Sunday 19 August 2007

How I got my kids to eat fresh fish

It is an abiding mystery to me that small children adore fish fingers, yet loathe the taste and very idea of fresh ocean fish. To me, a fish finger tastes like pencil shavings ground up with chalk, yet even the pickiest toddlers I've known have not been able to resist the finger of a fish, especially if it's fried to a lovely crisp in a panful of oil, and served up with a puddle of scarlet tomato sauce. I've spent years - actually, more than a decade - fruitlessly trying to convince my kids that a thick, toothsome steak of flapping-fresh fish is just the most delicious thing imaginable. Finally, tonight, I prevailed, and here's how.

First, the reason why kids hate fish:

1. It's frozen, and its texture has become slightly mushy. Even the best frozen fish you can buy, whether crumbed, battered or coated in crushed Smarties, still has a pappy* texture. Kids under the age of 12 appreciate a bit of springy bounce in the foods they eat: why do you think they love chicken nuggets so much?

2. If it's not frozen, it's bony. Not nice chewy rib or chicken bones, but spiky, gelatinous, throat-lodging bones.

3. If it's not frozen or bony, it's smelly. And smelly fish does not tread lightly on the nostrils of the under-10s. I personally love the rich fishy flavour of anchovies, Thai fish sauce and Peck's Anchovette, but to juvenile noses the aroma of fish is on a par with cooked cabbage, stale farts and sun-baked doggie-doo.

Yesterday I went into a local fish shop and was pleased to see that the selection of fish was actually rather fresh (although it's one of Jo'burg's most popular fish delis, the stench that sometimes billows out from this shop needs to be smelled to be believed. My daughter actually holds her nose when she comes into the shop with me).

An assistant was frying up some sample nuggets of fresh fish in a garlicky, lemony dark sauce, which my daughter, astonishingly, agreed to taste. 'Lovely!' she cooed. 'Just like chicken!' She had another piece, and then another, and I dragged her away before she polished off the lot.

I was so impressed that I bought a couple of thick steaks (they called it 'red snapper', but it looked like Red Roman to me; whatever it was, it was a meaty, snow-white and robust fish, with no bones and good thick white flakes ) and tried to replicate the sauce. All three kids devoured the fish - and asked for more. Hall-e-luh-ja.

Fish Chunks for Kids

1 kg thick, fresh, meaty fish steaks
1 teaspoon (5 ml) white flour
1 tablespoon (15 ml) olive or sunflower oil
1 tablespoon (15 ml) butter

For the sauce:
1-2 fat cloves garlic
a good pinch of salt
2 teaspoons (10 ml) balsamic vinegar
2 teaspoons (10 ml) good soy sauce (eg, Kikkoman)
juice of 1 fat lemon
1/2 teaspoon (2.5 ml) Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon (2.5 ml) honey

Trim the fish steaks of any dark-red, thin or bony bits, and give these to the cat. Cut the remaining flesh into chunks of about 2cm x 2 cm. Put the flour into a plastic bag, add the fish chunks and shake well so that the fish pieces are lightly dusted with flour. Heat the oil and the butter in a frying pan until very hot, but not quite smoking. Add the floured fish chunks and fry, tossing frequently, for 7-10 minutes, or until golden brown and just cooked through.

While the fish is frying, make the sauce. Using a mortar and pestle, crush the garlic cloves with the salt to a fine paste. (Or squash the garlic cloves into a bowl, using a garlic crusher). Now stir in the remaining sauce ingredients and stir well. When the fish is cooked through, turn down the heat and pour over the sauce. Stir or toss well, turn down the heat and allow to bubble for another minute, or until the fish chunks are coated with a lovely sticky glaze.

Serve with lots of lemon wedges and no tomato sauce.

Recipe rating
My rating: 6/10
My Significant Other's rating: Not at home tonight.
Teenagers' rating: 7/10 'Not bad. Not bad at all. Can you make it again?'
Small-daughter rating: 8/10 ('This tastes like chicken. It's a sea-dwelling chicken with fins and a beak like a dolphin')

* 'Pappy' A term used by my family to describe fish with a mushy texture. The opposite of 'pappy' is 'tacky'. When a fish is 'tacky', it's springy, and makes your teeth stick together for a fleeting instant during the chewing process.

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