Crispy Cajun Salmon
I confess, the ingredient list looks like a real clash of cultures but this is the crispiest batter and the salmon holds the Cajun spice flavour so well, it is a delicious treat.
Traditionally catfish would be used with this recipe but it works well with snapper too.
My Cajun spice rub recipe is in the blog or use your preferred mix.
Serves 6 with side dishes.
You want the recipe? Check Cooking up the Pantry
This fried, spicy dish is a staple favourite at most Chinese restaurants. But how should you do the batter? And is it better to deep or shallow fry?
I still remember the thrill of my very first Chinese meal, in a restaurant in exotic St Albans back in the late eighties. There were banana fritters and hilarious chopstick lessons, pancakes you could eat with your hands and carrots carved to look like flowers; in short, it was an eight-year-old’s dream meal ticket.
My tastes have changed slightly since then – I’m likely to be the one pushing for the pock-marked Mother Chen’s bean curd, or the chilli tripe (while secretly hoping someone else will insist on the crispy duck), but one thing I’m unable to resist, if it’s on the menu, is salt and pepper squid. And it usually is, because whatever part of China they’re from, restaurateurs are canny operators, and Cantonese spicy, salty fried food is always a winner.
The problem is, Chinese meals are all about sharing, and even people who claim to be scared of tentacles usually end up polishing off more of the portion than I’m strictly comfortable with. Time to make squid the main attraction at home, away from prying chopsticks.
The cephalopod itself
British squid is easy to come by in fishmongers – recipes vary as to the preparation method, with chef Ching-He Huang and Mitch Tonks recommending they are cut into rings, and most others suggesting triangles. I find these larger pieces hold the batter better, as does scoring one side in a diamond pattern, as suggested by Bill Granger and Rick Stein. (This is also supposed to stop them curling up quite so much during cooking, although it doesn’t make a huge amount of difference when deep frying.) Baby squid are preferable if you like to crunch the tentacles as well (many people are squeamish; I think they’re the best bit).
Not everyone is keen on a bit of batter: Rick Stein stir-fries his squid naked, but, pleasant as it is, it’s missing the crunchy element that makes salt and pepper squid such pure joy to eat. The other recipes I try are more traditional. Sydney chef Ying Tam makes a batter from self-raising flour, vegetable oil and water, which wins the crunch competition, while Huang’s egg and potato flour coating in her book China Modern is the lightest, and gives the best coverage. Of the also-rans, Bill Granger uses cornflour and soda water, which makes it crunchy, but relatively heavy, and Tonks’s milk and cornflour coating, from his book Fish Easy, disappears into the fryer, never to be seen again. Potato flour and egg seems to be the wise choice here – almost tempura light, it comes closest to the real thing.
Batter’s only a convenient vehicle for spice, however – and, for a dish with such a self-explanatory name, there’s a remarkable diversity of opinion here. Huang and Granger are the only ones who really adhere to the description, although she uses white pepper and he goes for black. Stein and Tonks are faithful in a slightly fancier way, using a mixture of black and tingly, numbing Sichuan peppercorns, dry roasted until fragrant, which I love – the combination gives the batter a more assertive, complex peppery flavour. Tonks also chucks in some dried Sichuan chillies, but I decide to reserve this heat for the topping (of which more below). I like his idea of reserving some of the seasoning mixture to sprinkle over the cooked squid just before serving, however, so the dish packs a little extra punch. Tam, meanwhile, goes completely off piste with a homemade “five-spice mix” of ground ginger, celery powder, salt, five-spice and chicken stock powder, which, according to my culinarily sophisticated boyfriend “makes it taste like Pot Noodle”. Whether or not that’s true (of course, I wouldn’t know), it certainly overwhelms the flavour of the poor squid.
Actually, for salt and pepper squid, this is more than a mere garnish: the little crunchy morsels of fried chilli and onion that can be chased around the plate with chopsticks long after the last tentacle has been devoured are crucial, and nice as it is to have a spritz of lime juice and a sprig of coriander for freshness, I think Tonks is missing a trick by leaving them out. Sprinkling them on fresh, as Huang does, is also unsatisfactory – they should be cooked briefly, just to slightly caramelise them. That said, I find it well-nigh impossible, not to mention hazardous, to fish tiny pieces of chilli out of a pan of sizzling oil, as Tam suggests, so I’m going to cook them in a separate pan, and combine the two just before serving. He adds garlic, which I really like, but it has a tendency to burn, so keep it in slices, rather than chopping it finely. His final spritz of rice wine adds a pleasant zing to the dish, cutting through the fat, but I prefer the fresher flavour of the lime used by Tonks and Grainger, especially at this time of year, when you might even fancy yourself sitting outside on the waterfront in Stanley, Shanghai or Sydney as you dine in the garden.
Sadly, this is a dish whose deliciousness largely relies on deep frying. OK, Stein shallow fries his, but then, as we’ve discussed, that isn’t quite the real deal. You can be all authentic, and do it in a wok, as most recipes suggest, but a deep pan will do just as well – or, of course, be like a real Chinese restaurant and use a deep-fat fryer. Serve with a salad, to slightly mitigate the guilt.
Perfect salt and pepper squid
350g small squid, cleaned
1/2tsp black peppercorns
1/2tsp Sichuan peppercorns
1tsp sea salt flakes
5tbsp potato flour
1 egg, beaten
Groundnut or vegetable oil, to fry
1 red chilli, deseeded and finely sliced
2 spring onions, sliced
1 garlic clove, sliced
Fresh coriander and lime wedges, to serve
Separate the bodies of the squid from the tentacles, and cut them into triangles. Score the inside with a diamond pattern, making sure not to cut right the way through the flesh. Add to the tentacles, pat dry and set aside.
Heat a dry frying pan and add both varieties of peppercorn. Toast for a minute or so until fragrant, then tip into a pestle and mortar, along with the salt, and crush to a powder. Mix two-thirds of this with the potato flour in a shallow bowl and set the rest aside. Put the beaten egg into a second bowl.
Half fill a large pan or wok with oil, or use a deep fat fryer, and heat it to 180C, or until a small piece of bread browns in 15 seconds.
Meanwhile, dip the squid pieces in the egg, then in seasoned flour until well coated. Fry – in batches if necessary – until pale golden, stirring once to make sure they don’t stick to the bottom.
As they’re cooking, heat a further tablespoon of oil in a frying pan over a high heat. Use a slotted spoon to lift the cooked squid on to kitchen towel and tip the chilli, spring onion and garlic into the frying pan. Fry very briefly until it all starts to caramelise, then add the squid to the pan and toss together.
Tip on to a serving plate, sprinkle with a little more seasoning and serve with a little coriander and some wedges of lime.
Is salt and pepper squid your favourite Chinese takeaway treat, or would you make a case for prawn toast, wontons, or some more exotic fare? And, while we’re talking squid, what else do you like to do with them and their tentacled relatives, the cuttlefish and the octopus?
What’s your idea of faultless fish and chips? Tony Naylor prepares the ground for the battle of the batter – will there be peas in our time?
This month on How to Eat – the series attempting to isolate the perfect iteration of the nation’s favourite dishes – we turn our forensic fork to a true British classic: fish ‘n’ chips.
It fed an embattled nation during the second world war, and, in Yorkshire, it could yet spark a third conflagration – if you to try fry it in vegetable oil. Over 150 years after it was “invented”, it remains Britain’s favourite takeaway. There are still, it is reported, eight chippies for every branch of McDonald’s. But what makes great fish and chips? It’s time to separate the truth from the codswallop.
At the chippy, and only the chippy. Yes, in theory, you could cook fish and chips at home. But is it wise? Unless your local chippy is one of those fraudulent frozen fish and gristle-burger joints, then its fryers will invariably be armed with better batter and fatter fillets than you can muster. Plus, fish and chips is supposed to feel like a treat. You can’t have a “chippy tea”, if you are the chippy.
Fish and chips in a pub or restaurant, meanwhile, just feels wrong. It shouldn’t be eaten indoors, with a knife and fork. More importantly, professional chefs can rarely cook fish and chips without refining it: spiking the batter with vodka; minting the mushy peas; serving your “chunky” chips in a metal bucket (it’s the seaside, geddit?); all of which detracts from the dirty pleasure of fish and chips. Plus, to justify that £11 price tag, restaurants tend to serve ludicrously big portions.
In a restaurant, your fish and chips will be cooked to order, but your local chippy should be doing that too. If not, find one that does.
In a polystyrene tray or one of those posh corrugated-cardboard boxes. To be eaten with a tiny, fiddly wooden fork and greasy fingers. It’s the only way. Picture it: it’s Friday, chippy tea night. Was the magic not lost the moment your mum insisted on getting the plates out? Exactly. You knew this instinctively even before (thanks, Harold McGee) you had the scientific evidence to prove it. To stay crisp, batter needs circulating air. Any steam needs to be able to escape. Sat on a plate, trapped under hot fish, it will quickly reabsorb moisture and get soggy.
Skin on, skin off?
Off. The fish is essentially a delivery vehicle for the batter. Who wants to scrape 50% of it off an unwelcome gluey insole?
Salt, Sarsons, no pepper. Never tomato sauce. Gravy or curry sauce with chips, but not with fish. It’s barbaric. As for tartare sauce, a good, homemade caper-packed one is a wonderful thing, but you do have to choose between tartare or mushy peas. There is something about the cashmere textural comfort of freshly cooked, vibrant mushy peas and the sharp, creamy jangle of tartare that jars. Each places fish and chips in a different register.
Garden peas are not acceptable. Baked beans take the whole plate in a different sweeter direction and are better kept separate and eaten with chips. Bread and butter is essential, the chip butty an exceptional amuse and / or savoury course, as you see fit.
Strong tea, light beer or your favourite fizzy pop. Personally, I think cola’s caramel flavours are the most complementary. Either way, there’s a lot of grease here, you need plenty of (preferably carbonated) liquid, to cut through it. Wine is a waste, water too bloating.
Yes, you definitely need chips. In fact I would go as far as to say, you can’t have fish and chips without them. And chips, as Oliver Thring touched on recently here, doesn’t mean fries, huge wedges, oven or frozen, it means Maris Pipers chipped that morning, as thick as your finger, and cooked to perfection within a spectrum that starts, if using veg oil, at golden and buttery, and ends, equally fluffily, if frying in beef dripping, with chips the colour of autumn leaves.
Personally, I don’t think triple-cooked work, here. That glassy, shattering exterior, that clinically perfect interior, produces a chip that, in this context, is too dry
Cod or haddock? Haddock or cod? I don’t really care. As long as it is fresh, sweet and muscular enough to separate into big satisfying flakes – and is sustainably caught, of course – there is almost nothing to choose between the two. And both, ultimately, are secondary to the batter.
The real star of the fish and chips show, batter (which should be cooked through with no raw batter within), is at its best when it is well seasoned and made using a raising agent, beer or malt vinegar, which, as Felicity Cloake has observed, delivers a nicely “citric” twist.
Now, as you may have noticed, batters differ massively, in terms of their colour (determined by the type of flour, the amount of salt used and sometimes added colourings), and their surface texture. Batters can be smooth, spiky, swirly, curly. I had assumed, on the occasions that I have pondered this each side of the Lancashire (flatter), Yorkshire (spikier) border, that this was due to the different oils used, but apparently – and thanks to the National Federation of Fish Friers and Mark Drummond at Towngate Fisheries for the technical info – it’s down to the raising agent, the amount you add and how much the batter has been beaten. “Why different areas of the country like different batter styles, I can’t say,” concedes Drummond. But they do, with the big food service outfits offering numerous batter mixes, including a rippled Scottish one.
The best? I will happily eat either, but for me it’s got be a flat batter cooked in veg oil. A well-seasoned light, but not tempura-light, batter delivers enough flavour without overwhelming the fish, whereas fish cooked in beef dripping can be more reminiscent of roast dinner. The fish should steam within a sealed carapace of batter. Spikier batters tend to crack, leaving the fish exposed, and the final product heavy and oily.
That said, chips cooked in vegetable oil are often bland and anaemic, where their bronzed, beef-cooked cousins both look better and pack an unbeatable, residual savoury oomph. Therefore, until some far-sighted chip shop starts frying its fish in veg oil and its chips in beef dripping (would that even work, harmoniously, in the mouth?), my absolutely perfect plate of fish and chips may remain a distant dream.
But, enough of this blue skies bunkum, how do you eat your fish and chips?
Well, there you have it, everything you wanted to know about fish ‘n chips…. and more.
When I was a lad, millions of years ago, in New Zealand fish ‘n chips came in a paper parcel, newspaper.
But someone in their wisdom… idiots, decided that the lead in the printing ink or process wasn’t good for us, so they changed to unused newsprint. Fish ‘n chips were never the same from that moment on.
There were only two ways to eat them. One if you were at school, you merely ripped a gapping hole in one end, big enough for your tiny fist; the other was to spread the parcel open on the front room floor in front of the telly.
I have to comment on the condiments. In our house my brother and sister used tomato sauce, my father and I used Lea & Perrins (never Boss) Worcestershire Sauce. Things like vinegar and lemon were something they did in other countries, and tartare sauce was not for the hoipoloi like us.
But I must agree in essence with all the above. Fish ‘n chips is not just food, it’s an art and a science.