Recently I have been thinking quite a bit about classic dishes from my English past. Unfortunately these thoughts aren’t always good. We all know the stories about English food. Certainly nothing sexy. But, I honestly think that Brit-food gets a bad rap. Sure, the traditional stuff was super heavy and rich – but a lot has to be said for modern British cuisine. Actually, sod it, a lot has to be said for the classics too – all they take is a bit of re-interpretation.
So, I am going to be visiting a few classic dishes from my past, and putting my spin on them.
Now, I used to be a hound for fish and chips. Every couple of weeks (the most my liver would allow..) I would order up a large battered cod and chips (fries to you Yanks), with a battered sausage. Heck knows what this did to me – all that grease, however I must be lucky, because today I am fitter than ever – no thanks to an abundance of deep fried fish, 10 years ago.
The thought these days isn’t quite so appealing. Every now and again it comes across my mind, but never seem to be in a place to get really good fish and chips.
So, I figured I would make my own. I didn’t want to take the original and just cook it however, I wanted to see if I could update it a bit, hopefully refine the taste some, and come out with something uniquely me.
So – lets look at the classic Brit “Fish and Chips”. It was almost always a white fish used. Cod was preferred by many, and certainly by me. You then had the chips – potato was the only choice of starch – in a few different sizes. And finally.. the most vile substance in the history of British food…..
Holy shit. That stuff was nasty. Really bloody nasty. Just the mere thought of it would turn my stomach, and still kinda does. You would have these half smooched peas in a little paper bowl. It was terrible, really terrible.
However, no matter how much I hate them,they were a classic condiment to the British fish and chips. If you were a Southerner that was… If you were from the North, it was most likely going to be a battered candy bar and 10 pints of lager, but I digress…..
So, I figured that if I was going to do my take on fish and chips I would have to include mushy peas. That wasn’t a pleasant thought, not at all.
So – the basics – fried fish, potato and mushy peas.
The fish – a basic pan sear seems far better these days. You still get a lovely crispy bite, but it is lighter, and a much truer taste – you can taste the fish, and savor the delicate nature of the flesh, against the crispy robustness of the skin – rather than just chewing through the fried batter.
But what fish? I wanted something a little bit different. Thankfully Mutual Fish came through with flying colors. Walleye, a species of Pike. I used to fish for pike all the time back in England (a different species however), so figured this was rather fitting. This is a great looking fish, with a thin skin that crispens up really well, but again because it is thin, it is really light texturally. The flesh is brilliant too – a little dense, wonderfully clean looking with a neutral flavor. If you see this fish in your markets, and it looks fresh, run and grab some, you really won’t be disappointed. This one came from the great lakes in Canada – not exactly local, but sustainable none-the less.
Now for the potato. I didn’t want to fry it. With sauteed fish, I wanted to keep the potato light and fresh. About this time of year I start thinking about celeriac (celery root) quite a bit. Celeriac puree wins every time over mash potato to me, so I wanted to wind some of this in with the potato. It is a fresh flavor, then when cooked lightly has a good celery flavor to it, that helps lift the density of potato. The next thing is texture. Potato is great, but can be heavy. I much prefer food that is nicely balanced in flavor, density, and texture.
To try and lift the dense nature of potato, I decided to finely julienne the potato and celery root, and make a cake out of it. This completely changes the texture, and makes it much lighter to eat. Combine this with some decent seasoning, and some thyme, and you have a great little starch that would actually be suited to a lot of applications. The potato and celery root strands are quickly boiled, then plunged into ice water to stop the cooking. These are formed into a cake, and then baked until starting to brown.
The cake is really as light as air, and really doesn’t seem like you are eating potato that much at all. The celery root gives a nice twist of flavor – but a word of warning, it really doesn’t take much root to give a strong flavor. A 1 to 3 mix of celery root to potato would be the most I would consider here.
Now lets talk peas. This was tough. I don’t like the traditional mushy peas, not one bit. Most of this is really a textural thing to be honest – it is half soft, and then you get these little bits of peas that aren’t fully mushed – it is very odd. My choice here was to fully puree the peas. I creamed them up in a food processor, then pressed them through a fine sieve a few times, until smooth. To loosen this into a sauce, I mixed in some mussel broth. The flavor is lightened a bit with some lemon zest, and some parsley. Just enough zest to give an acidic kick, and some parsley adds a light herbal note – again emphasizing freshness.
The result? I like mushy peas again!!!! Well, I liked these. Actually, I loved them. I ate a ton of this whilst “taste testing”.. It was great. A really clean, simple fresh little sauce. Adding the mussel stock as a loosener meant that you had this slight seafood undertone to it that just helped tie it all in with the rest of the dish.
Now for the fries. I wanted these to be more of a closing argument to the dish – a little dressing if you wish. I cut some really thin slices using a mandolin slicer, and then cut these into ribbons. Lightly fried they were just a topping for the fish. This again helped keep the dish light, full of Autumn flavor, and give a nice little crunchy accent to the whole thing. Oh, and I decided to put them in a mussel shell. How poncy is that. Just a little hark back to what is in the sauce.
This was fun. Really fun. Maybe not exactly visible as “fish and chips”, but hey. A little more involved than I thought it would be, but I would totally cook this for any small gathering of friends. The walleye was brilliant, clean and crisp, and really pretty to look at. The potato/celery root cake was unique and a bit different, as too was the pea puree. The squash chips were fun to make (I hardly ever deep fry), and gave a great textural crunch. There was a variety of textures, none to heavy, and a mix of light punchy flavors.
This dish could easily be made with other white fish – sea bass, halibut, or even skate wing would be good. I did a pecan crusted version for a couple of guests that were over having dinner (they didn’t want crispy skin..), and they loved that revision – not my bag though. Heck, even a few simply grilled silver smelt would work great.
Pan seared Walleye, potato and celeriac cake, pea puree, butternut squash ribbons (serves 4)
2lb of Walleye fillet, skin on – cut into 4 servings
4 medium sized yukon gold potatoes, peeled (or any waxy potato)
1/4 of a celery root bulb, skin and root trimmed off
1/4 of a small butternut squash, peeled
4 large handfuls of frozen peas
5 sprigs of thyme, leaves removed, stalks discarded
15 mussels, cleaned and debearded
1 glass of white wine
1/2 tsp of fresh lemon zest, finely chopped
a few sprigs of parsley, leaves removed and finely chopped
2 small shallots, peeled and finely sliced
the usual – olive oil, sea salt, freshly ground black pepper
SPECIAL EQUIPMENT: Julienne slicer, 4” forming round, mandolin slicer
Preheat oven to 375F
Cut a potato in half lengthways. Run this cut side over the julienne slicer to make thin matchsticks of potato. Repeat for the other half, then the other potatoes. Do the same for the celery root bulb. You want to end up with about 3 times as much potato as you do celery root.
Get a large saucepan of water boiling. Prepare an ice bath. Put the potato and celery root julienne into the hot water, and boil for a few minutes. Strain, and put into the ice bath to completely cool.
When cooled, leave julienne in a sieve to drain, and then dry with paper towels. Put the potato and celery root julienne into a bowl, and add in the chopped thyme. Season with a little salt and pepper. Add a little olive oil to the bowl (a splash), and gently toss to combine it all together. The olive oil will help the cakes brown, and hold them together.
Coat a baking sheet or pan with a little olive oil. Put your forming round on the sheet, and fill with the julienne mixture. Using a towel, press this down thoroughly to pack it all together. Carefully lift the forming round, leaving the potato/celery root cake on the sheet. Repeat for 3 other cakes.
Put the pan in the oven, and roast for about 30 minutes. Make sure they don’t burn.
The rest of this dish can be prepared whilst the potato/celery root cakes are cooking.
Set your mandolin slicer to the thinnest setting. Slice the butternut squash using the mandolin. Take each slice of the squash, and roll into a tube. Cut this tube crossways using a sharp knife, about 1/4” apart – to make thin slices of squash.
Dry your fish thoroughly. Rub the skin of the fish with the back of a knife to push any water out of the skin. Dry the skin side of the fish again with paper towel. Season the skin and flesh side of the fish with a little sea salt.
Heat a medium pan over a medium heat. Add a little olive oil to the pan, and fry the shallots until just cooked through. Turn up the heat and add the white wine. Let this reduce down by about half, then gently add the mussels. Cover, and cook for 3 minutes, or until the mussels are done. Remove the mussels from the liquor. Eat the mussels immediately (chef’s privilege!), and keep the shells.
Whist the mussels are cooking get a medium saucepan of water boiling. Add the peas, and boil until cooked through. Strain. Puree the peas in a food processor, and empty into a small bowl. Add some of the liquid from cooking the mussels into the peas, just to loosen it a bit. Add in the lemon zest. Push this through a fine mesh sieve – this will smooth out and refine this sauce even more, making sure no lumps remain. Add a little more of the mussel liquid if required. You want to add just enough to form a slightly thick sauce. Add in the finely chopped parsley at the end.
You can keep this warm in a little saucepan, over a low flame, whilst you cook the fish.
Get a large non-stick pan hot over a medium/high heat. Add enough olive oil to easily coat the pan. When the oil is hot, put in the fish, skin side to the pan. Keep your fingers on all 4 pieces of fish for the first minute of cooking, to make sure they don’t curl up. Cook this for 5 minutes on the skin side, until nicely browned, but certainly not burnt. Gently flip the fish over (walleye is very delicate, so be careful), and put this pan in the oven, to cook the fish through – about another 5 minutes.
And finally.. whilst all this is cooking, lets fry the squash chips. Put enough olive oil in a small saucepan to fill it about 1” full. Heat this over a medium/high flame, until hot. To test, break off a little piece of the squash, and toss it in. It should fizz a bit, but not burn. Add in the squash in batches – most likely 3 in total. Cook one batch until bubbles no longer form around the squash. Drain on paper towel. Repeat for the other batches.
To dish: Put a disc of sauce down on a plate – simply spoon some sauce into the center of the plate, and push it into a circle using the back of a spoon. Carefully top this with one of the potato cakes. Very carefully put a piece of fish on this, skin side up. Top this with a mussel shell, and into that put the butternut squash chips.