When he was a child, Alex, my stepson, would invite his friends over for dinner and mostly apologize: “She makes mac and cheese from scratch” he would scoff, trying to explain why the goop I was serving was not orange, and, most definitely, not out of a box.
For years I tried to mediate my Italian palate with my step kids’ tastes, much to everyone’s dinner chagrin.
“Can’t you just make Hamburger Helper?” they would plead. I had to confess I didn’t know what Hamburger Helper was. But we grew together, we adapted and now Alex is on the way to becoming a chef. One of my proudest achievements – not that I had anything to do with it really, other than training his palate, while he wasn’t looking, teaching him to discern good from bad and to try new dishes with enthusiasm. Now, he cooks for me on the rare occasions they let him out of the kitchen.
I wish I had thought of baked fish fingers myself at the time. Frozen fish fingers was the very first frozen food I ever tasted. There was a company in Italy (it probably still exists) called Findus, that had the frozen food market completely covered and I coveted their ready-made fish fingers from which my mother recoiled in horror. It wasn’t until one night, when I stayed for dinner at my friend Paola’s, maybe age 8, that her mom, a notoriously unskilled cook, served fish fingers and I got to taste them, like some forbidden fruit. It was heaven! The same shock and delight I felt in eating my first McDonald’s years later. Both experiences were clearly overrated and didn’t take hold.
But fried breaded fish is still the easiest way to make fish palatable for children, of which there are none running around my household (only hungry and needy dogs) but when I saw a recipe for fish fingers cooked in the oven, I thought I would give them a try nonetheless. The original recipe touted them just as good as proper fish and chips – I am here to tell you, nothing can replace the deliciousness of properly fried fish and chips, wrapped in butcher paper, doused in vinegar, with slightly soggy fries. But these fingers are really really good and are an easy weekday meal for children and adults alike (with crumbs left over for begging dogs).
- Start with a piece of skinless, boneless cod, or other chunky oily fish. Cut into 1”/2cm sticks.
- Take about one cup of panko breadcrumbs and toast them in a skillet with some olive oil, garlic, thyme or chopped parsley, until golden brown. Transfer to a bowl and let cool.
- Prepare 3 small bowls: one with a few tablespoons of flour; one with one or two eggs (depending on how much fish you have) mixed with some Dijon mustard; and one with the panko.
- Dredge each fish finger in flour, shaking off the excess, then dip it in the egg mixture and finally coat in panko. Place them on an oiled baking sheet (if you have a baking rack to place on the sheet even better). At this point you can refrigerate until ready to bake.
- Bake at 425F/220C for about 20 minutes. Remove the fish from the oven, salt and serve.