Item No. 08 of my 2016 Cooking Challenge
When I started to plan out my list of items for the year ahead, I tried to anticipate life events that would influence the stuff I’d like to try and cook. I knew I had my South Africa trip scheduled for early on in the year, and I knew that I would be pretty motivated to make some South African inspired dishes. That can be difficult for a lot of items, given how hard it can be to find some necessary ingredients in the United States. There was one though, that was essentially South African that I knew I could make in the U.S.A.– fish and chips.
I know what you’re thinking… fish and chips equals England, right? Sure, yeah. Except I strongly believe South Africa and not the U.K. is the best fish and chips making country in the world. What?? Yup. And here’s the deal… it’s essentially the same dish in terms of preparation. After all, South Africa was colonized by the British Empire for quite a while there. The big difference that sets them apart is a natural advantage that South Africa holds… access to way superior fish.
Thing I Learned #1 – Don’t regard this as contemporary medical advice, but it was once well believed that fish and chips were very good for pregnant women. So much so that they were one of the only foods not rationed during World War II.
For the fish:
1 lb. of cod (haddock or hake will also do the trick)
1 cup all purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp paprika
1/2 bottle of beer
1/2 tsp of salt
1 tsp of lemon juice
For the chips:
4-5 large potatoes
2 cups of apple cider vinegar
salt to taste
Enough oil to submerge fish fillets by about 1/2 an inch
Knife, even better with a fillet knife
Deep and narrow saucepan
This recipe called for a bit of a field trip. Newman’s Fish Co. is probably my favorite spot for fresh seafood in town. A bit on the more expensive side, but if you’re doing a special seafood item, this is the spot! Especially if you were doing something that really called for fresh fish like sushi or seared ahi. But also… fish and chips! I went with a cod, since it tends to be a pretty decent value for the quality of fish. Cod and haddock tend to be the most commonly used fish, but if you want to go true South African, I’d recommend hake or sole. A Pacific Northwest variation uses salmon quite a bit, but I’m not the biggest fan. I love salmon for its distinct taste, and deep frying it tends to distract from that rather than compliment it.
Thing I Learned #2 – A quick primer on what fish is commonly used for fish in chips by region goes a little something like this– UK: cod, haddock, pollock, or rock salmon; Ireland: cod, haddock, ray, skate; Northern Ireland/Scotland: cod, plaice, whiting; South Africa: hake, sole; Australia: reef cod, rock cod, barramundi, snapper, flake; New Zealand: gunnard, napper, hoki, tarakhi.
1) Cut up the taters
So these steps are for proper South African “slap chips.” What are those?
Thing I Learned #3 – Well, basically fish and chip fries, but thick cut and usually wrapped up in parchment paper. By the time you eat them they’re usually a tad soggy and salty but still really good. They also have a fairly strong vinegar taste infused, which I will explain how to do in just a bit.
First I recommend skinning the potatoes and then chopping them up into wands, about a 1/4 inch thick. But you know how fries look when they’re the thickness that you want so just go with that gut instinct.
2) The Vinegar Soak
So, to get the fries to have that awesome vinegary taste, here’s the trick. A good vinegar soak. I recommend submerging the fries for about ten minutes underneath some vinegar. Let it soak for about ten minutes.
Afterwards, let the fries dry on some paper towels for about 15-20 minutes or so.
3) Flour and Fillet
Okay, since the fries are soaking, it’s a great time to work on the batter. In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, salt, and paprika, and sift until it’s fairly blended.
Fillet the fish, if it isn’t already cut into appropriately sized pieces. You know about how large fish and chips pieces should be, so go for that size.
Once you’re done, dust the fillets so they are totally covered in flour.
4) Here Batter, Batter
To make the batter, pour the lemon juice into the flour, and then pour half of a bottle of beer. I’ve read that most cooks like to use a lager, though I used an IPA because the hoppiness can add a nice complexity and flavor to the batter. Specifically, I used a Blue Moon IPA, since it’s a decent beer but not one I feel too protective about to not want to use up on cooking.
Mix the beer and flour combo until it’s thoroughly thick and goopy. You don’t want to over mix because the batter will loose its stickiness.
I dipped each piece of cod in the batter until it was thoroughly covered with a thick batter. I then took the added step to stick the batter-covered cod pieces in the fridge. This helps solidify the batter a little bit more without getting the cod too cold for its proper cook time. It’ll be super helpful when you stick the cod in the oil and you don’t want the cod trying to escape from its batter coating. While the fish is chilling, it’s the perfect time to make fries.
5) Fry, Baby, Fry
Heat up enough oil in a saucepan to get it sizzling. If you have a deep fryer, use that. I don’t, and it’s probably best if I’m not deep frying super often, so I simply used a saucepan that was deep and narrow enough to hold enough oil. If you have a food thermometer, it should be 350º F. If not, my trick was to toss in some of the potato skin. If it crisps up like a potato chip within a minute and a half, then it’s hot enough.
Go one small batch at a time. Load up the spatula with a small handful of fries. Lower them into the oil and let them fry for about three minutes. Pull them out and let them dry on a paper towel. Drop in the next batch of fries. After the ones you’ve pulled out have gotten cooler, begin to arrange them. This can be a somewhat lengthy process depending on how many fries you are trying to make.
6) Do It Again
The quirky thing about fries is that no matter how long you fry them there’s no substitute to double frying.
After I’ve fried each piece once, I then get them set to load on to a spatula all over again and reintroduce to the frying oil. This time, I aimed to keep each batch in there for four minutes.
After removing each batch of fries, I let them sit out on a paper towel on the drying rack to absorb some grease, and reintroduced the next batch.
After the fries had sufficiently de-greased, I arranged them into a serving cone. They’ll sit there for a bit while you work on the fish and will perhaps lose some crispness, but this is pretty accurate to how packaged slap chips taste. Go ahead and cheat though and taste one, you’ll get the vinegary flavor.
Continue till all the fries are done.
7) Fish Fry
With the oil still hot, it’s about time to introduce the fish. Just before putting each fillet in the oil, I added a second coat of batter. I used the aid of a spatula to lower each fillet in. It took about three and a half minutes to sufficiently cook the fish and get the batter golden brown.
When the three and a half minutes are up, remove the fish and let them drain of oil on a drying rack. Full disclosure, I don’t have a drying rack, so I relied on this hack: I yanked one of the grated shelves out of our oven and set it up over a cookie sheet. It got the job done. The amount of time it takes to cook two more fillets (so, about seven minutes) is a good amount of time to allow for draining.
When the fish is fried, it’s pretty much ready to be combined with the fries to serve.
Serving this Sucker
If you have the means to make a fry cone, I think that looks great. I do not, but I lined a mug with some paper and that looked well.
I think the vinegar soak to make slap chips gives the chip so much flavor that anything beyond a small smattering of salt is unnecessary. The fries are fine on their own.
I like it when fish and chips have a street food vibe to them, so I simply put a paper towel on top of a plate. Pretty practical with how much you’d probably want to degrease down something deep fried. I simply layered it up with a sprig of thyme and it was a beauty.
In the Future
If I can ever get my hands on some well priced hake, I’d love to try it with a more South African variety of fish. Also, I think the extra mile would have been to pair it up with some tartar sauce- combining homemade mayo with relish. Or for something a little less conventional, sriracha mayo.