Eric Akis: Catching up with fish sticks

Eric Akis

When I was a kid, my mom, like other working moms in the 1960s and ’70s, would sometimes use convenience foods to quickly get a weekday dinner on the table.

One of those items was frozen fish sticks, which she would bake and serve with rice and a canned vegetable, such as corn.

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I loved those fish sticks. But when I was a lad, I think my enjoyment of them was more about their thick, crispy coating and how good they tasted dunked in ketchup.

I still love fish sticks, but as an adult, my desire is now more about the fish. That’s why I now make homemade fish sticks with B.C. -caught fish, such as cod, halibut or Pacific snapper, another name for rockfish.

It’s not hard to do. Cut fish fillets in stick shapes, lightly coat with mayonnaise, then coat with panko, coarse Japanese-style breadcrumbs. You then bake the fish until it’s golden and crispy on the outside. I still enjoy fish sticks with a red-hued dip, but in this case, a more fanciful one: cocktail sauce.

If fish is not your thing, in my second recipe, I used stick-shaped pieces of tofu instead, coating and baked them in a similar fashion. Instead of panko, though, I ground up seaweed-flavoured rice crackers in my food processor and used them to coat the tofu.

Medium-firm tofu contains enough moisture to be quite tender in the centre after cooking. Although somewhat firm, as the name implies, it’s still a bit delicate, which is why I added a few more steps in its coating process to ensure it holds together.

Fish Sticks with Homemade Cocktail Sauce

Fresh, finger-size pieces of fish, coated with crunchy panko, baked and accompanied with a tangy, easy-to-make dip. Serve the fish sticks with coleslaw or a green salad.

Preparation time: 30 minutes

Cooking time: 13 to 15 minutes

Makes: 20 to 24 fish sticks (four servings)

For cocktail sauce (see Eric’s options)

2/3 cup ketchup

1 Tbsp prepared horseradish

1 Tbsp fresh lemon juice

1 tsp Worcestershire sauce

1/2 tsp hot pepper sauce, such as Tabasco, or to taste

Combine ingredients in a small bowl. Cover and refrigerate sauce until needed.

For fish sticks

1 1/2 cups panko (see Note)

1/4 tsp paprika

• salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1/3 cup mayonnaise (see Eric’s options)

2 Tbsp vegetable oil

525 grams skinless fish fillets, such as B.C. cod, halibut or snapper, any bones removed

• lemon or lime slices or wedges, for squeezing

Combine panko, paprika, salt and pepper in a wide, shallow bowl. Place the mayonnaise in a medium bowl. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper (see Note 2). Brush the top of the paper with the oil.

Cut the fish into sticks, each about four inches long and 3/4- to 1-inch wide. Add the fish to the mayonnaise, then gently toss to thinly coat each piece.

Preheat oven to 425 F. Coat each fish stick in panko, pressing it on to help it adhere. Set the coated fish on the baking sheet as you go along.

Bake the fish 13 to 15 minutes, or until cooked through and golden. Serve the fish sticks with the cocktail sauce and lemon or lime wedges, for squeezing.

Note 1: Panko are dried, Japanese-style breadcrumbs sold at most supermarkets.

Note 2: The size of baking sheet I used in both of today’s recipes was 18 by 13 inches.

Eric’s options: If desired, you could cheat and serve the fish sticks with store-bought cocktail sauce. You could also serve them with tartar sauce. You can coat the fish with regular mayonnaise or vegan mayonnaise-style spread.

Seaweed Rice Cracker-Coated Tofu Sticks with Ponzu Sauce

In this recipe, ground up seaweed-flavoured rice crackers are used to coat sticks of tofu. When baked, they become golden and deliciously aromatic. The ponzu sauce, a citrus-flavoured soy-sauce mixture, is the perfect accompaniment.

Preparation time: 30 minutes, plus freezer time

Cooking time: 23 to 25 minutes

Makes: 18 tofu sticks (three to four servings)

For ponzu sauce (see Eric’s options)

1/2 cup soy sauce (I used Kikkoman brand)

1/4 cup orange juice

2 Tbsp lemon juice

1 Tbsp water

1 Tbsp rice vinegar

1 Tbsp icing sugar

1 small green onion, very thinly sliced

Combine ingredients in a small bowl. Cover and refrigerate sauce until needed.

For tofu sticks

1 (100 gram) pkg. seaweed rice crackers (see Note and Eric’s options)

1 (454 gram) tub medium-firm tofu (I used Sunrise brand)

1/3 cup mayonnaise (see Eric’s options)

1 Tbsp orange juice

1 Tbsp plus 1 tsp vegetable oil

• orange, lemon or lime slices or wedges, for squeezing

Place rice crackers in a food processor and pulse until finely ground and similar to dried breadcrumbs in texture. Spread the processed rice crackers on a wide plate, then set them aside for now.

Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper. Drain the tofu well, then cut, widthwise, into six about 3/4-inch thick slices. Now cut each slice, lengthwise, into three sticks, each about 3/4- to 1-inch wide.

Carefully, ensuring they don’t break during the process, set the tofu sticks on the baking sheet in a single layer, not touching. Set the baking sheet in the freezer 20 to 25 minutes, until tofu is firm on the outside, but not frozen in the centre. (Firming up the tofu in this manner will make it easier to coat in the next two steps.)

While the tofu firms up, combine the mayonnaise and juice in a shallow-sided plate, such as a pie plate. Line a second large baking sheet with parchment paper. Now brush the top of the paper with the oil. Preheat oven to 425 F.

When the tofu has firmed up, working one a time, roll and thinly coat each piece in the mayonnaise mixture. Coat each piece of tofu in the ground rice crackers, pressing them on to help them adhere. Set the coated tofu on the second baking sheet.

Bake the tofu 15 minutes. Carefully turn each piece over, and then bake eight to 10 minutes more, or until tofu sticks are rich golden and sizzling. Serve the tofu sticks with the ponzu sauce and orange, lemon or lime slices or wedges, for squeezing.

Note: I used Sakata brand seaweed rice crackers. They are sold at most supermarkets.

Eric’s options: If desired, you could cheat and serve the tofu sticks with store-bought ponzu sauce. You’ll find it for sale in the Asian-food aisle of most supermarkets. Instead of ponzu sauce, you could also try serving the tofu sticks with another type of dipping sauce, such as store-bought plum sauce or Thai-style sweet chili sauce.

You can coat the fish with regular mayonnaise or vegan mayonnaise-style spread. I used the Hellmann’s brand of the latter with good results.

If you don’t like seaweed, make these with plain rice crackers.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks, including seven in his Everyone Can Cook series. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.

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