Every so often, I think of fish and chips, and of my grandmother, and of the Penny Farthing, the place we used to go. The Penny Farthing was a tattered old restaurant on Kingsway across from the Safeway, and it was my first taste of England. We would go there and order cod, and I would get extra tartar sauce, and I would dump malt vinegar and big chunky salt flakes all over my chips until they were soggy, and then they were perfect. Cuddles (my grandmother was Cuddles – other people call their grandmothers “Grandma,” which is a name for old ladies, or “Nana,” which is the name of the dog in Peter Pan) would order onion rings for us to share. She would pour the salt out onto a plate and dip the rings, because the salt stuck better that way. When there were no more onion rings, she would lick her pointer finger and push it onto the plate to catch the last of the flakes, and then would pop the finger into her mouth, and then the fish would come.
The cook there was named John, and as I understand it, in a previous life he had been a cook for the Merchant Marine. I don’t quite know what that means – I never thought to ask. But he was a large, crabby man with sailor tattoos, and he would smile for Cuddles and grunt a pleasant greeting. His wife, Chris, would come to our table on ceremony, not to take our order (she knew what it was), but to say hello, and to talk about her son or her trips back home. Cuddles understood her through the accent, though it was harder for me, and I only ever collected snippets to refer back to. Later, John would run off to Thailand in scandal, and Chris would return to England, and the shop would be taken over by younger people who never cooked the fish right because the oil was dirty and never quite hot enough. Young people. What do they know? Not a thing about frying fish.
And I don’t know a thing about it either. But sometimes, when the weather is hot and I’m in the mood for beer and nostalgia and the best parts of Britain, I like to fry up a piece of fish in my humble little pan, mushy up some peas, and dream of fries soaked long in malt vinegar, studded with large flecks of salt. I rarely make fries at home: Some things are best left to the experts, and it’s always good to have a reason to go out.
And because it has been hot all of a sudden and beer has been on my mind, and because of late I have found myself writing about Cuddles, today was a day for fish and cold coleslaw and minty mushy peas. And extra tartar sauce.
My recipe does not purport to result in anything like the fish part of fish and chips, because I don’t own a deep-fryer. Even if I did, today would not be the day for it, because my apartment is already too hot, even with all of the windows open. If I were at Cuddles’ house on a day like today, she wouldn’t deep-fry either – she would arrange two Highliner tempura fish sticks and a piece of cheddar cheese on a bun smeared with homemade tartar sauce (using homemade pickles) and piled with shredded iceberg lettuce. And we would eat this and then watch Keeping up Appearances on PBS and the evening would proceed as usual.
I seem to be wandering off topic. I wanted the fish, and the tartar sauce, and the Englishy bits like the peas and the coleslaw that I remember, and I thought about picking up a bag of Miss Vickie’s Sea Salt & Malt Vinegar chips to mimic the flavour I missed, but I didn’t: I resolved instead to visit somewhere real and English that will do it for me right, even if that is days or weeks away. So I wandered down to the market and bought a me-sized fillet of halibut, some pickles, an onion, a bunch of fresh dill, a bottle of English salad cream, and a bag of shredded cabbage and carrots. I bought some beer, because that’s just what you do, and Nick is out of town so it won’t be a race to drink my share – I can enjoy them.
The tartar sauce is the important part, and I underestimated the importance of texture.
- 1 egg (at room temperature)
- 1 tsp. dijon mustard
- 1 tbsp. lemon juice
- 1 cup oil (whatever kind you like: I wanted a neutral taste from the oil, so I went with canola)
- 1/2 cup of roughly chopped dill pickles
- 1/2 cup roughly chopped onion
- As much dill as you like, also roughly chopped
- Salt and pepper, to taste
Crack the egg into a food processor and add the mustard and the lemon juice. If you don’t have a food processor, you could use an electric mixer, or, if you have strong, non-lazy arms, you could whisk this in a large bowl. I recommend the food processor. Because it’s way more fun. Press down the button that makes the blade go all whizzy – you don’t want to pulse. Constant motion is the thing.
While the egg is in blending motion, slowly dribble in the oil. SLOWLY. I don’t know why – science is why, but that’s all I’ve really got and I can’t expand on it. You’re making mayonnaise at this point. Isn’t it marvellous? It is.
When the mixture has thickened and looks like mayonnaise, season with your salt and pepper. At this point, you have a judgment call to make. I was just super excited about everything, so I added my onion and pickles and dill and puréed the shit out of all of it, and it was delicious, and since I now have two whole cups of it, it’s going to make potato salad and a lovely marinade for grilled vegetables, but it wasn’t chunky, like tartar sauce is. I added capers to mine because I thought it needed texture – if you like a smooth tartar sauce, throw your onion, pickles, and dill into the food processor and whiz away. If not, then mince the pickles and the onion and stir them into the mayonnaise separately. Both ways would be good.
When it’s done and you’re happy, pour it into a bowl, cover with plastic, and refrigerate until you’re ready to use it. At this point I made some coleslaw (which wasn’t a challenge: I toasted some sunflower seeds, spilled them all over my stove, floor, and into the heating element, and poured them and some jar sauce over some bagged salad mix).
I also made some peas. I meant for them to be mushy, but forgot I had baby peas, not the big, hearty peas I had planned on using. The result was that my peas wouldn’t mush – you need to be able to mash them with a potato masher. No matter – they were still tasty. I threw a couple of teaspoons of butter into a pan, melted it, added a cup or so of peas from the freezer, and sauteed for five minutes with a small handful of fresh spearmint. You could use regular mint if you like. But you should always use mint with peas.
And then I pan-fried a little panko-and-lemon-zest-crusted-halibut in some butter for about seven minutes (it wasn’t a very big piece) and topped with the tartar sauce and a smattering of capers. Served with ice-cold beer, this was very much the combination of tastes that I love and remember. A satisfying evening, all the way around, and the perfect way to end a busy, sweltering week, even if it wasn’t how Cuddles would have done it. But more on that another time.