Breaded, frozen fish sticks were a fairly staple kids’ food in my time. (Are they still now?) Bland and inoffensive logs of cod, the ads for them always promised they’d be crispy, with an unlikely, thundering canned crunch sound so elusive from any food, let alone fish. Short of this satisfaction, they always needed something — they needed some help — but I can recall only dipping the finger-shaped nuggets in ketchup as a kid. This does not sound very appetizing, I realize.
So let’s redo the memories, and do breaded fish right. Let’s take from Chicken Milanese, a simple egg wash-and-breadcrumb-dipped boneless chicken breast sizzled in a pool of olive oil until golden-brown. With chicken, it’s usually pounded out super thin, but you don’t want to do that for fish (unless you like to make fish paste).
But let’s start with the bread. You can use any type of breadcrumbs. But you know panko, that super-crunchy, coarse Japanese type of breadcrumbs? I’ve always been told that the secret to its crispiness is that it’s made from Japanese milk bread, a fluffy yet rich bread not dissimilar to (but not as rich as) brioche. If you don’t have an Asian grocery or bakery to get milk bread from, get a loaf of brioche and keep it in your freezer. Use it to make a small amount of breadcrumbs, a slice or two at a time, as you need.
Next, the fish. You could use any white-fleshed fish like cod, flounder, haddock, porgy, or whatever the cheapest local fresh catch is near you. I got a fillet of a fish called John Dory from Blue Moon Fish, partly because it’s so charming for a type of fish to have a proper, human name, and mostly because it was one that I was less familiar with. This fish also has, as I learned, a quite firm, meaty texture, which makes it great for pan-frying and flipping over without flaking apart.
(Okay so that’s actually not what you should do, in the photo just above. To get the most crunch from your batter, the fish should be lightly dredged in flour first, then egg wash, then breadcrumbs last. I remembered the first step and rinsed the fish and started over after taking this photo, but did not remember to take another photo with the proper steps. Mea culpa.)
Chicken Milanese, and I suppose fish versions of which by default, are simply served with a good dusting of chopped parsley and a generous squeeze of fresh lemon. But I’d picked up a bunch of flowering kale from the farmers market along with the fish, and was itching to use them. Turns out, a mere spatter on the same hot pan that the breaded fish just browned in, and they’re a tasty and attractive garnish.
These greens have grown bitter; once you see flowers bud, it usually signals that the gig is up for the leafy greens. The plant has been sending its energy to the flowers, not the leaves, and the latter grow coarse and tough while the flowers above bloom. Prevent this from happening by nipping those flowers in the bud. Or don’t — and produce a bunch of flowering greens. Such was the case for this kale, and thanks to a slight demand for flowering greens around springtime, you’ll sometimes find it at farmstands. Or, you can get them from your own garden.
The slight bitterness was a great complement to the crispy, super-fresh fried fish and tangy lemon. See, breaded fish isn’t boring, it just needed some help.
Breaded Fish Milanese with Flowering Greens
(makes 2 servings)
2 boneless, skinless fillets of fresh fish (such as cod, flounder, haddock, porgy, or anything fresh and in-season)
salt and pepper
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 slices bread, preferably brioche or white bread
1 egg, beaten
1/4 cup water
6 tablespoons olive oil
small bunch spring flowering greens, such as flowering kale, thick stems trimmed
1 lemon, cut to halves
Feel the fish fillets for any bones and remove any with tweezers. Season each fillet on both sides with a generous pinch of salt and pepper. Crumble the breadcrumbs into fine crumbs (this is easy to do by hand if the bread has been previously frozen, or is stale; otherwise, you can pulse it in a food processor or blender). Place the flour in a flat plate. Combine the beaten egg and water in a bowl. Place the breadcrumbs in another flat plate.
Heat the olive oil in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Dredge a fish fillet in the flour first, shaking off any excess, and dip to submerge completely in the egg wash. Transfer the fillet to the plate with the breadcrumbs and coat with the crumbs evenly on both sides. Set aside and repeat process with the remaining fish fillet.
Place each fillet in the pan of oil, once it’s hot and popping a little, and don’t move them for a minute. Using a spatula, peek underneath and if the fish is golden-brown, carefully flip the fillet over to brown the opposite side. Continue cooking until both sides of both fillets are golden-brown. Touch the fillet to feel for firmness and hence doneness (or check by poking into the middle to see if any parts appear still translucent). Cooking time will depend entirely on the thickness of the fillet. Once each fillet is cooked, transfer to serving plates.
Cook the flowering greens in the same hot pan for a few seconds, sprinkling them with a pinch of salt and pepper. Transfer the greens and divide amongst the serving plates. Serve the fish and flowering greens with a half of lemon each and enjoy immediately.
(for 2 servings)
2 fresh fish fillets (at $10/lb): $10.00
1 egg (at $6/dozen): $0.50
2 slices bread: $0.50
fistful flowering greens (at $3/large bunch): $1.00
6 tablespoons olive oil: $0.75
1/4 cup flour, salt, pepper: $0.25
1 lemon: $0.50
Six brownie points: It looks like a piece of deep-fried fish, but it’s actually shallow-fried in heart-healthy olive oil—just enough to attain a golden-brown crust. With the fish, you’re getting protein and omega-3 fatty acids to help counteract cholesterol, and the accompaniments of fresh lemon juice and antioxidant-rich leafy greens add vitamins galore.
Six maple leaves: This rating wildly depends on the type of fish you got, when and how it was caught. Sourcing from a local fishmonger that practices responsible fishing methods is your best bet here, as it’s hard to know the latest up-to-the-minute status on all. Be flexible about what seasonal choices are on offer, and take advantage of ones you haven’t tried when they’re available, even if they’re less familiar.