Tibbetts

IT’S FRY TIME

White fish fillets

Hush puppy batter

1 to 2 quarts oil for frying (canola, peanut, rice bran or lard are all pretty good fry oils)

Equipment

Dutch oven, 2 Gallon stockpot, or home model fryer

Slotted Spoon or skimmer

Candy/fryer thermometer, or laser thermometer

Newspaper

Oven sheet pan

Heat the oil in your fry pot. Aim for 350 degrees. I really like using a laser thermometer for this. They are pretty cheap these days, you can get one at a hardware store for about $10. They read the temperature a lot faster than the old fryer or candy thermometers.

Also heat up your oven to 350 degrees.

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This batter wants to fry at 350 degrees, to get a nice crunch that stays crispy when the food is on the table a few minutes later.

Here’s the devil in the details: frying at home is much harder than in a restaurant. Restaurant fryers are huge. They hold several gallons of oil. So when you add your food to it, the cold food going in doesn’t have much of an effect on the temperature. But in a small fryer at home, the oil temperature is going to drop drastically when you add the fish. So we are going to want to get the oil a bit extra hot before we put the fish in.

Put some towels on your sheet pan, and pat dry the fish fillets. This will help the batter stick. Dredge your fish fillets in the beer batter and let them hang out while we fry the hush puppies. Letting them rest in the batter for a few minutes also will help that batter stick.

Fry the Hush Puppies first. When your batter hits 365 degrees, spoon them in. Scoop up a ball of batter onto a spoon, about the size of a quarter or a pingpong ball. Use a second spoon to scrape it off into the hot oil. Do the same for about 5 or 6 more hush puppies. We don’t want to fry too many at a time, or the oil temperature will drop too much.

Keep an eye and an ear on the hush puppies as they fry. There will be a lot of white foam at first, and they’ll make loud frying noises as the water escapes and hits that hot oil. Keep an eye on the oil temperature. If it’s falling very low, around 300 degrees, crank up that heat a bit to compensate.

Those puppies will start to float, they’ll quiet their ruckus down a bit and you’ll see some clear bubbles. They’re done when they float. Pull them out and rest them on a sheep pan lined with newspaper or paper towels. The newspaper will soak up the extra grease that drips off them.

When your puppies are done, let the oil get hot again. Hotter this time, let it get up to 375 or 385. Using tongs or chopsticks, drop the fish in one at a time. Hold the battered fish in the oil for 5 or 6 seconds before letting go, otherwise it might stick to the bottom of the pan. Just like the hush puppies, we don’t want to crowd the pan too much. So let’s just fry 2 or 3 fillets at a time.

Just like the hush puppies, the fish is done when it floats, quiets down, and has clear bubbles. Put it on the same newspaper lined sheet with the hush puppies.

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Once all your fish is fried, pop that pan in the oven (newspaper and all) for 5 to 7 minutes. This will help it to drain & dry off the extra fat, and help it keep crispy at the table.

TARTAR SAUCE

1 cup mayonnaise

1 small dill pickle, minced very small. Tiny dice.

1 quarter of medium-size yellow onion, minced very small and rinsed in hot tap water for a minute

2 teaspoons parsley, dried or fresh (minced)

1 teaspoon dill, dried or fresh (minced)

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

salt and pepper, to taste

1 tablespoon capers, drained and chopped (if you’re feeling extra)

dash or two of Worcestershire sauce

Stir it all together. Taste it. Add a little more of this or that to suit your fancy.

Enjoy fish fry season

Source: Joshua Tibbetts

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