Beyond the Sea
Ahoy, mateys! Disclaimer: I plan to make pirate references throughout this entire post (as this will most likely be one of my few voyages to the sea and I plan to take full advantage of it, read on to see why).
Even before I went vegan I was never a fan of seafood. Growing up on Cape Breton Island (a.k.a. God’s Country, The Most Beautiful Place on Earth, or Down Home) I was often seen as a bit off for not joining in on lobster boils and fish fries and other such seaside rites of passage. The idea and especially the smell of fish have always disgusted me.
My first mate Jimmy and I were parleying the other day about how whenever someone points out something smelling of fish it is never in a positive context. You never hear anyone say, “Mmmmmm! What smells like fish!?!” It’s always, “Uggghhh….is that….is that fish? Do you smell that? What smells like fish?!?” That is because it’s disgusting. Straight up. No sharp, tiny, hidden bones about it.
Now, with all that said, I hypocritically would only ever want or eat fish one way, and at that only about every 2 to 3 years. Every few years I would get a hankering for fish and chips. I would head down to the Halifax waterfront (or if I were down home, one of the countless seafood restaurants on the island), get fish and chips, and be done with it for another 2 to 3 years. Well, it’s been probably 4 or 5 years since I’ve last eaten fish and chips, so I was long overdue.
Enter my darling Alicia C. Simpson’s Quick and Easy Vegan Celebrations. When I got this delightfully all-encompassing book on holiday entertaining when it was released in the fall I saw the seitan-based fish and chips and was simultaneously intrigued and grateful that the recipe had been included. I decided this was the weekend to give it a shot.
Before we get into the meat and potatoes of it, if you will, I need to explain a bit of back-story here. Before this weekend I had never made seitan. Seitan is a protein; a mock-meat type ingredient used in a lot of recipes and is made from vital wheat gluten. (seitan |ˈsāˌtan| noun – a high-protein vegetarian food made from cooked wheat gluten. ORIGIN Japanese: literally, ‘is protein.’) It’s pronounced “seh-tan”, like the devil. You had better believe there were countless Satan and Jesus jokes made in the kitchen this weekend. It’s also called “wheat meat”. It’s not widely done here in Halifax. I had seen it in cookbooks and thought that it was something you purchased, like tofu. How was I supposed to know? A lot of the cookbooks I started off with called for seitan but didn’t give a recipe to make it. Thems are the rough waves in the sea of veganism. If that’s the worst I get (feeling like a right fool from time to time), I’ll take it.
Anyhow, once I had learned the truth about seitan, that it was something you made in your own kitchen from scratch, I wanted to try it but was a bit frightened to. I always knew I would do it, but I avoided it for a long while. Have you seen Julie & Julia? It’s a wonderful (albeit very, very non-vegan) movie about a woman that cooks and blogs her way through Julia Child’s mammoth Mastering the Art of French Cooking book in one year. She knows the book includes a recipe for de-boning a duck. She knows she’ll have to face it, but it’s a wall she’s not quite ready to climb. She ends up saving it for the very last day of her blogging year. That was me with seitan. Seitan was my de-boned duck. But I was finally ready to face it.
Okay, back to the kitchen! Big Jim and his girlfriend Kaleigh (who are now making so many guest appearances on this blog that they may soon be upgraded to featured players) were in the galley for this voyage. The ingredient that turns this whole experience fishy is kelp. You need granules and powder for this recipe. I had kelp meal. We did it up apothecary-style and used a mortar and pestle to grind some up to make powder. It didn’t work fantastically, but did what we could.
I got to facing my monsters of the deep and started the seitan. You mix up dry ingredients (including the wheat gluten, which gets very sticky when wet), add water, and mix. It quite quickly forms a ball of dough, of which there are no pictures since it is incredibly sticky and clings to anything that touches it (like a virgin. Stage 5 Clinger!). You pinch off small balls of dough and drop them in a boiling pot of seasoned broth. You then let them simmer away for quite a while, stirring occasionally, until it absorbs into the dough, causing the pieces to increase in size.
The seitan pieces came out rather spherical. Had I been after fish balls I would’ve left them as such, but nothing appeals to me less than the idea of fish balls (although, anything involving tuna would give them a run for their money) so I sliced them into thinner pieces.
And here’s where it starts getting greasy. You dip the seitan in batter, dunk it in soy milk, and drag it on through the batter again. Then you deep-fry the shit out of it.
Yes, I own a deep fryer. I bought it over a year ago when I decided to make these deep-fried wonton-esque things called Thai Gold Bags for an Asian-themed vegan potluck. I made them, they were a huge hit, and I had not used the fryer since. We’ll just say that it’s not an appliance that made the cut for my move to England. Arrrrrgh-nyway, we took the battered ‘n’ fried seitan-fish cutlets and stuck them in the oven to keep warm.
While all this was happening, Long Jim Silver and Special K were prepping other components of our meal (which has been split into two posts). Jimmy’s task that he proudly and valiantly shouldered was making coated French fries from scratch. Alicia includes a recipe for chips with the fish recipe, but we veered off course to explore seas unknown.
We found a recipe online that was okay but was bland enough that I’m not going to bother including it here. I’ll just say that to make the finished product passable we added enough salt to start a deer lick. If we were to ever make these again we would kick up the seasoning in the batter, but here’s what we did this weekend.
Jimmy Jam beautifully cut the potatoes into fries and threw together the batter (your basic flour/seasonings mix).
We battered ‘em and threw them into the raging sea (of hot oil). MAN OVERBOARD! We thoroughly facked up the first couple of batches and they fused to the bottom of the basket. It was not pretty and we almost gave up on the whole thing.
But we are too stubborn for that and soldiered pirated on. During this fandango we decided that we would never successfully work in or own a diner either now or in the future. I mean, really, could you imagine serving this to anyone?! “ORDER UP!”
After a few healthy screw-ups we got the hang of it and the rest were golden and crunchy and (most importantly) whole. We grabbed an old Chronicle-Herald and served them up with our “fish” in true British style.
When I was in London (pre-veganism) I got fish and chips and it was served to me in a newspaper bouquet. I now cannot imagine serving it any other way.
The fish was good, but not what I expected. It smelled fishy throughout the whole cooking process (with Jimmy and I saying, “Do you….do you smell…fish? Is that fish?” the entire time) but surprisingly we all agreed that it could have tasted a bit fishier. Perhaps it was because we didn’t have true kelp powder and the flavour didn’t permeate the seitan as it should have. Whatever, it was still fishy and battered enough to hit the spot and quell the F&C cravings for another few years.
I would drink a flagon of rum in the name of Cookie Alicia C. Simpson for even attempting to veganise this recipe. It certainly wasn’t fish, but it was close enough that anyone tasting it wouldn’t wonder what we were aiming for. And any naysayers can walk the plank. ARRRRRGHHHHH!!!