September 28, 2006 at 4:41 p.m.
Let’s get something perfectly straight. I don’t like it when somebody announces to the world that they are the best at something or another. “I’m the best fisherman.” “I’m the best hunter.” “I know everything.” Blah, blah, blah. Yeah, whatever, here’s your trophy, now hit the trail, Sparky. That is why writing this makes me a bit uncomfortable. You see, I am the best at something or another and it has taken me a number of years to admit it publicly, but I think it’s time I get it off my chest.
I am, without a shadow of a doubt, the best shore lunch fish fryer in the world. Well, actually, the entire universe. If they held a Mr. Universe Fish Fry Competition, they’d slap a big shiny frying pan crown on my head and I’d wind up wearing one of those sassy ribbon sashes over my shoulder and walking down a runway, waving to the crowd with that funny pageant wave that looks like you’re rubbing wax off the hood of a car. I used to hit Ottertail Lake for the walleye opener, and I’ll readily admit that there are a few buddies that live near Perham, Minn., that produce fried fish that give my own a run for the money, but they don’t get this paper delivered way up there, so they don’t count. So there. This is my column and I can play any way I want to, fair or unfair.
As I mentioned, it has taken a number of years to fine-tune and perfect my shore lunch fish fry. The actual frying of the fillets is, arguably, the easy part. It’s how the fillets are cleaned, stored, prepped and everything else you do prior to frying the fish that really counts. Don’t laugh, but I’ve witnessed people eat my fish (that told me previously that they flat-out didn’t like fish) suddenly drop to their knees, throw their hands in the air and proclaim themselves to be saved. Sometimes, folks that taste my fish will get all teary-eyed and stare at me. Very unnerving indeed. That’s the moment that I drop the slotted spatula and run, because I know these people will chase after me, tackle me and attempt to hug me. I don’t like being tackled and my wife gets nervous about the hugging part. It’s time other fish fryers out there share the love. But most of all, I feel so bad for all of the hapless and miserable fish haters out there that I’m willing to unveil my most private secrets. Sharpen those pencils because I’m going to lay it on you right now.
At the fillet board, have a container of ice water at the ready. After each fillet is removed from the fish, just toss those babies into the water. Don’t worry about final cleaning yet.
Next, rinse the fillets (one at a time) under cold running water. Rub the fillets between your hands like you would a bar of soap. The fillet is perfectly clean when you feel friction between the fillet and your hands.
Soak the fillets in a container of buttermilk for an hour or so prior to frying. I know buttermilk smells like regular milk that’s gone sour, but trust me. Do not put the fillets soaking in buttermilk in the refrigerator. That is a cardinal sin. Fish should always be at room temperature (or close to it) prior to frying. If you attempt to fry cold fillets, you’ll wind up with oil that cools with the introduction of the cold fish and the coating will be wet and the fish rubbery. Rubbery fish is bad, and people will not drop to their knees if you serve them wet, rubbery fish fillets.
After the soaking, take the fillets out of the buttermilk and place them in a colander in the sink. The fillets that are shaken in the dry shore lunch coating mix should be moist - not dripping wet. Dripping wet fillets will cause the mixture to get gooey and sticky.
Preheat your vegetable oil. I use a propane cooker and a large pot for frying, but the stovetop works perfectly well, too, provided that it’s capable of achieving and maintaining oil at 375 degrees. You are deep-frying, so the oil should be at least 3-4 inches deep. Here’s a bit of a secret: you cannot “eyeball” oil too easily. In other words, without the aid of a thermometer, you’ll never know if the oil is at 325, 350 or 375 degrees. Fish must be fried at or near 375 degrees to achieve a crisp outer coating in a short amount of time, so if you don’t have a large deep-fry thermometer that clips to the side of the pot, run out and get one.
While the oil is pre-heating, mix one or two tablespoons Cajun spice seasoning to about a cup of dry packaged shore lunch mix in a heavy plastic bag. (My favorite mix comes in a black box. You know the one.)
When the oil is to temperature, shake 4-6 fillets inside the bag containing the dry coating. Get some air into the bag and twist the top closed before shaking. That’ll allow the fillets to separate and prevent them from sticking together.
Carefully lower the coated fillets into the oil and gently move them around a bit. The fillets should take no more than about two minutes to firm up and achieve that medium-brown color. Once the fillets are firm, remove them from the oil and place (concave side down) onto paper towels and immediately sprinkle each fillet lightly with lemon pepper seasoning.
One thing I forgot to mention and it is terribly important––if you plan to freeze your fillets to thaw and eat at a later date, do not freeze the fillets in water. At some point, we’ve all seen our dear old granny whip out the block of bluegill fillets from the freezer that were stored in cloudy water inside a cardboard milk container. You may as well throw that fish out. Instead, take a meal’s worth of fillets and tightly wrap them in plastic wrap, like you would wrap a piece of meat in butcher paper. Roll, fold the ends over the top and roll again. You can roll up a number of packages and place them into one large zippered freezer bag. Press the air out of the bag before zipping it completely closed. When you want one meal of fish, unzip the bag and take out one plastic wrapped serving of fillets. Fish stored in this manner will taste fresh for months and months down the line. Pretty slick, eh?
So that’s pretty much all there is to it. Easy really. I’ve decided that it’s lonely at the top and it’s high time I shared the coveted “Frying Pan Crown” with others. With every good fish fry, together we can save and convert a lot of the lost and confused fish haters out there.
Dan Brown’s weekly outdoor column is brought to you by Frankie’s Bait and Marine, in Chisago City, and St. Croix Outdoors, in St. Croix Falls, Wis.