At CR’s urging, I decided to give the deconstruction of fish & chips a try. (For background on the Top Chef deconstruction challenge, read about it here.)
My challenge was to create a dish that would deconstruct fish & chips and end up tasting like the original. Since the only ingredients in the traditional offering are white fish (usually cod or haddock, depending on your locale), and potatoes, both fried and heavily salted, then served very hot, it wasn’t easy. But it was intriguing.
Really good fish and chips are served very hot, very greasy, and very salty. There’s a good crisp breading on the fish, and the chips (fries) are thick and tender, not like McDonalds, but like your mother’s best home fries. I decided to bake the fish, and use potatoes to create the crispy texture of the fried version of both fish and chips (fries). I had the luxury of two days to think about it, and arbitrarily made a rule that I had to use the fish in the house, which was halibut. The challenge in my mind was to get the simple, satisfying flavor of that very, very simple food and not add much of anything to the ingredients to try to make it upscale. I decide to bake the fish, mash potatoes, and try two different crispy potato pancakes.
By happy accident, I was in the English Home Goods store (where we buy stupidly expensive imported PG Tips for $26 for 250 bags, but trust me, if you get used to English tea, American is very pale in comparison). While I was there, I happened to spy a small bottle of malt vinegar. Eureka! Everyone knows you can’t eat fish and chips without malt vinegar!
(Note: always remember that I am at 7000 ft altitude, so shorten your cooking times if you decided to try anything I post!)
I started with Yukon Gold potatoes for the mash. The fish was simple, 7 oz frozen halibut steaks. The chefs on Top Chef had two hours, but that seemed excessive, so I started 90 minutes out. Peeled and boiled the potatoes, leaving them a tiny bit undercooked so they could rest in the hot water while I readied the fish and made the two pancakes. The fish was very simple prep: olive oil in the pan with plenty of kosher salt, in the oven at 350 for 20 minutes.
To get ready for the pancakes, I grated two medium size potatoes and a very small onion. (Onions are not standard here, but I just couldn’t do potato pancakes without it!) For the first set of potato pancakes, I mashed about 1-1/2 cups of cooked potatoes with 2 tablespoons butter, enough milk to make a good paste, then blended it until the potatoes were smooth. Added 1/2 a beaten egg (save the other half), a tiny bit of grated onion, roughly 2 tablespoons of flour, and for some body, about a quarter of the grated potatoes, and salt and pepper. Because I wanted a very thin, crispy cake, I added milk until the batter was fairly thin.
Since time would be short, I also made the second batch of potato pancakes, which were a hashbrown with a little egg to hold them together. Mixed the grated potatoes, grated onions, salt, pepper and the other half of the egg together.
I used an electric grill and poured a generous amount of canola oil on it (this was the greasy element), then added a couple of tablespoons of butter and heated it until it was medium hot. On one side, I poured the mashed potato pancakes, on the other, the hashbrowns, and let them cook.
Meanwhile, I poured the water off the remaining boiled potatoes, put them back on the burner on low, added 4 tablespooons butter, milk (my mistake is always adding too much milk, so I do it in small amounts) and mashed the potatoes, keeping an eye on the potato pancakes at the same time, and turning them about 3 minutes in. They were nicely brown and by this time, I was getting very hungry, so I was beginning to look forward to eating this experiment, however it turned out!
CR was in charge of setting the table, and now, the timing was critical. I took the fish out of the oven, and on the plate I had already sprinkled with malt vinegar, the fish was settled in the middle, it with the two different pancakes in a circle around it, and a nice mound of mashed potatoes to one side. It was rather bland looking, all that white, so I put the lemon rounds on top of the fish, even if they are not traditional (“You’re American,” said CR. “We make allowance for you.”)
The layering was, pancake, fish, mash, all in a single bit, with a dip in the little pool of vinegar. We both tried it, blinked, and looked at each other in happy pleasure. He tried one kind of pancake, I tried the other, and—it worked!
Honestly, it was wonderful, and a faithful deconstruction/recreation. For the sake of the experiment, I thought the hashbrowns gave the layers the right greasy crispness, but CR preferred the pancake. Both of them were delicious and very greasy and the kosher salt sprinkled on top added just the right layer of brine.
But I must admit that the malt vinegar was the crowning touch, pulling the flavors together just the way it does when you go to the chip shop.
WHAT I WOULD DO DIFFERENTLY NOW
–I would cut the fish into smaller pieces and grill it rather than bake it, just to give it some color.
–I would layer the pancakes, fish, and mashed potatoes like a tiny lasagna
I will definitely be making those little potato cakes again. It was fun to make this dish just to find something we liked so much.