Tuesday, January 27, 2009


I am inordinately pleased with myself for trying this set of recipes, and even more pleased (one might say downright smug) that I pulled them off. Sure, fish sticks and oven fries seems like a safe bet—in fact, this readymade menu is basically designed for picky kids. But keep in mind that I didn’t grow up eating fish sticks or fish sandwiches; I hated fish as a child (I blame my few limited experiences with the dreaded orange roughy). The first time I ventured to even try fish and chips in a restaurant was less than 10 years ago, I’ve only been cooking fish at home for 5 years or so, and I’ve never cooked anything other than salmon. I don’t like coleslaw and tartar sauce makes me shudder (I prefer my fish with malt vinegar and lemon). So there were a lot of hurdles to overcome here. But when I saw the photo of this meal in the “Family Style” column in November’s Bon Appetit, it just looked so tasty and fun, and it was well-reviewed online, and A was encouraging, so after hemming and hawing about a million times, I went ahead with it. Even while I was cooking I wasn’t sure everything was going to work out, but then suddenly it did. Pretty brilliantly, if I do say so myself. And I do.

In short: The fish sticks are straight-up awesome. The breading is crispy and flavorful without being deep-fried, with a welcome bit of kick from the cayenne. But it wasn’t all about the breading—the halibut really shone through, and I loved the texture and non-fishy flavor. My only complaint was that it was hellishly expensive—“fresh” (meaning frozen and then thawed) wild Alaskan halibut was an astounding $24.99 per pound at the Whole Foods fish counter. Relieved that I’d decided to only make a half-recipe, I headed over to the freezer case and found a bag of frozen wild Alaskan halibut steaks at $13.99: still steep, but not quite as insane. When I got them home and thawed and cut into sticks, however, I realized I’d paid that price for just 12 ounces of halibut, meaning that (although it was still cheaper than the “fresh” stuff) there was just enough for two and a half fish sticks per person. We didn’t starve or anything—they were hefty sticks and there were plenty of oven fries on our plates—but once I tasted just how good the fish was, I was sad to have so little of it. My mission will now be to find a more affordable source of quality halibut so I don’t have to break the bank to make this meal again.

The fish recipe is the real gem here, but I highly recommend making the whole menu. The oven fries were unsurprisingly delicious—again, a healthier, non-fried take on the restaurant standard. And I may not like coleslaw, but this was its most tolerable incarnation. I don’t like mayo, and the dressing on this was a non-creamy vinegar-based one (no oil, either—again, a healthier update); I don’t like cabbage, and I found a coleslaw mix at Trader Joe’s that was predominately made up of shredded broccoli stems supplemented by smaller amounts of shredded carrot and shredded red cabbage (I used half the bag for my coleslaw and have been enjoying the rest sprinkled over my green salads). In my heart of hearts, I’d probably still have preferred a green salad for my vegetable, but I’d have the slaw again—it was important in terms of replicating the classic restaurant meal. And I even tried the tartar sauce and have to admit it wasn’t bad. The fish was so good it didn’t really need it, but A was a fan of it (as he is of all dips and sauces) and again, it was key for restaurant-style verisimilitude.

Best of all, even though I had to think carefully about the order of operations and dirtied a few too many bowls in the process, this seemingly complicated meal of four separate recipes came together in just a little over an hour, no longer than it usually takes me to make a weeknight dinner. We both really enjoyed it, it was refreshingly different from our usual fare, and it was even pretty healthy.

Oven fries:
1 pound large unpeeled Yukon Gold potatoes, each cut into 8 wedges
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon fleur de sel or coarse kosher salt

Quick tartar sauce:
½ cup mayonnaise
3 tablespoons sweet pickle relish or finely chopped bread-and-butter pickles
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Five-minute slaw:
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
⅛ teaspoon celery seeds
2 green onions, thinly sliced
1 8-ounce package coleslaw mix

Pan-fried fish:
1 pound 1½-inch-thick halibut filets
¾ cup panko
1½ teaspoons finely chopped fresh Italian parsley
1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon peel
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 large egg whites
2 tablespoons dark ale
2 tablespoons olive oil
Lemon wedges for garnish

1. To make the oven fries, preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Toss all the ingredients in a medium bowl to coat the potatoes well with olive oil and salt. Place the potatoes, points facing up, on a rimmed baking sheet and roast 15 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 400 degrees and continue to roast until potatoes are tender and golden, about 20–30 minutes longer.

2. While oven fries cook, make tartar sauce by mixing all ingredients in a small bowl. Cover and chill until ready to use.

3. To make slaw, whisk first four ingredients in a large bowl, then add green onions. Add coleslaw mix and toss well.

4. To make fish, cut halibut into sticks and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. While oil is heating, combine panko, parsley, salt, lemon peel, and cayenne in a shallow bowl; in a separate shallow bowl, whisk egg whites and ale. When oil is hot, dip fish sticks in ale mixture, turn to coat, and shake off excess; then place fish in panko mixture and turn to coat all sides. Add fish sticks to skillet and cook about 2 minutes on each side, until all sides are golden and fish is opaque in center. Transfer fish to paper towels, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and serve immediately.

Serves: 2
Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes
Leftover potential: I’d say low, because fried foods (even oven-fried and pan-fried ones) don’t reheat that well. I deliberately halved the recipes in order to have no leftovers. But Bon Appetit did have a pretty decent-sounding suggestion for making a fish sandwich out of the leftover fish sticks, tartar sauce, and slaw on hamburger buns, so give it a try if it floats your boat.

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