Scale new heights

The nation's favourite fast feast is about to become a costly catch. So don't settle for soggy cod and chips, says Michael Bateman. Especially when it's easy peasy to make your own
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online

It's the nation's favourite fast food, and it's as British as – well – mushy peas. But our love affair with fish and chips may soon be put to the test. Next month, European fishery ministers will meet to discuss what should be done to protect fish stocks in the North Sea. The likely outcome? A ban on taking any cod and haddock from those waters.

It's the nation's favourite fast food, and it's as British as – well – mushy peas. But our love affair with fish and chips may soon be put to the test. Next month, European fishery ministers will meet to discuss what should be done to protect fish stocks in the North Sea. The likely outcome? A ban on taking any cod and haddock from those waters.

That's certainly bad news for the 15,000 British fishermen who work on the North Sea. For fish-fryers, it's not such a crisis, but it will inevitably lead to changes. Cod and haddock will remain on the menu – they can be imported from Iceland, a country which has maintained sustainable stocks rigorously over the past 12 years. What is less certain is what will happen to prices as the traditional staple of the time-poor becomes increasingly rare. Already cod costs £11 per kilo, a figure that has risen by 50 per cent over the past five years. If cod and chips rises in price, will it still be our favourite?

A lot will depend on quality. Delicious though fish and chips can be – and we all have our own nostalgic memories to that effect – it's not high on our gastronomic sensor. And if it's taken for granted, it's a real let-down: batter that's not crisp, fish that's not fresh and chips that are a soft, soggy mass. A silver lining to the fishing crisis could be that fish suppers, if they are more expensive, will be treated with a little more care and attention. In the mean time, if your local chippie exudes the smell of over-used oil, you're better off making fish and chips at home.

But what should be the catch of the day? Just like the professionals, you could turn to Icelandic supplies – imported frozen, they're still suitably fresh. But the government has come out in favour of broadening our culinary horizons to take the burden off cod and haddock and lessening the crisis. I asked fishmonger Philip Diamond, author of the Covent Garden Fish Book (Kyle Cathie), to suggest some alternatives – catch his advice in the "Other fish to fry" box to the right.

Diamond says that there are many options open to us; some, such as South African kingclip, more exotic than others. What you're looking for, as a general rule, is something that separates into delicious, fluffy, moist flakes under the batter. Most oily fish, such as tuna, mackerel, herring and sardines, are off the list – there's enough oil going on with the deep-frying. But there is one exception: salmon. "I find that the tail-end deep-fries perfectly," chef Nick Nairn told me, "but make sure you slice it lengthways to reduce the thickness."

A cod-alternative being pushed by the government is huss. That's something Tim Hughes – executive chef of The Ivy, Le Caprice and J Sheekey, London's oldest and perhaps most prestigious fish restaurant – knows all about. Hughes grew up beside the seaside in Worthing, Sussex, but not for him the luxury of cod or haddock. "Every weekend we had huss and chips. Huss is also known as dogfish or rock salmon, and it's always been the cheap alternative in fish and chip shops." Hughes knocked up the classic cod, chips and mushy peas you see photographed here, but he has also had excellent results with pollack and hoki (see box).

Hughes has shared his experience and has helped me put together the recipe for classic fish and chips. It's not the only recipe you'll come across, but it should give excellent results. The most frequent variation involves the batter. Mitchell Tonks, whose Fishworks Green Street Seafood Café in Bath is a Good Food Guide favourite, has a great beer batter. Tonks has opened other branches in Bristol and Christchurch, and opens another in Chiswick next month. He uses self-raising flour with a little cornflour and twice that volume in liquid – half water, half beer. Many people opt for beer batter – lager bubbles make for a very light end result. For a wilder variation, try Tonks's favourite: smoked cod in a curry batter – just add curry powder to the flour, and remove the skin from the fish.

All we need now is one final alternative for those who don't have a deep-fat fryer. Hughes suggests devilling – it's good for any sort of small fish, such as whitebait, or pieces of red mullet. You simply dip them in flour seasoned with salt and cayenne pepper, then in beaten egg, then in flour again, fry on each side in a hot pan until golden-brown, and finally drain on kitchen paper. But if you've got all the necessary equipment, can you resist the perfect fish and chips?

Fish and chips with mushy peas

Serves 4

4 fresh fish fillets

300ml/ 1/2 pint milk

1 egg yolk

100g/4oz plain flour, plus extra, in a bowl, to coat the fish

100g/4oz cornflour

6g-sachet of activated yeast

1 teaspoon soy sauce

Salt

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

750g firm, dry potatoes (eg Maris Piper), peeled and cut to preferred size

Can of tinned peas

Vegetable oil for deep fryer

First make Tim Hughes's batter. Beat the egg yolk into the milk. Then, in a blender, combine this with the flour, cornflour, yeast, soy, salt and cayenne pepper. When it is the texture of thick cream, set aside for at least one hour in the fridge.

Next, heat the oil in the fryer to 160C (310F). Rinse and drain the chips, and pat dry with kitchen paper. Fry for about 10 minutes, until soft inside but not brown. Set aside.

Remove batter mix from fridge and whisk up. Heat oil in the fryer to 180C (350F) – monitor this with a thermometer – temperature is critical. Dip each piece of fish in the extra flour, then coat in the batter. Shake off surplus. In two batches of two (frying all four at the same time lowers the temperature of the oil too much) lower – gently – into the oil. Cook for seven to eight minutes, until golden. Drain on kitchen paper. Reserve in a warm oven (150C/325F/Gas 3).

Keeping the oil at 180C (350F), refry the chips for three or four minutes until golden and crisp. Drain and spread on kitchen paper. Reserve in the oven while you fry the rest. Sprinkle with salt.

For the mushy peas, simply drain, mash and heat the peas in a saucepan.

Other fish to fry

Kingclip: A newcomer imported from South Africa. Superb, flaky texture, with denser texture than cod. Premium prices.

Halibut: The largest and most magnificent of all flat fish, with moist, white, flaky flesh. A luxurious choice, and suitably expensive.

Salmon: An unexpected option – almost the only oily fish that deep-fries well.

Hake: More delicate than cod, with soft, creamy, white flesh. Highly prized by Spanish fish-lovers.

Huss: From the shark family. Flavoursome and underrated, with firm grey flesh that turns white during the cooking. Reasonably priced, and good for fish soups and kebabs.

Hoki: A fairly recent import, from cold, deep waters off New Zealand. Waitrose and Sainsbury's started selling it. Again, it's very similar to cod.

Coley or saithe: From the cod family. It's unfashionable due to greyish colour, though, like huss, it whitens during cooking. Good texture, attractive price.

Pollack: Another from the cod family. Similar to coley, it's a grey flesh, turning white when cooked. It has a rather bland flavour, but its price will attract some.

Ling: A cod relative, though the flesh is less dense, even watery. Cheap.

Squid: Delicious cut into rings and deep-fried with tiny fish such as whitebait and sprats, or peeled prawns, oysters, mussels, or little morsels of any good fish.

Comments