Fiddlesticks to fish sticks - or maybe not

Friday February 1, 2013

Fish sticks. Bring back any memories? The fish sticks of my youth are remembered as either soggy and disturbingly floppy or rock hard and dry, dry, dry, both pretty flavorless and not to be touched without a large side of ketchup or maybe tartar sauce.

Do the fish sticks I’m describing sound familiar to you? Flattened, too-uniformly shaped and with very little actual fish I can still hear the sound of these shushing out of their box onto the foil-covered cookie sheet my mom would bake them on, followed by the rattle of an avalanche of ‘breading’. Yes, my brother and I would eat them, but I’m sure it was more for the ketchup.

Also known as ‘fish fingers’, these miniature frozen batons first appeared in the mid-1950s, certainly heralded as a convenience food. No real difference today, either. A quick and easy way to get some dinner on the table, fish sticks continue to be served all over, hopefully with better results than back in my childhood days. Those economy frozen rectangles made with minced fish really couldn’t have contributed terribly much to our family table except as plate filler.

Eventually my mom tried trading up. The Schwann man drove his big yellow truck around the neighborhood and we discovered his batter-dipped fish filets. Still oddly uniform in shape, at least these had what appeared to be an actual fish tucked into an enormous amount of greasy batter. When cooked, this formed a crispy sarcophagus around the fish, which I developed a strange method for eating through, to save the crispiest, greasiest part for last. OK, now I wasn’t eating fish-sticks for ketchup consumption, but I certainly wasn’t eating them for the fish, either.

Perhaps these early experiences are what helped to shape my seemingly hopeless relationship with cooking fish that haunts me even today. It’s a terrible cycle, really. I don’t know why we didn’t eat ‘real’ fish when I was growing up (very possibly pure economics) but by not eating it, I never had an example of how to properly cook it. When I plan it for dinner, I tend to screw it up royally, which causes my family to view it skeptically the next time it appears on the plate. 9 times out of 10 they are right to raise eyebrows as I almost always overcook it, occasionally undercook it, but never get it quite right. It frustrates me to no end - a great low-fat source of protein, inexpensive and sustainable if you are careful about what you buy, I want to add more fish to our diet, but just can’t seem to master it.

For some bizarre reason, I decided to try to redevelop my family’s fish palate with fish sticks while I refined (OK, found) my fish-cooking skills. After all, the fish sticks of today look so much better than those odd planks that I ate in the ‘70s - real fish filets, wild-caught, all-natural with fancy panko breading - maybe I could pique their interest with them. Besides, kids love to dip their food in stuff - why not fish sticks in ketchup just like I did?

Nah. Didn’t work. I thought that the fish sticks that I so carefully kept from overcooking, yet made sure crisped up nice and golden brown were pretty good, at least compared to those I used to eat, but the girls didn’t like them and I think my husband only tolerated them to set a good example. In fact, as I sit here writing this, Margot, our seven-year-old, is reading over my shoulder and whispers under her breath ‘I hate them!’ Time to move on.

So why not make my own? How hard could it possibly be? I found that they are actually very easy and with the exception of the dirty dishes, take hardly any more time to make than the frozen kind. The egg whites keep the breading nice and light which is necessary for that all-important crunch. Experiment with this basic recipe by adding herbs or omitting the cheese and see how you like them best. Fish Sticks

One-half cup all-purpose flour (or use half whole wheat and half regular)

One-half teaspoon salt

One-quarter teaspoon ground pepper

3 egg whites

1 cup seasoned bread crumbs or panko

1 cup grated parmesan cheese

1 and one-half pounds cod or other firm white fish filets

Olive or canola oil

Preheat oven to 400. Grease baking sheet well with oil. Combine flour, salt and pepper in a shallow dish. In another shallow dish, beat egg whites until frothy, maybe 30 seconds. In a final shallow dish, combine cheese and breadcrumbs or panko. Arrange dishes in order of flour, egg and then breadcrumbs, ending with the prepared baking pan for easy breading.

Cut fish into 1-inch strips. Dip each strip into flour, then egg whites and finally bread crumbs, shaking extra off at each step (I often press the crumbs into my fish at the last step). Place breaded fish on baking pan and drizzle with oil. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes or until fish flakes easily.

Definitely not the fish sticks I grew up with, these are moist and flavorful on the inside, crisp and delicious on the outside - we may even get to the point of not needing ketchup! Try making them using salmon filet instead of cod, just up the temperature to 450 degrees and bake a few minutes longer.

Finally, a fish success, enjoyed by everyone including Margot. Time to expand my repertoire - any good, fail-proof fish suggestions? I’d love to hear them!


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