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Monday, February 9, 2009

Fish Sticks: The Reason and the Recipe

Before we came to Africa, where everything is distilled to its simplest form, my children believed that fish sticks came from the ocean intact, washed up on the shore waiting to be packaged in bright yellow boxes of 18 or 36 by a slicker-clad salty Sea dog. All you had to do was heat them up, put them on a plate, blow on them a bit, then eat them. Goldfish crackers also fell into this category, because, well they're fish, although they weren't soggy and they tasted like Vermont cheddar. 

Before we came to Africa, if you were to ask my children where apples and oranges and all form of produce came from, they would have said, "the grosswie." They would have also offered that cookies and cakes are made inside hollowed trees by cheerful, pudgy elves, save the exceptional cupcakes from their favorite bakery, which are as anyone knows, made by winged kitchen fairies. 

This is of course the shared fault of the proliferation of child-targeted TV ads and my laziness when it came to shopping for and preparing their meals. Actually, because I let them watch commercial laden children's shows (but never while eating!), it's entirely my fault. Shame on me. Our willful ignorance as a consumer society only became glaringly apparent to me once I was removed from it. 

We've forgotten the origin of our food!  We've turned our backs on the growing cycle, nature's generous involvement in what we put on our plates and in our bodies. Instead we rely on other people, often large profitable companies, to tell us what to eat, what's "good" for us and what to avoid. Preparing a meal has never been easier (just look for the red heart symbol in the frozen food section) and because EASY is an option nowadays in many areas of our lives, its what we fall back on most of the time. Hey, I'm not judging anyone. I am as guilty as the next person and I'm a cook. But while I painstakingly toiled over Blanquette de Veau for the adults in my life, I was dulling my children's tastebuds (and general health) with boxed protein, pre-sliced, pre-packaged veggies and treats that enticed more for the cartoon characters on the outside than the taste itself.

So being in Senegal, where a meal isn't so evident either in terms of procurement or preparation, felt like the perfect opportunity to remind myself, and educate my children, about where our food comes from. I decided to get back to basics now that the ease and temptation of packaged foods has been removed. The home-made chocolate chip cookies that I began whipping up for them elevated me to miracle-worker status in their eyes. "Wow, mom, did the elves teach you how to make these?"  (No, dears, an insider-trading megalomaniac home-maker named Martha Stewart did.)

Hand in hand and without intention came a second reminder about waste and how fortunate we are to have three meals a day. One morning in a remote seaside village we were visiting, my children saw about 10 young Senegalese, resembling more a soccer team than a group of friends fishing, haul a huge net out of the ocean and pick through it, keeping the larger fish. We made a game out of searching for the unwanted, too small or not so perfect ones and hurriedly flinging them back to the ocean, thereby rescuing any number or Nemos in a single day. After our task was finished (and we took it very seriously), my children began looking at the fish that lay in the buckets and questions ensued about staring eyes, gills, fins, and tails, heads and bones. We watched another round of net fishing and headed home. 

That night my son requested fish sticks for dinner. Coincidence? I think not. "I don't think we can find those in Africa,"  I said automatically, picturing the frozen box with longing on behalf of my son who missed what was familiar. But wait! There was fish to be had, and bread crumbs, and so I decided to try a homemade version. After he wrinkled his nose because they didn't look exactly the way he remembered them, and after a fair amount of prodding, Jamie tried one and then another and after two plates full, proclaimed that they were the best he'd ever had! 

So what if I couldn't multitask while the frozen, mass-manufactured kind heated in the oven? It was worth the time to prepare real fish instead of parts and flavor enhancers. Just good 'ole fashioned real food, the way we used to serve it. Hmm, I think I might be on to something. Here's the recipe. It's simple and it ain't just for kids.

AfricanEllen's Homemade "Batons de Poissons"

Serves 2 hungry kids and 2 adults
2-3 fillets of fresh Monk fish (or any other firm fish)
1 cup of flour
1-2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 1/2 cups plain breadcrumbs seasoned with salt & pepper (I made my own using leftover stale bread)
2 tablespoons (+) of vegetable or olive oil
lemon or lime slices

Cut fish fillets into small, thick strips about  two inches long.
Fill three shallow pans in a row of the flour, the egg and finally the breadcrumbs.
While you heat the oil over medium heat in a large saute pay, prepare the fish.
Dredge each piece in the flour, coating both sides. Shake off excess.
Now dip the floured fish in the egg to coat both sides.
Finally, dredge the fillets in the breadcrumbs.
Place the fish pieces in the hot oil until nicely browned on both sides, flipping after about 4 minutes.
Squeeze the lemon or lime over them and serve with rice and a fresh green salad.


  1. That's so funny. I remember when my mom made us homemade mahi mahi fish sticks and we hated them!

    Trying to eat less processed foods myself, but when Rao's makes the most fantastic tomato sauce in all the world, how can I not just open the jar??? I am going to grind my own pork for meat loaf right now...


  2. I think tomato sauce is one of those forgivable things, although McGrath might disagree. She used to make incredible tomato sauce! Are you really grinding pork? Meatloaf, yumm!