I’ve been trying to perfect this recipe for a while. Not so much a recipe, but the technique to a perfect fish sandwich. What type of fish to use? How to batter and fry the fillets? What to serve on it? Well, each of the three variations made over the last three Saturdays were all pretty darn good, regardless. It’s a fish sandwich, with fresh toppings. What can go wrong?
Fried fish sandwiches are such a staple of summertime lunch menus that they seem to have become a little uninspired, in my observation. It’s invariably served with creamy tartar sauce, or some clever take on it, and the fillet that reigns king is catfish, usually. But it’s a great time for fishing, and our local fisheries are jumping with much more than that. Plus, catfish isn’t even caught close to New York’s waters, but down South, where this cornmeal-crusted sandwich tradition began.
I like catfish enough, but there’s nothing like a fresh fillet ‘o fish that was caught the day before. At least, that’s what I’m usually told by the fishmongers at Blue Moon Fish’s Greenmarket stand (and the flavor backs up the claim). So I’ve tried out a few of theirs: Spanish mackerel, a tasty fish that I’ve cooked with a lot before. It was an unlikely choice that I figured I might as well give a try. But it turned out too distracting for its more “fishy” taste, and silver skin, which is usually a plus when cooked other ways. (I didn’t attempt to “crust” these with anything but that.) Flounder fillets tasted gorgeously sweet but kind of fell apart all too easily when I attempted to flip them in a pan. But porgy — the last and best fish for my efforts — worked terrifically. It’s the one in the photos here.
Porgy is a name for any number of fish in a species called sparidae, and is also known as “scup” in other places. They’re generally a small fish, usually caught at two or three pounds, so lower on the food chain and thus bearing a lesser degree of biomagnification. Also, their fillets are about the perfect size for a juicy sandwich.
Now, you can fill a stockpot (or deep-fryer) with oil and bring it to the perfect temperature to deep-fry the fillets. But to save the trouble — and the fats — I just patted my seasoned porgy fillets with a coat of cornmeal and let them pan-fry a few moments on each side. Make sure there’s a good little pool of very hot oil on the pan first, so all the contours of the fish fillet have contact and get nice and gold.
The other thing I’ve been eating the last three Saturdays have been peaches. It’s a good year for peaches in the New York City region. They’re juicy and sweet, fuzzy, and just peachy in every sense of the word.
While there are many different-colored tomatoes just arriving at the Greenmarkets from Jersey farms this week, the tomato plants here in Brooklyn are drooping with firm, pale green ones still. Like mine, on the roof. I was watering one day and snagged a few cherry-sized ones that had fallen off the branch prematurely, probably from wind. As I’m sure everyone’s well aware, green tomatoes are none too sweet but strikingly sour; but since the peaches are very much so now, the two diced up finely made a perfect early-summer salsa combo.
It brings me immense joy when I cook something at home that I can say afterwards without a shadow of a doubt that nothing from any restaurant would have suited me better right then. And the pleasures of shopping for each ingredient — from picking out fish at the Greenmarket to snatching felled green tomatoes on the roof, and even choosing soft potato rolls at Key Food — and the fun and ease of cooking it all aren’t really comparable to any restaurant experience (in a good way).
Now I can’t wait to make another version this Saturday.
Cornmeal-Crusted Fish Sandwich with Peach & Green Tomato Salsa
2 fresh porgy fillets
2 potato sandwich buns (or any buns you prefer)
1 medium yellow peach, pitted and finely diced
1 small green tomato or 2-3 green cherry tomatoes, finely diced
1 shallot, finely chopped
handful fresh mint, chopped
2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
about 1/4 cup coarse yellow cornmeal
1/4 cup vegetable or canola oil
lettuce for serving (optional)
salt and pepper
Rinse and pat dry fillets. Feel the fillets for any pin bones along its length and remove by holding one hand firmly down on the fillet and plucking the bone out with the other holding a tweezer. Season fish on both sides generously with salt and pepper.
Combine the diced peach, tomato, shallot, mint, and olive oil in a bowl and stir.
Heat a heavy-bottomed saucepan with the vegetable or canola oil. While it’s getting hot, place the cornmeal on a flat plate and coat each side of the fillets with a thick coat. Shake off any excess. Once oil is starting to make some noise (a few pops or sizzles here and there), place down each fillet and don’t move for about thirty seconds.
Peek on the bottoms of the fillets; if golden-brown, flip each carefully with a flat spatula, flipping the fillets away from you so as to avoid splashing oil in your face. Brown on the opposite side for approximately twenty seconds or so. Transfer to a paper-towel-lined plate or the buns directly. Top with the peach salsa and lettuce and serve.
(for 2 servings)
2 large porgy fillets (at $6.99/lb): $4.50
1 peach (at $3/lb): $0.75
3 green cherry tomatoes (from garden): $0.25
1 shallot: $0.20
2 potato buns: $0.50
2 lettuce leaves (from CSA): $0.10
salt, pepper, 1/4 cup cornmeal, 1/4 cup vegetable oil: $0.50
Six brownie points: Fish of all kinds is great for adding much-needed omega-3 fatty acids to your diet, as all seafood provides it, but you’ll want to keep your mercury consumption at bay. One way is to try eating more smaller fish that haven’t acquired as much mercury in their short life spans, and noting whether and how your fish was farmed. The wild-caught porgy is a pretty lean fish and low on the ocean’s totem pole. You won’t get many points for the sweet, refined-wheat potato roll, but the major health bonus in this recipe is not deep-frying the fillets, like “fried fish sandwich” would normally assume. Also, not using a rich, mayonnaise-based sauce, but a tangy and nutritious salsa in its place.
Eight maple leaves: Aside from the cornmeal and bun, this was a delightful summer meal sourced all close to home. Extra point goes to using the fallen green tomatoes instead of letting them rot — or spending the money on buying them green, too.