Oh, what, so you think you're too "good" for a fish sandwich? Oh, so fish sandwiches are for "weird leathery shore-people" with "wiry fisherman physiques" and "hairdos from the mid-1970s" and "scars from old knife fights"? Oh, so you "didn't actually say any of that" and I am "having this argument with myself" and you "didn't say that either" and "what is with the quotes, man" and I am "clearly having a psychotic break"? No! No to all of that! No to you.
The fish sandwich had its moment in the sun some decades ago, when very stupid people somehow got the idea in their heads that the comparative healthfulness of white fish over beef made it the more nutritionally upstanding filling for a sandwich even when coated with deep-fried bread, but then those dumb idiots all died of heart disease, and the fish sandwich's reputation never really recovered from this tremendous improvement in the mean IQ of the human race. Nowadays it persists as an even-guiltier-than-all-the-other-shit pleasure on fast-food menus—Ah, what the hell, might as well have a fish sandwich, you think to yourself, holding your tear-stained pay-stub and contemplating the infinite—and as a way for Catholics to observe both the Lenten fasting and self-mortification traditions of their faith at the same time.
Beyond its obvious failings in the not-turning-you-into-a-dead-body department, there's just something seedy and disreputable about the fish sandwich. It puts you in mind of run-down vacation towns; smoky fried-seafood hellholes perched on bluffs above coastal highways with many, many motorcycles parked out front; huge, disgusting globs of tartar sauce slopping out of a grease-slicked fast-food wrapper and onto your shirt—your one fucking clean goddamn shirt, hoo boy this meeting is gonna be great—during your hurried, furtive lunch break at the office. Somewhere along the way, the fried-fish tribe diverged; fish-and-chips meandered its way to general respectability thanks to widespread Anglophilia (and also, uh, because fish-and-chips is delicious), while the fish sandwich somehow managed to become Carny Chow.
And dammit, that's not fair. Fish sandwiches—real, actual fish sandwiches, made with real, actual fish fillets and not pulped tubeworm or whatever the fuck—are delicious, too! Flaky and crispy and crunchy and bread-y and wonderful! Sure they're bad for you, but so's hot glue, and that's never stopped mzhvevvvhshehhhvvvvv.
So, just this one time, and then probably several more times no matter what your doctor says, let's make some fish sandwiches. They're so good. Oh man.
The first thing to do is heat up a pot of oil on the stove. If you have only a very large pot with which to work, or are on a quest to render a very large quantity of cooking oil unsuitable for future use for some reason, hot-oil party woo-hoo! Otherwise it is perfectly OK to use a regular medium-sized saucepot and only enough oil to fill up, oh, four or five inches of that pot, leaving some empty space so that you can drop a breaded fish fillet in there without burning down your neighborhood. Use a hardy oil with a high smoke-point—vegetable or canola or whatever, definitely not of Olay—and, if you're worried about temperature control, go ahead and bring the oil along over medium or medium-high heat, to lessen the odds of it rocketing past its optimal cooking temperature while you're taking a nosepicking break and becoming the protean fire of mankind's doom.
Eventually your oil will have been heating for a while and, unless you own a digital thermometer because you have replaced all the joyous human improvisation in your life with the rigid calculation of our eventual robotic descendants, you will be wondering whether it is hot enough for cooking things. As you learned back when you deep-fried soft-shell crabs (unless you did not deep-fry soft-shell crabs, in which case go to hell), there's a neat-o wooden-spoon trick for this: Dip an inch or so of a wooden spoon into your oil, and if little bubbles form on it right away, the oil is hot enough for cooking. If little bubbles do not form on the spoon, or if they take four hours to form, the oil is not yet hot enough and you probably forgot to turn the stove on fucking again, Steve, Christ, what is it with you. If you cannot tell whether little bubbles formed on the spoon because it is burning and you are burning and oh God everything is burning, oh man, that is awesome.
In the meantime, though, your oil is heating, and while it is doing that, prepare your fish fillets for breading. You'll want a white fish, here. Beyond that broad guideline, you're free to choose your favorite, or what's available, or what's cheapest, or what your old Pappy used to make down at the wharf, or whatever the hell. Cod's nice; so is flounder; haddock will run a little more expensive in most places but is divine if you wanna take a run at it; catfish is delicious, too. Choose for yourself.
As for preparing the fillets, this entails thawing them (if they were frozen, of course, why would you even need that explained to you), rinsing them under cold water, patting them fully dry, and removing the bones (if there are any). Bone removal, for the unacquainted, is the single most infuriating activity a human being can undertake other than viewing any random three-second stretch of Sunday NFL Countdown; the smart thing to do is to harangue your fishmonger or the blank-eyed stoner bozo behind the seafood counter at your local supermarket to ensure that your fillets are boneless before you purchase them. Failing that, you can de-bone your fish fillets by learning how to do that somewhere else.
Also: trim off any especially thin parts or flaps from your fillets, so that they're more or less uniformly thick, or as close as you can get before you go, "Oh, fuck this," and plow ahead. Those especially thin parts will cook much more quickly than the thickest sections of the fish; the risk is that they'll turn too crispy and/or tough by the time the whole fillet is done. In truth, that's not such a bad fate—Oh no! This crispy, delicious breaded fish fillet is moderately heterogeneous!—but probably not as gratifying as a more uniform texture and doneness in your fish.
So, yeah. That sure is some prepared-for-breading fish, right there. You always did say that nobody prepared fish for breading as well as you, and they never listened, and now who is laughing. No one. Now it is time to apply breading to your fish, you fucking psycho. Working one fillet at a time, apply breading as follows: coat the fish with a layer of cornstarch; shake off any and all excess starch; dunk the fillet in a bowl of beaten eggs; coat the disgusting egg-slimy slab of cold fish generously with a mixture of panko breadcrumbs, all-purpose flour (or the fancy pan-searing stuff), powdered cayenne pepper, and salt. Let the breaded fillet sit for five or ten minutes to help the breading adhere to the fish; you can use these few minutes to make a vain, negligible dent in the great drifts of flour that somehow managed to coat every single surface in your entire home during the four seconds you had the bag of flour open.
(A quick note, here. Panko breadcrumbs are great. You love 'em, I love 'em, Richard Cohen is a clown, everybody loves 'em. But! Sometimes they fall off things to which they are meant to stick, because sometimes they are a little too damn big. If you want to put your mixture of panko, all-purpose flour, cayenne, and salt into a sturdy plastic bag and mash it with the flat of your hand a few times, that will probably produce a breading that more readily and steadfastly adheres to your fish. If that seems like a ludicrous thing to do and there is just no fucking way you are going to do that, that is OK, too, even though you are being kind of a jerk about it.)
And now ... deep-fry your goddamn fish! Gently lower one fillet into the oil and release it once it is mostly submerged, so that the oil won't splash and turn you into a comic-book super-villain. Cook it for, oh, what, two or three minutes or so? Thereabouts. Maybe less. This depends on how much oil you have in your pot, which determines how much it cooled when you added the fish to it. Cook the fish until the breading has turned golden-brown on as many sides as the fillet has, and the thing feels solid and firm when you prod it with some tongs. Remove the fillet from the oil and let it sit on a stack of paper towels (or, ugh, a wire cooling rack [wanking motion]) to drain, while you visit hot, oily harm upon its brethren.
Fish fillets all cooked? Good. Now it is time to eat them.
These are meant to be fish sandwiches, of course, so sock each fish fillet into a bun or between two slices of cheap-shit bread (if you so much as think the word brioche here, so help me there will be stern eye-daggers and little else of consequence), and top it with some hot sauce or tartar sauce or both, or just a squeeze of lemon, or all of the above, or a quick homemade rémoulade, or friggin' Hollandaise sauce, or a smear of mayo, or nothing at all, but please God not ketchup, anything but that, oh OK ketchup is fine, too, whatever, it's your goddamn sandwich. Serve it with cold beer and not one single other thing. Whatever you decided to put on it, it's going to taste great: salty and piquant and just the tiniest bit sweet, the crunch of the breading against the delicate flakiness of the fish, genial and unassuming and simple and so, so fucking satisfying. The fish sandwich. One of the good guys.
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Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. His work can be found destroying everything of value in his crumbling home. Peevishly correct his foolishness at email@example.com, or publicly and succinctly on Twitter @albertburneko. You can find lots more Foodspin at foodspin.deadspin.com.
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