At this time of the year our thoughts turn necessarily to the vexed question of how to keep our feet warm and dry whilst cycling, and thus avoid discomfort and bad temper. What has this to do with a quintessentially English dish often accompanied by something called “mash”?
Read on, periodically sodden one.
(Note: this post has been updated and somewhat rewritten. It was originally posted on Nov. 16, 2010.)
Extended mudguards; double, sometimes triple, sock combinations; awkward and ungainly strap-on shoe and shin coverings, or even cumbersome and airtight Wellingtons have all functioned as reply in the past to varying degrees of success to keep us warm and dry in the wet.
We have our own answer, to be paired perhaps with your Lace wood and Peruvian Walnut rear rack, Cherry fenders with center stripe from Bloodwood and Wenge, and of course the crucial Brooks Mud Flap:
But rather than bore you with a serious discourse on the matter, allow us to share this piece of advice, if staying warm and dry is of the uttermost priority:
“Don’t cycle anywhere in heavy rain for more than two and a half minutes”.
But wasn’t his post about food? Ah yes, well, cooking more precisely. And cows.
But what this time of the year is also good for, is reminding us that bulls don’t exist solely for the purpose of enabling saddle manufacture. Far from being just large, strangely shaped, living leather bags, it’s important to remember that these fine beasts have lots of good stuff housed on the inside too.
Fat, for example. Delicious, healthy, beefy fat.
And because riding in filthy autumn rain is, of course, highly conducive to the eating of what Americans often describe as “Comfort Food” (though in other parts of the world it’s known simply as “Food”), it seems like a good time to once and for all get down in black and white a company secret we have been holding onto for generations.
John Boultbee Brooks’ tried and trusted (though sadly, for his heirs, never patented) method for making Fish and Chips.
Students of the Smethwick savant’s life will already know of what might be understatedly described as his keen fondness for beef dripping. He rightly or wrongly regarded it as the panacea nonpareil of his times, and believed that most problems could be rendered (no pun intended) at the very least less problematic by a liberal slathering, ingestion or general deployment of what he termed “The Nectar of the Cows”.
And now that nutrition experts are increasingly deciding that they like animal fats again, beef dripping is increasingly easy to find. And where not, it should be possible to purchase from your butcher. In the latter case, though, “meaty bits” will need to be strained off through heating before using it to fry.
Anyway, as Mr. Brooks would tell you, there are, broadly speaking, only two things to watch out for when preparing and eating what we nowadays call deep-fried food, if we discount getting burnt by hot splashes…
So three. These are the other two:
1 Trans fats, occurring in the fat when it has been heated beyond its smoke point. Bear with us.
2 Eating food that has not been immersed at a sufficiently high temperature, and which has thus become fat-soaked, and inarguably deleterious to one’s health.
Vegetable oils generally became relatively dangerous at around 170, but an animal fat like beef dripping can have a smoke point of more than 220 degrees Celsius, which is considerably higher than it needs to be for making Mr. Brooks’ fish and chips. So that’s number one dealt with. A kitchen thermometer will take care of number two. Mr. Brooks had a failsafe method in his day of determining a fat’s temperature that involved copper rivets and a somewhat primitive yet amazingly accurate self-built scream-measuring device. They can still be found, but take up too much space to be practical for most modern kitchens.
So, in the best of all possible worlds you’re heating your fat over gas in a large steel pot (large enough to more than comfortably accommodate several pints of fluid fat and a good fistful of chips) to a steady 150. If you don’t happen to have a deep enough pot, you can also modify a frying pan.
The matter of the fish need not detain us long. Anything fresh, white, the fewer bones the better. Season some white flour and mix it with water to a not-too-viscous paste, something approaching the consistency of a thick yoghurt. If it’s too thick, mix in more water. If it’s too thin, more flour. The mixture should at any rate be non-lumpy, and adhere to your fish, but drip off the tail a little when you hold it up. On Fridays Mr. Brooks used ale in place of water.
As to potatoes, Mr Brooks somewhat unsurprisingly favoured a King Edward (with the skin left on), but anything locally harvested is good, and if it happens to be a Russet, a Kerr’s Pink, a Maris Piper or Bintje, then so much the better.
Scrub them, and then cut into what he described as “good sized chips”, then let them stand in cold water “for a while”, to draw out some of the starch. Dry them off and then send them for their initial dousing at 150 degrees, “until they are ready”. This is interpreted nowadays as four or five minutes. They’ll be just starting to brown when you take them out.
Let them cool on paper towel, and repeat the same procedure if you still have raw chips left to be done at 150. Then your fish, though only for two minutes or so, to let the batter bubble and crisp.
When you’re ready to eat, get that fat up to 190 and get your chips and fish into that pot. Two minutes later, at the very latest, everything should be sitting on your plate, freckled with salt, and ready to be inundated with malt vinegar. Some bread and butter is a fine accompaniment. Don’t forget to turn off the gas.