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Issue 25 - Making the most of the traditional fish supper

Scotland Magazine Issue 25
February 2006

 

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Making the most of the traditional fish supper

Sue Lawrence enjoys the hedonistic delights of fish and chips

Fish and chips used to be a simple order. In Scotland it was haddock and chips; in England cod and chips, with plaice or skate topping the bill in certain areas.

There were also regional variations when it came to the accompaniments such as pickled eggs, onions and mushy peas.

But no matter which part of the country you have been queuing at for your fish supper, the age-old question is belted out, “salt, sauce and vinegar?” And unless you respond immediately, your order will be doused with the lot.

And for those of you who have not yet had the dubious pleasure of trying deep-fried mars bar and chips, I can inform you that these too are drenched in salt, sauce and vinegar.

Weird – risible even, but consider the other charming offerings at the Scottish chippy such as the deep-fried steak pie or the battered and deep fried red pudding (no, I don’t even want to consider what makes it red) and you will perhaps agree that good old fish and chips are not only the tastiest in the shop but also the healthiest.

But there is change afoot for the home cook. With everyone more aware of health issues, more cooks are roasting or grilling fish and serving with oven chips. And yoghurt-based sauces can replace heavy mayonnaise ones. But for a special treat, the fish and chip shop is still the best.

The history of fish and chips is interesting because it was only in the second half of the 19th century that the two were brought together in Britain. But this perfect symbiosis – rather like strawberries and cream or bacon and eggs – has continued to fight off all the curry and pizza competition to win the nation’s prize as favourite take-away.

Fried fish was not invented here – the Italians had their “fritto misto” - and in other European seaside towns, fried fish was common.

In this country, it was a Belgian immigrant called Edward de Gernier who, with his French wife, first set up a chip stall in 1874.

And of all the stalls in all the chip joints in all the world, where do you think Edward came to? Dundee. Yes, it was Dundee’s old Green Market that saw the first chip stall set up to feed those noble citizens a saucer of boiled peas and chips, known locally (then and now) as a Buster.

Very soon, because of the popularity of de Gernier’s chip stall, they were being matched with fried fish – and the first fish and chip stalls set up in Lancashire shortly afterwards. And you thought Dundee was only good for jam, jute and journalism.

Now chip shops throughout the land boast their own secret recipe for the perfect chip and the crispest, most succulent fish. The type of fat used is of great importance, with some swearing by dripping and others by lard, but most use vegetable or groundnut oils nowadays.

The oils are obviously less unhealthy but to my mind there is nothing quite like the taste of chips cooked in dripping. The type of potato to use for your perfect chip is also paramount: a floury variety will provide a fluffy inside to your chip.

Cooking them twice (first at a lower temperature) ensures that your chip will have both soft interior and nicely crisp, golden exterior.

It is better to use fish that is a day old otherwise there will be too much water content as you deepfry. But for a change, instead of haddock or other white fish, serve a bowl of steaming mussels with your chips as they do in Belgium.

Dunking the chips into mayonnaise – another Belgian tradition – makes the whole experience even more memorable.

So there we have it – Dundee and Belgium – two places you might have thought had few stars in the great culinary firmament.

Well, now you know differently.

ROAST FISH WITH TSATSIKI

This is a delicious if rather unusual way to serve that glorious fish, halibut. I love the freshness of the garlicky, minty tsatsiki with the oven-baked halibut

4 large thick fillets of white fish such as halibut/cod/haddock, skinned (about 225 g / 8 oz each)
100ml / 31/2 fl oz dry white wine
cherry tomatoes on the vine
olive oil
tsatsiki
1 medium cucumber, wiped
200ml / 7 fl oz Greek yoghurt
1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
the juice of 1/2 lemon
2 heaped tbsp freshly chopped mint
2 garlic cloves, peeled, crushed

1. For the tsatsiki chop the ends the cucumber then grate it – unpeeled – and place the grated flesh in a colander over a bowl.

2. Sprinkle with 2 tsp salt, leave for about an hour.

3. Using your hands, squeeze out all the liquid then pat dry with paper towels. Place in a bowl with the remaining ingredients and stir to combine.

4. Add pepper to taste.

5. Place the fish fillets in a lightly buttered shallow oven dish, tucking any thinner tail ends under to make a thick parcel. Season with salt and pepper then pour over the wine.

6. Top with the cherry tomatoes then drizzle with oil.

7. Place in a preheated oven ( 220ºC / 425ºF / Gas 7) for about 15 minutes or until cooked through: check with the tip of a sharp knife.

8. To serve place a mound of tsatsiki on warmed plates, top with the fish and tomatoes.

OVEN CHIPS

3 large “chipping” potatoes, peeled, cut into thick chips / wedges
2 tbsp olive oil

1. Place the chips in a bowl of cold water then drain and pat dry.

2. Tip onto a baking sheet with the oil and turn with your hands until well coated in oil.

3. Place in a preheated oven ( 200ºC / 400ºF / Gas 6) for 45-50 minutes, turning once, until golden brown and tender.

4. Drain on kitchen paper, season with sea salt.

BUSTER PEAS

300 g / 101/2 oz dried marrowfat peas
vinegar (malt is traditional; wine vinegar is also fine)

1. First soak the peas overnight. Then place in a saucepan and pour over enough boiling water to generously cover – about 1 litre / 13/4 pints.

2. Bring to the boil, then cover and cook for about 11/4 - 11/2 hours or until tender.

3. Mash lightly then season with plenty of salt to taste, sprinkle with vinegar and serve with the chips.