Seasonal Cooking 25 Jan 2009 03:40 pm
A lot of what I cook ends up in the freezer. Sometimes that’s by accident, either because a recipe makes a lot more than expected, or because, as a single cook, I often end up with more than I can or want to eat in a week. Sometimes though, I’ll prepare something expressly to go directly into the freezer. It might be an ingredient I’ll want on hand for later, like chicken stock, or it might be pre-prepared dish — something to become, later on, a weeknight dinner that’s low-effort and quick, but still homemade. It’s the Dave’s Kitchen version of convenience food.
And so, with the defiant mindset of “anything a commercial food processor can do in a factory I can do better in my kitchen,” I set out to create my own frozen breaded fish fillets. To be as simple & quick as Mrs. Paul’s, the frozen fillets will need to cook in the oven, not in a messy cauldron of hot oil. To vie with the succulent-yet-crispy quality of a fried fillet, when I prepare the standard four-part breading sequence of milk, flour, egg wash, and breadcrumbs, I dress the breadcrumbs with a little fat. I’ve used olive oil for this, though if you’re feeling indulgent and want the extra flavor, you can opt (as I usually do) for melted butter. I also give the breadcrumbs a flavor boost with some dried thyme and plenty of salt and pepper. Paprika, seasoned salt or dried onion flakes are good additions here as well.
Speaking of breadcrumbs, I’ll make another nod to Mark Bittman’s New York Times article in which he exhorts us to make from scratch things that easily can be but often aren’t. I had on hand some slices of French bread left over from a recent take out delivery (mmm… coq au vin from Le Barricou); as well as the end of a loaf of whole wheat sourdough bread made by my brother. It was in both cases too much bread for me to finish, and rather than toss it out or let it go moldy, I tore it into chunks and let it sit in the open for a few days until it was dry (you can speed up this process by leaving the bread for a couple of hours in a just-warm oven, or overnight in an oven with only the pilot light burning). It required only a spin in the Cuisinart to turn the dry chunks to crumbs. Making breadcrumbs myself in this way meant I didn’t waste good bread, didn’t spend money on commercially prepared bread crumbs, and ended up with a better tasting ingredient. A triple win. (Note that if you’re in a bind and do need to buy breadcrumbs, and if you’re lucky enough to have a local bakery, check there. Many of the small Italian bakeries here in Brooklyn have breadcrumbs, and they tend to be more flavorful than supermarket varieties).
But I digress. Once my breading assembly line was complete, I got the fish fillets out of the fridge, thoroughly rinsed them, and patted them dry. I’ve used tilapia for this, and I prefer cod, but on the day I shopped I could only find flounder, which also works fine. I cut each rinsed and dried fillet lengthwise down the middle, then cut each half across into three pieces, so that I ended up with pieces roughly the size of of a deck of cards. Keep in mind that the smaller the pieces, the more breading you’ll need. If you think you may run short on crumbs, or if you’re being diligently diet-conscious and want a higher proportion of fish to bread, cut the fillets bigger. If you’ve got plenty of buttery breadcrumbs and like lots of the crispy stuff, cut ‘em smaller, down to fishstick or nugget size (and be sure to adjust the final baking time accordingly).
Each piece of fish went first into milk, then flour, then egg wash, then breadcrumbs. At every step I made sure the fillets were thoroughly coated (even pressing the breadcrumb mixture onto the fish to adhere as much of it as possible), but didn’t carry extra coating away: extra liquid was allowed to drain away, and I gently shook off any loose coating at the dry steps. The coated fillets then were laid onto a parchment-lined baking sheet in a single layer; when that layer was complete a second layer was built on top, separated from the first by a sheet of plastic wrap. Don’t stack the fillets directly on top of each other, or let them touch each other too much; you want them to come out of the freezer as individual fillets, not as unmanageable, bready fish blocks. When all the pieces are coated and neatly layered on the tray, the whole thing gets covered in plastic wrap and shoved into the freezer for an overnight stay. In the morning they’re removed from the tray and replaced in the freezer in ziplock bags.
Now, on some harried worknight, too tired to cook but hungry for homemade food, I can pull out a fillet or two, toss them into a 350˚ oven for 15 minutes, and I’ll have a hot, delicious piece of breaded fish as the centerpiece for a quick dinner. It can go atop some sautéed spinach, or alongside a salad or stalk of steamed broccoli, or into any number of other healthy, quick dinners. One of my favorite (if maybe less healthy) preparations is to melt a slice of cheese on top (foodie confession: I often use American cheese for this), and place it on a lightly toasted bun schmeared with tarter sauce and layered with chopped lettuce. Did I say fast food favorites made at home? Voila: home made Filet-o-Fish®.