Crispy Fried Plaice with Sichuan Pepper Seasoning
Updated: Apr 6
"The Sichuanese are fiery. They fight fast and love fast and they like their food to be like them - hot."
Wu Dan, Sichuanese restaurateur (date unknown)
This is a shameless regurgitation of a recipe from Rick Stein's "Seafood Lovers' Guide" that I have been making for years and never tire of. All I have done is adjust the quantities so that the recipe serves 2 instead of 4.
Plaice are not the most popular of fish as is evidenced by the pace of their sale on the market stall relative to that of other fish varieties. Perhaps it is because we are all too accustomed to buying plaice from outlets who are only able to offer it several days after it has been caught by which time its flavour has become somewhat unremarkable and its texture compromised by the passage of time. But really fresh plaice like that caught the day before and sold on the day of the farmers' market is a quite delicious thing to eat. Good fishmongers will also sell top-quality very fresh plaice. Freshness is key (though is it not with all food?)!
Plaice are fished but not necessarily targeted year-round. There is a season around February to April when they have spent their roes and are a little thinner and flabbier than when at their best, which is from September to January. Plaice survive well if returned to the water at a time when they are not specifically being targeted. This means that conscientious fishermen, such as those operating our inshore day boats off the Dorset coast, are able to manage the stocks of the fishery by landing fish at their prime and preserving them when not at their best for the plate.
One of my favourite treatments for plaice is to coat it in a crispy outer - either batter or breadcrumbs. This recipe uses the former coating in the guise of a tempura batter which is very light and very crispy and allows the flavour of what it surrounds, in this case plaice, to ring through. In the absence of plaice, dab, flounder, pollack and whiting would all suit this dish. You could even use thinly sliced squid as that responds very well to being cooked tempura-style as do oysters (see Tempura Oysters). Is there perhaps a fritto misto developing itself here?
The rest of the tasty work here is done by the very enticing aroma of the Sichuan pepper in the seasoning. I'm willing to wager even non-seafoodies would like this one!
Although quite a messy affair when it comes to fry-time, this is quite an achievable dish for a meal for numbers (just multiply up the ingredient quantities according to the number of diners) and is quite a convivial way to start a meal - a large platter of goujons for everyone to pick away at. The seasoning can be made well ahead of time and kept in an airtight container so, when ready to eat, it's just a matter of frying the fish and scattering everything on the plate.
Obviously the sooner the goujons can get from the pan to the plate the crispier they will be, but they're quite resilient so no need to rush.
Crispy Fried Plaice with Sichuan Pepper Seasoning
Ingredients (Serves 2)
400g plaice fillet, skinned and cut into strips about 2cm wide
2 tbsp finely chopped shallot or onion
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 medium-hot red chilli, finely sliced
2 spring onions, very finely sliced
½ tsp sichuan peppercorns, crushed using a pestle and mortar
¼ tsp sea salt flakes
25g plain flour
90ml sparkling (ideally soda) water, ice-cold and from a new bottle
Sunflower or vegetable oil for deep-frying
A handful of coriander leaves, for garnish
A few finely sliced rings of red chilli (optional), for garnish
Lime wedges, to serve
Put about 1cm depth of oil in a small saucepan and add the chopped shallot or onion. Turn on the heat and, once the shallot or onion starts to brown, lower the heat a little, add the garlic for a few seconds then add the chilli. Continue to cook until the shallot or onion and garlic have become golden then drain through a sieve set over a bowl that can tolerate the hot oil. Transfer these seasoning ingredients to a plate lined with kitchen paper and allow to cool and continue crisping up. Once cool combine the seasonings with the spring onions and the crushed Sichuan peppercorns in a bowl. Set aside.
Heat sufficient oil to fry the plaice strips (in a few batches) to a temperature of 190°C in a saucepan. Meanwhile sieve the plain flour, cornflour and a little salt into a bowl and add the ice-cold sparkling water. Mix together with a fork (some lumps are fine) into a thin batter.
Season the plaice strips with salt, pass them through the batter and deep fry them in batches for 2 minutes until crisp and golden. Transfer completed batches to a plate lined with kitchen paper and keep warm.
Scatter the fried plaice strips over a serving dish and sprinkle over the seasonings and spring onions. Garnish with the coriander leaves, red chilli slices (if using) and serve with the lime wedges.
"Rick Stein's Seafood Lovers' Guide", Rick Stein (2000), pp. 24: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Rick-Steins-Seafood-Lovers-Guide/dp/0563488719
Tempura Oysters, Bute St Seafoodie