Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Fish and Chips

A long time ago, my family used to go to a fish joint on the harbor we called "Biggies" because that is what it said on the sign.  They only took cash.  And they didn't have a toilet (desperate patrons had to use the lavatory across the street) because during some storm in the even more distant past, it fell off.  The door remained, but it was nailed shut.  They had a very sticky, one page menu with general entries like "calamari" and "fish and chips".  We loved ordering the fish 'n chips.  They made gigantic steak fries and the fish was always fresh, flaky, perfectly battered and wonderful.  Big clouds of fish flesh encased in crunchy, light, almost tempura batter.  The helpings were so generous that the puny plastic baskets could barely contain the bounty.  When it arrived at the table, it was always too hot to handle.  We'd never wait for it to cool off, burnt fingers and tongues were simply a part of the experience.  There was one cook and one waitress. The meal always began with a pile of sourdough bread and soft, individually wrapped pats of butter that melted with the heat of your hand.  My father once asked the cook when the fish was caught, "this morning" was the terse reply.  The cook was a birdwatcher.  He had a huge torso and matching, gigantic arms.  His fore arms were always wrapped with ace bandages, which gave him a slightly menacing air.  I don't know why he wore them, perhaps to protect his tats from grease spatters.  I ate calamari there for the first time.  I was initially put off by the tentacles, but my resistance didn't last long.  The crunchy tentacles, the succulent rings of flesh quickly won me over.  The big windows were almost always open, except when the sun went down and the waitress pulled down the blue, transparent plastic shades.  The view of the harbor and Pillar Point was the stuff to inspire even the crankiest landscape dabbler.

One time, after a long haitus, we arrived to find a line out the door.  When we were seated, the new waitress gave us glossy menus with full color pictures, and correspondingly generous prices.  I needed to use the bathroom, and was preparing to trek across the street, when she pointed me towards their bathrooms, tucked into an addition behind the kitchen.  They were wheel chair accessible and there was one for each gender.  We stayed only for the nostalgia, and to give it one more chance to woo and astound us.  Our plates arrived with small tidy piles of fries and fish.  The bread was gone, we asked about it and the waitress pointed to the appetizer menu, we had to order it separately now.  Honestly I don't remember the food that day.  Maybe it was okay by normal standards.  The place was certainly popular now.  Just last month I saw their lines snaking out the door on a sunny Saturday.  I am not tempted.  Some memories are sacred.

I don't know what the birdwatcher put in his batter, and I am too lazy to wait at the pier at 5 AM to greet the returning fishermen, but here is my humble, low fat, done-in-30-minutes variation of "fish and chips".

Arrange your oven racks so there is one in "broiler" position and another one close to the middle.
Turn on the broiler to "hi"

Sweet potatoes, peeled and sliced into 1/4 inch thick fry shapes.
olive oil
seasonings, your choice
fresh or frozen fish fillet
lime or lemon or ginger or soy sauce to season the fish

In a large bowl toss the sweet potatoes with the olive oil and seasonings so they are all covered.
layer carefully (no overlapping) on cookie sheets.  Put in the broiler and set the timer to 10 minutes.  (check frequently, all broilers are different).  When the edges are black, pull them out and with a spatula, carefully flip them over and stick them in for about 5-8 more minutes, depending on the thickness.

As soon as you can, put the fish in a dish, add your fish seasonings and pop it in with the sweet potatoes.  When you check the potatoes, check the fish, too.  Depending on the state of freeze and the thickness, if all goes well, they will both be done about the same time.

Eat immediately.

Advice-- this is one of those meals where the level of attention you pay to the process will make or break the meal, so don't EVER leave the kitchen while the broiler is on.

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