Some people hear the phrase “batter up” and head for home plate, bat in hand. I hear that phrase and head to the kitchen, large frying pan in hand. Batter-fried food is a staple of New Orleans cuisine – some may say it’s an obsession. Truly, where would we be without fried okra, shrimp or oysters or fried green tomatoes? No New Orleans fried-food conversation can leave out fried chicken; we pretty much invented it here – at least the spicy version – and it’s even the muse of a local food club.
Of course there’s my personal favorite, fried fish. Frying fish is a culinary art form that goes unmatched anywhere else in the world. Nothing beats a plate of crispy fried fish, a generous heap of French fries and a frosty mug of beer or Barq’s. It’s one of those must-have meals of New Orleans.
As for history, I can tell you that there is little to nothing written about the origin of frying food in the South. We just do it, eat a lot of it, and that’s that. However, what I have learned is that as with most cooking methods, frying likely has its roots in ancient China, where deep-frying is said to predate stir-frying. How the method spread is unknown, but some Southern culinary historians opine that frying stems from the traditions and cooking methods of African slaves brought to Louisiana, adapting and adjusting to local foodstuffs – rice calas and beignets – of the 19th century.
Considering the climate of the South, our penchant for frying foods has long piqued my curiosity. Once, executive chef Kevin Vizard of Café Adelaide was conducting a cooking demonstration when he suddenly launched into a discussion of old-time cooking methods. He said, “When we used wood-fired stoves way back when, they made our kitchens hot. A lot of wood was needed to keep a fire going for roasting or baking, and that made the kitchens unbearable. But some smart cooks found that with one log and a heavy, heat-holding, cast-iron pot, foods could be quickly cooked – fried, for instance – on top of the stove in a much shorter time, keeping kitchen heat to a minimum.” Voila, a potential answer that makes sense. It may not be exactly accurate, but nothing with cooking is terribly accurate, and it’s the best explanation I’ve heard yet.
There’s no great mystery as to why we Louisianians eat an abundance of fish. But what makes great fried fish? Certainly you need to start with fresh fish such as catfish, trout or lemon fish from our lakes or the gulf. The keys to successful frying are the oil (peanut or canola) and temperature (high and constant) to seal in the juiciness of the fish and prevent greasiness. Some chefs are particular about the batter, sometimes mixing beer or soda water into flour or cornstarch. The trick is the right ratio of water to flour to create a thin paste, just thick enough to coat a finger.
There is no shortage of local restaurants that serve fried fish. And many cultures includes fried fish in their diets. The Japanese eat tempura, and the Chinese and Thai fry whole fish lightly dusted in cornstarch. Lately Baja Mexico has given us battered, fried fish tacos. But the best-known fried fish dish is fish and chips from the United Kingdom. The British are passionate about proper fish (cod or haddock) and chips (French fries), as well as the classic side of mushy peas. Brits get their fish and chips at “chip shops,” debate the origin of the dish and which shop does it best, and will wait in long lines for what they consider exceptional fish and chips.
I spoke to executive chef and Englishman Jonathan Wright of the New Orleans Grill at the Windsor Court Hotel about fried fish. For Wright, the sound of an English football announcer is his Pavlovian cue to “tuck in” to fish and chips with malt vinegar and mushy peas.
Wright prepares a fine version for lunch at the New Orleans Grill. Surpassing the grub of an average chip shop, he uses good-quality potatoes, fresh, firm-fleshed fish, and a yeast- and beer-based batter that puffs and crisps up beautifully. He fries the works in house-rendered duck fat. The generous portion of fish is accompanied by a dollop of caviar, golden fries that look like Jenga blocks, and not-too-mushy peas pulsed with fresh mint and herbs. Salt and vinegar are offered as traditional condiments, but he will whip up mayonnaise or tartar sauce for dipping, if you absolutely must have them.
Wright’s fish and chips recipe is decadent. But he enjoys the local version of fried fish, too. The next time you’re out at your favorite seafood joint, look for a head of spiky salt-and-pepper hair bent over a plate. Wright, like the rest of us, is hooked on New Orleans’ fantastic fried fish.
EASY FISH AND CHIPS
When it comes to making fish and chips, I’m no Jonathan Wright; while I recommend that you nip on down to the New Orleans Grill for a plate made by the master, you can make it at home with this easy version.
1 medium-size fish fillet per serving (cod is preferable)
1/2 cup plain flour
1/2 cup self-rising flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 egg yolk
1/2 pint milk or dark beer
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
Soda water, chilled (optional)
2 egg whites
Peanut oil for frying, heated to 375°
Salt and vinegar to garnish
Batter: Making a good batter is the biggest challenge, and getting the right consistency is vital. Sift the flours and a pinch of salt into a bowl. Make a well and add the egg yolk, milk or beer, oil and enough water to make a batter that will coat the back of a spoon. Mix well, until smooth. Let the batter rest for 30 minutes (you can add a splash of soda water to the rested batter for a lighter, fluffier finish). Whisk the egg whites until they are light and fluffy but stiff. Fold the egg whites into the rested batter and prepare to fry. If the batter is too thick, thin it with a little milk, until it coats the back of a spoon.
Frying: Coat the fish fillets lightly in flour seasoned with salt and pepper to taste. Carefully hold the fish at the tail end and dip it into the batter. Shake lightly to remove any excess batter. With oil heated to 375°, gently place the fish away from you to avoid splashing the hot oil. The fish should rise to the surface after 3 to 4 minutes. Turn the fish with a slotted spoon to ensure even browning and crispy texture. Fry approximately another 3 to 4 minutes.
2 medium-size potatoes per person, preferably Yukon Gold (or Idaho), washed and peeled
Peanut oil for frying
Salt to taste
Cut the potatoes into slices 1/2 inch thick and 2 inches long. Then cut the slices into strips about 2 inches by 1/2 inch by 1/2 inch. Keep uncooked potatoes in water to prevent them from turning brown (but not too long, or they’ll become waterlogged). Dry the potatoes well with a towel before frying.
Frying should be done in two stages. Heat the oil to 325° and place a handful of fries into the pan – don’t crowd. Once the fries have cooked a bit and become soft, drain them well but carefully to avoid breakage, and put them aside. When you’re ready to eat, reheat the oil to 375° and return the precooked fries to the oil for the second frying. Cook until crisp and golden, then drain well and season with salt.
Serve fish and chips in paper cones or on plates. Sprinkle with malt vinegar and salt as desired.