NEW ORLEANS — After the many indulgences of Mardi Gras, the Archdiocese of New Orleans publishes a list of antidotes in the Times-Picayune — “fish frys” to fill the Fridays between now and Easter.
I immediately begin plotting which of the dozens of parishes Christopher and I will visit on this trip. St. Bernard’s, for example, is locally famous for its expansive approach to the Lenten fast, which includes seafood gumbo, fried shrimp, stuffed crabs, shrimp jambalaya, shrimp fettuccine, white beans and shrimp, crawfish pies, and baked macaroni and cheese. But this being Christopher’s first time out, I zero in on Our Lady of the Rosary on Esplanade Avenue, where they keep things simple.
When I was a kid, fish on Fridays during Lent was absolutely inescapable — even for those of us who were merely Roman Catholic-adjacent.
In the village of Milton, La., the elementary school lunch ladies in mint green uniforms and hair nets enforced the fast by serving shrimp and okra gumbo every Friday from Mardi Gras to Easter. They never served fish because almost every kid in that lunchroom would certainly be having fish for supper. Every self-respecting Roman Catholic parish served up a fish fry to help parents get a liturgically appropriate meal on the table while raising cash for repainting the parish hall.
But my family’s attendance at Friday fish frys was driven by desire rather than obligation. We were nominal Baptists who neither understood nor approved of the vaguely heathen practices of Lent or fasting. In fact, our participation was prompted neither by gustatory nor religious concerns. What got us to St. Joseph’s R.C. Church on Fridays during Lent was my mother’s desire to not have to cook dinner.
There, they set up a frying station, a serving station, and a little table with a cigar box that acted as cash register right in front of the whitewashed grotto of their Lady of Lourdes. Mrs. Hébert usually collected the cash under the Blessed Mother’s benevolent but watchful eyes, while the Knights of Columbus and members of the Ladies’ Altar Society passed out hinged Styrofoam boxes holding two crisp catfish fillets and all the fixings. A fat slice of pound cake wrapped in plastic sat on top.
Some folks took their boxes and sat at the picnic tables or right on the grass if the evening was fine. Feeling just a little out of place and perhaps slightly fearful that we might be mistaken for actual Catholics, we took our fish frys home. Even my father, who was the official fish cook in our house, admitted that St. Joseph’s did a good job.
It’s clear the people at Our Lady of the Rosary do, too. When Christopher and I pull into the school parking lot, the line is already snaking out of the cafeteria and into the entrance hall. Every few minutes a cook emerges from the back yelling “fries” or “fillets” and other volunteers mobilize to fill the waiting boxes. A $10 ticket gets us two fish fillets, fries, coleslaw, green beans, and our choice of dessert.
After receiving our suppers, we grab a glass of chardonnay from the Men’s Bible Study Bar, pick up some extra napkins, and find a spot at one of the communal tables. The fish, thin and crisp and hot from the oil, is perfect; spices warm the tongue without overpowering its fresh flavor. In all, it is a propitious beginning to our NOLA Lenten observance.
Reconstructing the recipe to keep the tradition going at home required a consultation with my brothers about my father’s method. We had also chatted up a line volunteer at OLR who told me that his family always used self-rising flour because it contained cornstarch, which helps ensure a crisp coating. After a little online research, I decided this was just the ticket for the kind of crust I love, so a quarter cup of cornstarch replaces some of my father’s all-purpose flour in this recipe.
I love these fillets as a sandwich on a soft roll with homemade tartar sauce and a squeeze of lemon. Christopher adds a slice of processed American cheese for his Fishwich version. However you serve them, they’ll be the best fast food you’ve ever had.
Louisiana-Style Fish Fry
Serves 4 to 6
3 lbs. flounder fillets (the thinner the better)
¼ cup coarse creole mustard
¼ cup commercial yellow mustard
1 tsp. hot sauce
¾ cup all-purpose flour
¼ cup cornstarch
2 cups cornmeal
½ tsp. freshly cracked black pepper
½ tsp. paprika
1 Tbsp. onion powder
1 Tbsp. garlic powder
3 Tbsp. Cajun-style seasoning mix
Canola or peanut oil for frying
- Stir together the mustards and hot sauce in a large bowl. Settle the fish fillets into this marinade so they’re completely covered and allow to stand in the refrigerator for 20 minutes.
- Mix the dry ingredients and seasonings for dredging the fish in a second bowl.
- Heat 2 inches of oil in a deep Dutch oven to 375° F.
- Remove the fillets from the marinade one at a time, shaking off excess. Press the fillets into the dredge to coat completely. Once the fillets are coated, add 3 or 4 to the hot oil, depending on size. Don’t crowd the fillets.
- It’s very important to keep the oil temperature steady to achieve a crisp crust — a good thermometer is crucial. The fillets will reduce the temperature of the oil when added. To counter this, raise the heat before adding them, then lower it. The fillets will be deep golden brown in 3 to 4 minutes. Remove and drain on paper towels. Repeat with the remaining fillets, continuing to adjust the fire as needed.
Mix-Your-Own Cajun-Style Seasoning
Makes about ¾ cup
2 Tbsp. smoked paprika
1 Tbsp. garlic powder
2 Tbsp. onion powder
1 Tbsp. ground black pepper
1 Tbsp. dried oregano
1 Tbsp. dried thyme
2 tsp. cayenne
1 tsp. white pepper
1 tsp. salt
Stir together all ingredients and store in a sealed container in a cool, dry, dark space as you do other spices.
Homemade Tartar Sauce
Makes about 1 cup
½ cup mayonnaise
1 tsp. fresh lemon juice
½ tsp. Dijon mustard
½ cup minced dill pickle
2 Tbsp. minced shallot
2 tsp. capers, drained and chopped
1 Tbsp. finely minced herbs (any combination of parsley, dill, basil, chives, or tarragon)
In a small bowl, stir together all ingredients. May be stored covered and refrigerated for a week.