Beer-Battered Whiting (and Chips)
Updated: Apr 6
"Life isn't, and has never been, a 2-0 home victory after a fish and chip lunch."
Nick Hornby (1992)
There is nothing ground-breaking about offering a recipe for fish and chips and that was never my objective with this post, so I'd like to highlight the two reasons for putting this recipe out.
First, whiting. This is an underlooked species of fish, a member of the cod family and absolutely ideal in a fish and chips meal if only for the fact that it offers a superb alternative to the most popular candidates of cod, haddock and plaice. Although the Marine Conservation Society's "Good Fish Guide" sustainability score for whiting may look more alarming than you might anticipate, reading the detail highlights that the biggest threat to the species comes from the high rates of discards which, of course, is an inevitable consequence of lack of popularity. This unfortunate situation is solved at least in part if we were more enthusiastic about eating it thus making a quite excellent food source more economically viable to be landed. More broadly, if we added whiting and pollack (amongst others) to our list of battered favourites the pressures on stock sustainability of all chip shop species are shared more evenly. At the moment Yorwarth's Fresh Fish are catching some splendid whiting from their day boats out of East Sussex and they're bringing them up for sale in the farmers' market'
With its loose, flaky texture whiting provides for nice, light results when breaded or battered and also in creations like fish cakes. It benefits from being super-fresh (as does all food!) and a helping hand from a healthy dose of seasoning, but that's really all required to bring it out at its best.
Second, the batter. I'm indebted to Mike Warner of A Passion for Seafood, not just for sharing his recipe for beer batter with me, but for an extensive discussion about many fishy matters. Mike has extensive knowledge and experience of the UK fishing industry and has been writing extensively, elegantly and authoritatively for years about the real-life goings-on in the world of the UK fishing community, and offers recipes and ideas for ways to celebrate our homegrown seafood. He now also supplies fish from truly responsible and sustainable sources to farmers' markets and fishmongers.
Mike's beer batter recipe is extremely simple and produces incredibly reliable light and crispy results. He recently posted it on Instagram and I don't mind saying that I was utterly surprised to learn that his favourite beer for the mix was Stella Artois. I have come to call this batter the "Warner-Artois Batter" and have no doubt I will be relying on it for years to come. I should point out that Mike also recommended Tribute, a Cornish IPA as another good beer to use and I am very much looking forward to trying it (I also want to try some Adnams Southwold Bitter) at some point soon and I will, no doubt, update this post with my findings.
Everyone has their favourite accompaniments with their fish and chips and, whilst I found most online recipes for homemade fish and chips included either peas or mushy peas made with regular peas, I personally think you can't beat mushy peas made from marrowfat peas from that well-known brand. I also can't have fish and chips without Tartare sauce and, as I always do when it comes to sauces, I turned to my copy of "Sauces: Savoury & Sweet" by the king of sauces, Michel Roux, for a recipe but was surprised to find a recipe for something that simply was not what we get in our chippy. I'm quite certain HRH Roux would have been a big fan of fish and chips but I'm equally certain his recipe would be for the classic sauce, not the one I was after! Finally, I like a pickled onion or two, a pickled gherkin, and I like salt and malt vinegar on my chips. As untraditional as it is, I don't mind revealing that I love a good sprinkling of Tabasco sauce over the whole lot!
The formula for the "Warner-Artois Batter" is a simple one of 2 parts flour to 3 parts beer adding in a good pinch of salt. This can be multiplied up or down as required but, for guidance, a mixture of 100g flour and 150ml beer is quite sufficient for 2 hearty portions of fish. As with all batters, a chilling time of 20 minutes or so in the fridge brings out the best results. It goes without saying that this batter will work with whatever your choice of fish: cod, haddock, plaice, pollack, whiting, or whatever other white fish takes your fancy.
The recipe guidelines include steps for making chips from fresh potatoes, but there are lots of alternative ways to get chips to the table so if going down a different route just omit the unnecessary steps. My favourite potato varieties for making chips are Maris Piper and Marfona (which I get from both Riverford and Ted's Veg at the Farmers' Market)
It would of course be possible to cook the chips before the fish and keep them warm, or cook the fish before the chips and keep it warm. However, in an attempt to make sure nothing goes soggy while being kept warm and ensure everything stays crispy, the approach I've taken is to cook the chips first to near completion, then cook the fish and lastly finish the chips. I think this results in nothing lying around for too long.
In terms of a warming oven for retaining crispiness to finished food, I find the optimal method is to heat a fan oven to 80-90°C with the door left slightly ajar. This creates a warm airflow at the same time as allowing excess moisture to escape and maintain a dry environment.
Beer-Battered Whiting (and Chips)
Ingredients (What I did for 1)
2 x 150-175g whiting fillet, skinned (or alternative fish, see recipe intro)
2 or 3 potatoes, peeled and cut into 1cm thick chips
100g self raising flour
150ml cold Stella Artois lager (or alternative, see post text), from a new can or bottle
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Sunflower or vegetable oil for deep-frying
Mushy peas, Tartare sauce (see Notes) and lemon wedges, to serve
Other chip-shop accompaniments: Gherkins, pickled onions, malt vinegar etc.
Put the potato chips in a saucepan of cold water, add salt to taste and bring the boil. Once at the boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 5 mins or until the chips are just tender. Drain and leave to cool and steam dry.
Meanwhile, season the fish fillets generously with salt and a some ground black pepper and set aside.
Sift the flour into a bowl and whisk in the beer with a generous couple of pinches of salt. Put in the fridge to chill for 20 mins. Warm the oven to 100°C or 80°C fan (preferable) and put a baking sheet lined with kitchen paper in.
When ready to cook, heat the oil in a wok, sauté pan or deep-fat fryer to a temperature of about 170°C and line a colander with kitchen paper and sit it on a plate to catch excess oil. Add the chips to the hot oil (in batches if necessary) and cook until crisp but not yet golden, approximately 3-4 mins. Remove the chips from the pan (with a slotted spoon) or fryer and drain in the paper-lined colander.
Increase the heat of the oil to 190°C. Retrieve the batter from the fridge and give it another whisk. Dredge the fish fillets in the batter to get a thorough coating and allow any excess to drip off. Put the fish fillets in the hot oil and cook for a total of about 3 mins until crisp and golden, turning 2-4 times. Remove the fish and place on the paper-lined baking sheet, transfer back to the oven and leave the oven door open.
Allow the oil to return to the temperature of 190°C, return the chips to the pan or fryer (in batches if necessary) and cook for a further 2 mins or until they have become golden and even more crispy.
Serve the fish and chips straightaway with the mushy peas, Tartare sauce and lemon wedges, as well as any other chip-shop favourites.
Mushy peas (serves 2): Drain the liquid from a 300g tin of marrowfat peas into a bowl and put the peas with half of the juice in a saucepan with ½ tsp finely chopped mint (optional). Bring the contents of the pan to the boil then turn the heat down to a simmer and stir and mash while the peas are warming. Add more of the liquid as required to achieve the preferred consistency - the process should take roughly 5 mins. Stir in a knob of butter and season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper. If left to stand the mushy peas may dry and thicken somewhat however this can be remedied if reheated at serving time with the addition of a little more of the juice from the tin or just a splash or two of water.
Tartare sauce (serves 2-4): Combine ½ tbsp finely chopped shallot, 1 tbsp each of finely chopped rinsed and drained gherkins, rinsed and drained capers and flat leaf parsley with 3 tbsp best quality mayonnaise. Let down to the desired consistency with up to 2 tsp lemon juice and season with salt (if required) and ground pepper (my preference is white pepper). The flavour will improve if left in the fridge for a few hours.
"Sauces, Savoury & Sweet", Michel Roux (2009), pp. 88: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Sauces-Savoury-Sweet-Michel-Roux/dp/1844006972