Seafood a draw for faith or good health

The long-held Catholic tradition of giving up meat during the 40 days of Lent has turned parish halls all over North America into seafood restaurants on Friday nights.

Fish lends itself to a wide variety of cooking methods.

Fish lends itself to a wide variety of cooking methods.

The long-held Catholic tradition of giving up meat during the 40 days of Lent has turned parish halls all over North America into seafood restaurants on Friday nights.

You see, Friday has always been fish day for Catholics. And on that day during Lent, parishioners who are by day lawyers, teachers and accountants become masters of the deep-fat fryer.

They slip fish fillets, most often economical tilapia, into bubbling oil and lift them out just moments later golden, crispy brown. Hush puppies fry in a separate oil well, as do french fries. Don’t want to mix the fish with the starch or everything starts to taste the same: fishy.

Another group in the kitchen scoops coleslaw and gently places one cookie at the edge of the savory offerings, alongside a lemon wedge and plastic cup of tartar sauce. The menu remains the same year after year, though one thing is new: More and more people are getting their fish fry for takeout.

That was the scene recently at St. Patrick Catholic Church in Largo, Fla., where the Friday fish fry, one of three this Lenten season, fed about 300 people. Church member David Ruppel, a mainstay on many St. Patrick committees, got the fry going 15 years ago. It’s part fundraiser for the church school, part fellowship for the 50-year-old church. St. Patrick shares fryers with St. Catherine of Clearwater, which has its fish fry on alternating weeks.

In the beginning, Ruppel had a seafood buddy in Boston fly down oodles of freshly caught pollack, but these days, the price of the transportation would double the cost to diners. As it is, $8 is a fair price for a plate piled high, $16 might cause pause. At St. Patrick, you might even get seconds on hush puppies if you ask nicely, though not many will have room.

It made sense for Christians to give up luxurious beef during Lent, because it was so much more expensive than fish. But now fish is just as expensive, maybe more, said Sister Veronica Visceglia, principal of St. Patrick day school. No talk yet, though, of a Lenten barbecue cookout. Some traditions are too strong.

Inspired by the cooking crew at St. Patrick, I re-created the dinner at home on a Saturday night, employing Cuisinart’s compact deep fryer.

Because I didn’t have to feed 300, I sprung for cod, frozen and not flown in from Boston the day after being caught. At least, I don’t think so. And I substituted potato salad for the french fries.

If you haven’t deep-fried before, this is a good starter appliance for small-batch cooking. It’s easy to store, too, because it isn’t much bigger than a toaster.

The accompanying hush-puppies recipe is good, though watch the size of the pups. I initially used a small ice-cream scoop, but the dough balls puffed to nearly tennis-ball size. When they get that big, they tend to be dry. A tablespoon of batter is plenty.

Fried first, they kept nicely warm in a 200-degree oven while waiting for the fish.

The cod I purchased was thick, so I cut each piece in half. That helped four 6-inch pieces feed five diners. A run through buttermilk and a simple coating of seasoned cornmeal and flour gave the fish a burnished finish. Frying each piece just a few minutes per side kept the white fish tender and moist.

I am fairly new to deep-frying, and I learned two important lessons:

l Do not crowd the basket (or pan).

Too much food in the basket lowers the temperature, allowing oil to seep into food and make it greasy. Also, the hot oil should flow around the food so it cooks evenly.

I was nervous about plopping hush-puppy batter directly into the 350-degree oil. So instead, I put the batter first into the basket, then lowered that gently into the oil. It did exactly what the fry-crew at St. Patrick warned me it would do: The batter stuck to the wire basket. Take two: I took a deep breath and rolled spoonfuls of batter into the basket already submerged in the oil. I have all my eyelashes and the pups fried perfectly.

l Keep a close eye on what’s cooking.

Your food will cook fast, and 2 minutes could make the difference between delicious and dashed. Make sure you have the time to devote to the project. Put homework and honey on hold for an hour.

It’s also just not a good idea to leave a vat of hot oil unattended. If something is going to go wrong, which is doubtful, you want to be there.

I’ll try it again, but while it’s Lent, I just might find another parish-hall-turned-seafood restaurant to sample the fine art of the fish fry.

At least that’ll keep the fried-fish smell out of my kitchen.

Hush Puppies

1-1/2 cups self-rising cornmeal

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1 medium onion, grated

3 tablespoons chives, finely chopped

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 egg, beaten

1 cup buttermilk

Canola oil

Mix cornmeal, flour, baking powder and salt together in a large mixing bowl. Add grated onion with juice, chives and pepper; mix lightly. Add the egg and buttermilk and mix until just blended.

In a heated skillet or other heavy pan, pour oil an inch deep. When it’s really hot, drop hush puppies in by the tablespoonful. (If using a deep fryer, follow manufacturer’s directions for amount of oil and temperature.) Let fry until golden brown all over, turning once (about 90 seconds to 2 minutes per side). Do not crowd the pan or the temperature will drop and hush puppies will be greasy.

Use a slotted spoon to skim the grease of any batter nubbins after each batch so they don’t burn and make your pups taste charred. Drain on paper towels and serve hot.

Hush puppies can be kept warm in a 200-degree oven.

Makes about 20.

Easy Fried Fish Fillets

Oil for deep frying

3/4 cup flour

Salt and pepper to taste

1/4 teaspoon paprika

1 pound fish fillets, such as haddock, tilapia, cod or Pollack

1/2 cup buttermilk

Pour 1 inch of oil in skillet; heat to 375 degrees. Combine flour, salt, pepper and paprika. Dip fish fillets into buttermilk, then dredge through flour mixture. Shake off excess flour. Fry fish for about 4 minutes on each side; remove to a platter.

Serves 3 to 4.

Janet Keeler is lifestyles editor for the St. Petersburg Times in Florida.

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