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Fish Fry: a Pittsburgh Lenten Staple

Updated: Feb 17


Like with pizza joints, McKees Rocks is heavily dotted with churches. Once all separate congregations, the years and lack of parishioners have rendered these churches empty. For sale signs take the place of banners for hope and celebration. The Dioceses of Pittsburgh combined numerous congregations into one in over more than a 10-mile radius. Times have changed; an area that once was home to over a dozen congregations has dwindled down to one.

McKees Rocks Bottoms churches photo by Jason Minear

It was in some of those dozen churches I first learned about Lenten Fish Fry Fridays.


In Pittsburgh the tradition of the Lenten Fish Fry can be traced back to the early 19th century. This was when all of the city neighborhoods had dozens of Catholic churches.


As a predominantly Catholic city, the observance of Lent, which is a period of fasting and abstinence in the Christian calendar, has always been an important part of Pittsburgh culture.


During Lent, Catholics abstain from eating meat on Fridays as a form of penance and sacrifice. To fulfill this dietary requirement, fish became a popular alternative, particularly in the Pittsburgh region given its proximity to rivers and lakes.



St Nicholas Church, Millvale photo by pghshrines.org

The first official Pittsburgh Lenten Fish Fry took place at St. Nicholas Church in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Millvale in 1874. The church held a weekly fish fry as a way to engage the community and raise funds for charitable causes. The concept quickly caught on, and other Catholic churches in the city started organizing their own fish fries during Lent.

In the early years, the fish fries were modest affairs held in the church basement or community centers. They were typically organized and run by church volunteers, who would clean, bread, and fry the fish themselves. The meals were simple but delicious, consisting of fried fish, coleslaw, macaroni and cheese, and pierogies. The fish were often local catches such as cod, haddock, or walleye.


Over the years, the popularity of the Pittsburgh Lenten Fish Fry grew, and it became a beloved tradition in the city. The fish fries provided an opportunity for Pittsburghers to come together as a community, enjoy a delicious meal, and support their local churches and organizations.


In recent decades, the fish fries have expanded beyond the confines of churches. Social clubs, schools, volunteer fire departments, and other community organizations began hosting their own fish fries to meet the increasing demand.


Today, the Pittsburgh Lenten Fish Fry is an institution in the city and surrounding suburbs. It attracts both locals and visitors who eagerly await the Lenten season to indulge in this unique culinary experience. The fish fries have also garnered national attention, with Pittsburgh often being recognized as one of the best cities in the United States for Lenten Fish Fries.


While the tradition has evolved over the years, the core purpose of the Pittsburgh Lenten Fish Fry remains the same – to bring people together, provide a delicious seafood meal during the season of Lent, and support the local community.


Cooking Class with Carol


Things to Consider

The key to a successful fish fry lies in the delightful combination of fresh fish, a well-seasoned breading/batter, and the perfect frying technique


Fish

  1. Choosing the right fish is crucial for a fantastic fish fry experience. While varied fish species can be used, my personal favorite is cod, which offers a delicate taste and flaky texture. However, other options include tilapia, flounder, or catfish, even shrimp! Depending on your preferences and availability, any firm white fish is easy to fry. For the freshest fish, I recommend visiting your local fish market or ensuring that the option you select has been sustainably sourced.


note: fish and shrimp are not supposed to smell, well, fishy. It should present a briny fragrance, almost like sea air, but never should it smell like fish. If it does, don't purchase. It's just not fresh.


2. Consider purchasing 8-12 oz. per person for a good, hearty fish sandwich. The fish will shrink slightly when cooked, so the weight of the cooked sandwich will be slightly smaller than pre-cooked weight. A good size sandwich is 12 ounces.


3. Once you are ready to cook the fish, remove from refrigerator 30 minutes before cooking. This will ensure that the fish is a more consistent temperature and cook more evenly in the oil.


Batter/Breading

For the sake of this blog, I will be demonstrating breading fish and not battering. I will give the recipe for a batter, but no pictures.


A good breading makes all the difference, providing the perfect balance between crispy and light. To create an unforgettable coating, combine all-purpose flour, cornmeal, salt, pepper, paprika, garlic powder, and a touch of cayenne for a mild kick. Feel free to add other seasonings such as dried herbs or even a hint of lemon zest for an extra burst of flavor.


Frying

Before diving into the frying process, remember to pat your fish fillets dry with paper towels. This ensures that the breading adheres perfectly, creating a beautiful and evenly coated finished product. Once ready, dip each fillet into seasoned flour, then a seasoned egg wash and finally the seasoned breading. At this point, you may gently place it into the hot oil. Fry the fish until it turns golden brown and crispy, about three to five minutes per side, depending on the thickness of the fillet.


As important as the breading is, the frying technique itself plays a vital role. To achieve a light and evenly fried fish, I suggest using a deep fryer or a heavy-bottomed pot filled with oil heated to 365°F (185°C). This temperature allows the fish to cook quickly while still maintaining its moisture and tenderness. If you prefer a healthier option, consider using an air fryer or oven-baking the fillets for a similar, albeit slightly different, result.


The beauty of fish fry is its versatility. Whether you prefer a classic fish fry experience, complete with French fries and homemade tartar sauce, or you wish to elevate the meal with a side of coleslaw and steamed vegetables, the choice is yours. Embrace your creativity and explore different combinations to find the perfect accompaniments that tantalize your taste buds.


Remember, a great fish fry comes down to three essential elements – high-quality fresh fish, a perfectly seasoned breading and the proper frying technique. Master these, and you'll embark on a journey of crispy goodness that will keep you coming back for more.

So, the next time you're craving a delightful seafood feast, don't hesitate to whip up a delicious fish fry. Dive in and savor the symphony of flavors and textures that will make your taste buds sing. Bon appétit!


Let's get Cooking!

Recipe

Ingredients


Fish

1 pound cod loin or filets, cleaned, dried thoroughly, seasoned with salt and pepper. Substitute your favorite flakey white fish.

Breading

  • ⅓ cup cornmeal

  • ⅓ cup all-purpose flour

  • 1 teaspoon paprika

  • ½ teaspoon ground black pepper

  • ½ teaspoon salt

  • ½ teaspoon garlic powder

  • ½ teaspoon dried thyme

  • ⅛ teaspoon cayenne pepper


Batter

  • 1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour

  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch

  • 1 large egg, chilled and beaten

  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder

  • 1 teaspoon seasoning

  • ½ teaspoon ground black pepper

  • 1 cup cold light beer OR club soda



Other Ingredients

  • 1 cup AP flour

  • 1 teaspoon each Salt and pepper

  • 3 eggs, beaten

  • 2-3 cups (or more) vegetable oil (or solid)

  • Your favorite bun. I prefer a round sesame seeded bun. But others prefer sausage style buns, hoagie sticks or brioche. The choice is yours.

  • Sauces for garnish, like tartar or cocktail. Hot sauce and even a Siracha mayo would be delish.


What to do

Thoroughly rinse the fish in cold water. Lay on sheet pan covered with paper towel and completely dry fish. Season with salt and pepper.


  • In a heavy bottom pot, or electric fryer, add oil to halfway up the sides of the pot. Turn heat on medium and heat oil to 365F.

  • In three separate pans, place flour, beaten eggs and seasoned breading.


  • While the oil is heating, dredge it piece of fish into flour, egg wash, and then breading. Be certain to thoroughly coat each filet in the three-step process.


  • Working in batches (to not overcrowd the pan), deep fry fish for about 6 minutes to ensure proper internal temperature. A kitchen thermometer when inserted in fish should read 145F. Remove from oil and place on wire rack to drain excess oil and to cool.



Wanna cook some fries??

Oh that's easy too!!


Get 3-4 russet potatoes (the size for baking) at your local grocery store.


Using a mandoline using protective gear, slice potatoes and place in acidulated water (I use white vinegar (1 Tablespoon for every 5 cups of water).


I do a double fry. First "blanching" potatoes in a lower temperature oil(325F). Then draining and cooking again in a higher temperature (365F). This method will give you the best and crispiest fries around.


Remove from water and dry thoroughly. Water and hot oil do not mix!! The oil can overflow and cause a fire.


Again, working in batches, fry potatoes in 325F oil for 5 minutes. Remove and drain access oil. This process is called "blanching". The potatoes will appear limp. That's ok.


Raise the temperature to 365F and fry potatoes for again for 3-4 minutes. Check the coloring. When they float to the top, more than likely they are cooked enough. At this point, it's just a matter of how crispy you want them. Closely watch as they can burn.

Remove from oil and drain on a wire rack. Sprinkle salt or Cajun seasoning to taste.

Perhaps try truffled salt for an elevated treat!

Enjoy.




Here's some pictures of the fish/shrimp I've fried over the last few weeks.


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