TASTE
11/03/2011 12:07 pm ET Updated Aug 31, 2012

Fish Sticks

You probably like fish sticks, and you probably do not make them from scratch. Yet you don't want to look at the label of a package of frozen fish sticks, and you don't really want to know how your favorite chain's fish sandwich is made. I won't go into the details - we want to discuss simple cooking here, after all - but suffice it to say you can do better.

Yet I'll admit that at first it seems like a challenge. You ask, What fish? What coating? Do I have to deep-fry these things, and stink up the kitchen? And how do I serve them?

As it happens, all of these questions can be answered in a few different ways, and all of these answers lead to a happy situation, in which you can put together a few servings of real fish sticks (or fingers, if you prefer), in fifteen minutes, tops. (Say twenty minutes if you prefer to oven-"fry," a nice alternative.) And we're talking as few as three ingredients here, plus some kind of sauce, which in your kids' case will probably be ketchup and in yours maybe as simple as lemon and/or hot sauce.

The most difficult part of the process is choosing a fish. Some just won't work: salmon, tuna, and mackerel, for example, are too oily; flounder and most trout are too thin and delicate (you can cook whole fillets, of course, but that's not what we're talking about here). What you want is a piece of fish that has heft and thickness without too much fat: pollock, cod, halibut, catfish, even swordfish all work brilliantly. (If you're concerned about sustainability, and you should be, pollock, Pacific halibut, locally caught swordfish, and farm-raised catfish are all pretty good bets.) Needless to say, buy a piece that looks good, with no drying or browning; fish that has been frozen at sea and well-handled (no freezer burn) is a good alternative.

Cut the piece into sticks; the shape of the fish will determine exactly what these look like, but rather than mimic the machine-made sticks favored by manufacturers, go for something about a half-inch thick; there's nothing wrong with a little variety of shape, but even thickness is important so they all cook at about the same rate.

When it comes to the cooking, the main ideas are quality, lightness, simplicity, and speed. This means no deep-frying, and so which eliminates thick, pancake-like or beer-based batters and the much-beloved tempura. (We'll tackle each here eventually.) But even when you're shallow-frying, there are many options for coatings, ranging from a dusting of flour or cornmeal to breadcrumbs (which can be quite successfully oven-"fried") to a super-light egg coating. I like them all, but these days I seem to be favoring a quick dredge in cornmeal - nothing else - and a couple of minutes per side in olive oil.

No matter which coating you choose, unless you want to bake the sticks (see the recipe here) the procedure is the same: Cut the fish, lay out the coating ingredient(s), get your oil hot, and cook quickly: by the time the coating is golden, the fish is ready to turn.

I like to eat these things two different ways: plain, on a plate, with a lot of lemon juice, salt, and pepper; or on good bread, with lettuce, tomato, and a "special sauce," as the marketing experts would say, made of about two parts mayonnaise to one part Dijon mustard (you can mix a little relish in there and call it tartar sauce if you like). Either way, you'll consider pre-made fish sticks a last resort after you try these.

Recipes:
Fast Fish Sticks
Oven-"Fried" Fish Sticks