Fish fry! (Better late than never.)
Frying at home is weirdly pleasurable. Which is good, because navigating the murky waters of deep fried culture out in the world is, in a word, not.
Deep fried food does not attract many moderates. On the one hand, you’ve got your fried Twinkies and Oreos, your 3500-calorie calamari appetizers and the people who love them. On the other hand, you’ve got your steamed veggies from the Idiot American section of the Chinese takeout menu, with brown rice and sauce on the side. For years — a lover of joyful food, but not of acute cardiac episodes — I tried and failed to navigate these murky waters, unable to bob for mozzarella sticks at TGI Fridays without feeling dirty afterward, but unwilling to subscribe to total asceticism. It was a bleak, ambivalent time, full of hydrogenated frying oils and baby-cut carrots. As the hippo George, of James Marshall’s darling George and Martha books, would say about his cookie habit, “We won’t discuss it. Let’s not discuss it. No discussion.”
During those years, my friend Layla coined the term “fried breadeds” for the various deep-fried offerings in the college dining halls requiring various levels of forensic analysis to identify. It didn’t much matter what, if anything, lurked inside the layers of gummy coating and fry-ya-later grease — it was all the same vacant American Food that fills a belly but not a soul. At nineteen and focused elsewhere, fried breadeds struck us as something to laugh at and push to the side of the plate (or, after a bad exam or a bad breakup, gorge on once in a while. Like I said, an ambivalent time.) But in hindsight, I can see them for the little nuggets of wisdom they were. Universities rarely leave well enough alone when they can mess with your head. So I’m guessing we were snacking on a thinly veiled, if thickly breaded, farce on American food culture. A literal incarnation of the emptiness of our values. Am I right, dining services?
Umami Boy and I met at the tail end of this dark phase. We’re fairly certain that if we had met a few years earlier, there would have been no umami babies. We wouldn’t have liked each other, because we hadn’t really figured out how to like ourselves. I feel the same way about Paula Deen. Back in those snackwell days, it was a good thing I hadn’t heard of her. If I’d seen that lusty look in her eyes as she dropped a little blob of batter into the “awl” in her cast iron skillet to test the temperature, I probably would’ve written her off forever and lobbied my women’s studies class to have her registered in some sort of public offenders database.
Luckily I’ve done a lot of growing since then, and I don’t mean around the midsection. I’ve gotten better at knowing what I like, and better at defending my likes from the peanut gallery and from my own subversive tendencies (which I find are better utilized elsewhere). Also, I’ve discovered the unmitigated joy of deep frying at home.
When that happened, the skies parted. Truly. Although there’s some chance it was caused by the vortex from my exhaust fan.
Frying at home is frying on your own terms. It’s a tiny bit of a production (though not necessarily as much as you’d think), so when you’re through, you feel like you’ve earned its sweet rewards. You choose the good-quality oil (olive? grapeseed? peanut? canola?), the coating (tempura? beer batter? the classic flour-egg-breadcrumb trifecta?) and the soon-to-be objects of your complete devotion (shoestring potatoes? heritage chicken? apple cider donuts?).
How about some wild cod and local oysters for tomorrow’s barefoot lunch on the grass? Nestle their warm, briny, crunchy goodness into a salad of greens from the farmers’ market, drizzle it all with a lemony tartar-sauce dressing, serve it alongside a cold beer, with a scoop of Alden’s for dessert, and you’ll never go back to a third-party fryer again.
It’ll be like coming home after a long, strenuous journey. Like coming home — and firing up the deep fryer.
Fried Cod and Oysters over Spring Salad with Lemony Tartar-Sauce Dressing
Serves 3 for lunch or a light dinner
Approximately 2 cups grapeseed or other neutral oil
For the dressing
½ cup mayonnaise
Juice of ½ lemon
1 small sour pickle, minced
1 Tablespoon pickle juice
2 Tablespoons chopped tarragon
Salt and pepper to taste
For the salad
1 head bibb lettuce
1-2 cups panko (Japanese breadcrumbs)
1 pound wild cod fillet
Salt and pepper
Sriracha hot chili sauce, optional, for serving
Set a Dutch oven or cast iron skillet with high sides over medium-high heat on the stove and pour in the oil to a depth of about ¾-inch. Heat the oil while you prepare the fish, the salad and the dressing. You can use a deep-fat or candy thermometer if you want (in which case, the oil should be between 350° and 375° F), but it’s really not necessary.
Prepare the salad: Tear the lettuce into bite-sized pieces and cut the tomato into wedges. Distribute among three plates.
Make the dressing: Combine the mayonnaise, lemon juice, minced pickle, pickle juice and chopped tarragon in a small bowl. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Prepare the fish: Cut the cod into nine chunks. Shuck the oysters. Season them generously with salt and pepper.
Lightly beat the egg in a wide, shallow bowl. Pour the panko onto a plate. One by one, dip the cod pieces and oysters first into the egg, shaking off the excess, and then into the panko, turning and sprinkling to coat well.
Fry the cod in two batches, about two minutes per side, until golden brown on both sides. Remove with a strainer to drain on paper towels. Then fry the oysters in one batch, one minute or less per side, until golden brown, and drain on paper towels. Nestle 3 pieces of cod and 2 oysters among the lettuce leaves on each plate. Drizzle each salad with 1/3 of the dressing. Squirt a bit of Sriracha on each plate for dipping, if you like that sort of thing. Serve immediately.