When I was growing up, my family had dinner together every evening. There was nothing more important than being gathered around the table. My father never stayed late at work and my mother always had dinner ready at 6 pm. It was as predictable as the sun rising and setting. Having that structure, whether I understood it at the time or not, was comforting. Knowing that every night there would be dinner on the table, in a warm house with people who loved me, gave me an unshakable foundation to build on. At the time I took it for granted that everyone had the same life that I did. Now I realize how lucky I was.
Just like most children, I was a picky eater. Very picky. Getting me to try something new was a major challenge and if it was “healthy,” there was no way I would eat it. But if something was deep-fried and served with French fries, chances were good I would gobble it down. With the improvements in frozen meals, my mother was thrilled when I happily ate fish sticks. Even today it is one of my favorite indulgences. There is something very comforting about consuming the foods we loved as children. And these days, there are often ways to improve the quality of those meals, making them healthier and better tasting.
These fish sticks use tilapia, a tender, mild, white fish as the base and panko breadcrumbs for the crispy coating. Adding a healthy cereal to the panko ups the ante for vitamins and fiber. Instead of frying, these are baked in the oven. You get all the flavor and crunch without the fat, preservatives, or additives. Halibut, bass, and red snapper would also be good substitutions. You can be very exact when you are cutting the fish into strips, if you want, rounding off the ends to match the frozen version. This can help if you have reluctant children to feed. But this isn’t necessary at all. Just have fun with the food and you will enjoy the experience to its fullest.
The second recipe is for homemade tartar sauce. If you’ve never had freshly made, you will find it remarkable. Every jarred sauce pales in comparison. Made with mayonnaise, the brand you use is obviously very important. By far the best commercially available one is called Hellman’s on the East Coast and Best Foods on the West Coast. With today’s concerns about eating raw eggs, starting with a prepared mayonnaise is safest. But if you want, you can certainly make your own mayo from scratch. Some may be tempted to use a salad dressing or Miracle Whip – Don’t. It will ruin the flavor and interfere with the savory fish sticks.
While these aren’t exactly Gorton’s, Mrs. Paul’s, or Van de Kamp’s, I certainly don’t miss the freezer burn, soggy coating, or lack of flavor. I am more than happy to spend the 15 to 20 minutes it takes to throw these together. If you are making these for adults or non-picky kids, you can add some fresh herbs, Parmesan, or maybe a little chipotle to the breading mix. You could also add flax seeds, sesame seeds or a bit of cornmeal for more crunch. Do you want a little kick? Add some chili powder or cayenne.
It took me years to learn to enjoy vegetables. In addition to having a child’s natural aversion to anything green, it turns out that I am a “Super Taster” which means I was born with about twice the number of taste buds on my tongue as most people. I was extremely sensitive to everything but especially anything bitter. I am still hypersensitive and avoid bitter items whenever possible. If your children are picky eaters, they may also be Super Tasters. Be patient, they will most likely grow out of it just as I did and learn to love food. Who knows, maybe they will grow up to write a food blog too!
Jane’s Tips and Hints:
When you are buying fish, ask to smell it before you buy it. If they refuse you, walk away and go to another store. There should be no fishy smell, just a clean scent of the ocean.
- Canola oil cooking spray
- 1 cup whole-wheat dry breadcrumbs, preferably Ian’s brand Panko or you can use 1/2 cup plain dry breadcrumbs
- 1 cup whole-grain cereal flakes, such as Wheaties or a similar product
- 1 tsp lemon pepper
- 1/2 tsp garlic powder
- 1 tsp paprika
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
- 2 large egg whites, beaten
- 1 lb tilapia fillets, cut into 1/2-by-3-inch strips
- Lemon wedges, for garnish
- Preheat oven to 450°F. Set a wire rack on a baking sheet; coat with cooking spray.
- Place breadcrumbs, cereal flakes, lemon pepper, garlic powder, paprika and salt in a food processor or blender and process until finely ground. Transfer to a shallow dish.
- Place flour in a second shallow dish and egg whites in a third shallow dish. Dredge each strip of fish in the flour, dip it in the egg and then coat all sides with the breadcrumb mixture. Place on the prepared rack. Coat both sides of the breaded fish with cooking spray.
- Bake until the fish is cooked through and the breading is golden brown and crisp, about 10 minutes.
- Juice of 1/2 lemon
- 1/2 tsp dry mustard powder
- 2tsp capers, rinsed, patted dry, and chopped
- 1tbsp dill pickles, chopped finely
- 1 tbsp minced green onions, optional
- 2 to 3 sprigs fresh dill, leaves finely chopped, or 1 tsp dried dill
- 1cup Hellman’s or Best Foods mayonnaise, Regular or Lite version
- Extra dill sprigs for garnish
- In a small mixing bowl, combine lemon juice and mustard powder. Add remaining ingredients except garnish and stir until smooth. Cover and chill about 1 hour before serving to let the flavors combine.
- Yield: about 1-1/4 cups