When Mrs Broom and her fish and chips arrived home, they received a fine welcome. Mrs Broom's eldest daughter was at the door, her second daughter took her bag, her son came running down the stairs to greet her, and her husband put the kettle on.
The Bear Nobody Wanted, Janet and Allan Ahlberg
I applied for my first job as soon as I was able - at fourteen and nine months. The fish and chip shop up the road, supplier of our occasional Friday night supper, was on the hunt for new staff. I typed up a CV of sorts - it can't have been more than a couple of lines - and took it up. I started a week later, and spent the next six months with my trainers and cargo shorts (this was 2002, after all) smelling of fish and oil. I moved on relatively quickly, to the Indian restaurant down the road, but this first job has stayed with me. A whiff of potato scallops or a chorus of a Craig David song (again, this was 2002) and I'm right back behind the deep fryer.
Although I didn't realise it at the time - my eyes, at this point, were fixed firmly on studying medicine - these six months were formative for me in terms of my career. In addition to the obvious lessons that come with working in a customer facing job (ie. always be generous and friendly to the person behind the counter), I learnt how to cook fish, whip up a batch of batter and layer a burger so it doesn't fall apart. We'd play around with deep-fried chocolate bars on slow Saturday mornings and experiment with the best combination of fish and condiments. In short, I realised I love working with food. While friends got jobs in supermarkets and clothes shops, I stayed in the food service industry until I moved to England and, all going well, I'll be back doing it again soon enough.
I did feature a fish and potato recipe last week, so you probably don't need another so soon. But I was staying with a friend (the brilliant Livvy Potts) on Easter weekend and she sent me on my way on Sunday afternoon with a batch of hot cross buns and a loan of three new books, including this, a childhood favourite of hers. I've read books by the Ahlbergs before (The Jolly Postman will be making a feature in the book), and recently listened to Allan Ahlberg's interview on Desert Island Discs in tears. But I'd not seen this one before. It's lovely; a picture of late 1930s and 1940s London through the button eyes of a poorly formed teddy bear. He passes from family to family, observing multiple dinners, but it's this first meal, one that is packed alongside him on the journey home, that I imagine he'd find particularly memorable.
I know that you can find perfectly good (and often great) fish and chips throughout the UK, packed up for you to carry home in paper. However, now miles from my old favourite in Haggerston, I thought I would try making my own. Doing so reminded me of just how glorious battered fish can be when it isn't given the chance to go soggy on your walk home: hot and crisp on the outside, with perfectly flaky fish in the centre. And, happily, you can have as many scraps as you want alongside it too.
Fish and Chips
200g Maris Piper potatoes
2l vegetable oil
300g sustainably sourced white fish (I used cod loin fillet, but haddock or pollock would do well here too)
100g plain flour (+3tbsp, for first coating)
1tsp baking powder
125ml fizzy water
Salt and vinegar
Knife and chopping board
Medium sized saucepan
Large high-sided saucepan
Small flat bowl
Plate and kitchen towel
A note: Store your flour, fizzy water and fish in the fridge for this recipe until the moment you want to use them - cold ingredients hitting hot oil will give you the lightest, crispiest batter.
Another note: It goes without saying, but hot oil does deserve your full attention in the kitchen. Drop things into it calmly and carefully from close range to avoid splashing - I learnt this the hard way during my first shifts in the shop.
1. Peel the potatoes and slice them into lengthways, about 1cm wide. Boil them in water in the medium saucepan until just tender enough to pierce with a knife. Keep a good eye on them, as you don't want to overcook them at this stage. Drain, and leave them to cool.
2. Heat the oil to 150C in the high sided saucepan. If you don't have a thermometer, check this by putting the handle of a wooden spoon into the oil. If tiny bubbles fizz around it, it's ready. If the bubbles move vigorously or bubble to the surface, it is too hot, and you should turn it down a little. Tip the chips into the oil and cook for around five minutes until pale golden. Remove them and drain on some kitchen towel on a plate. Leave to cool while you cook the fish.
3. Turn the oil up slightly, until it reaches 180C. At this stage, the bubbles around the wooden spoon should be moving enthusiastically and should be varied in size. Get the batter ingredients out of the fridge. Put the extra 3tbsp flour in the flat bowl, ready to coat the fish. Whisk the flour and baking powder in the mixing bowl. Pour the fizzy water into the mixing bowl and whisk vigorously. You should have a thick, bubbling batter.
4. Press a piece of fish into the flour, then shake off and dip into the batter, ensuring it is completely coated. Allow the batter to drain off slightly, and then place it into the oil, moving it back and forth a little as you do so, to start the batter puffing and ensure it floats. Add the rest of the fish in a similar fashion, if the pieces will fit comfortably. If your pan is too small for this, cook it in stages.
5. Turn the fish over once or twice as it cooks, removing it to a plate lined with kitchen towel when it is golden brown (about five or six minutes). Allow to drain while you finish the chips.
6. Tip the cool chips back into the oil for another two minutes until golden. If you fancy some scraps (stray, puffed bits of batter), dribble some leftover batter in too. Remove the chips to a plate lined with kitchen towel and allow to drain for a minute.
Serve immediately, sprinkled with lots of salt and vinegar, and dip into a condiment of your choosing.