Cooking With a Pinch of History: Fried Fish

by Brittany Avila

Brittany Avila, left, with Anne Petersen, preparing a historical meal in the Presidio Cocina at a recent living history event.
Brittany Avila, left, with Anne Petersen, preparing a historical meal in the Presidio Cocina at a recent living history event. Photo by Fritz Olenberger.

In an effort to broaden our culinary horizons in relationship to our historical work, I have decided to produce a cooking series to share with blog readers. I offer myself as the inexperienced chef, and will attempt to cook traditional recipes from Early California in my modern kitchen. I will strive to be as historically accurate to the recipe as possible through research and use of exact ingredients from the original recipe, but my use of ovens and non-stick cookware will bring us back to the 21st century. Nonetheless, if you follow my series you will get the opportunity to taste the flavors of Early Spanish California!

Fried Fish

I found this delightful recipe in the book California Mission Recipes, and mainly chose it for its simplicity, which I felt needed to be a necessary quality for my first Spanish colonial cooking venture. But I also decided on this recipe because I liked the idea of cooking fish, as this was such an important resource in the Santa Barbara area. The fish, as well as the other ingredients, are a fantastic representation of the food prepared in our region.

Ingredients:

½ cup of olive oil

2 teaspoons onion juice

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 bay leaf

½ garlic clove, crushed

4 whole peppercorns

dash of grated nutmeg

1 teaspoon salt

2 pounds filet of fish (I used tilapia, but any white fish will do)

butter (left up to your discretion)

1 cup white wine

1 sprig parsley, minced

Although Early Californians often cooked in adobe cookhouses, which were typically separate from the main house, your kitchen (which I assume is in your main house) will do and I simply advise that it’s equipped with a chopping board and stove top.

Onion and garlic were common herbs used in early California. Photo by Brittany Avila.
Onion and garlic were common herbs used in early California. Photo by Brittany Avila.

Make a sauce by blending the first 8 ingredients in a bowl. Because I could not find onion juice at the store and (you may run into this problem as well), I simply improvised by adding about a quarter of an onion, chopped.

Making the fish marinade. Photo by Brittany Avila.
Making the fish marinade. Photo by Brittany Avila.

Cut the filets into serving portions, if they are not already cut so.

The Chumash of the Santa Barbara region were expert fishermen. Common fish in the area were seabass, and any rock fish such as smelt and red snapper. The Chumash introduced these local delicacies to the Spanish settlers. Photo by Brittany Avila.
 Common fish in the area were sea bass  and any rock fish such as smelt and red snapper. The Chumash, expert fishermen, introduced these local delicacies to the Spanish settlers. Photo by Brittany Avila.

Please note that I used tilapia for this recipe, and although it’s not historically accurate it was the only fresh fish available to me at the time!

Dip each piece of fish in the sauce, and then place in a bowl and pour the remaining sauce over them. Let this marinate for 2 to 3 hours. I marinated mine for 2 hours, and felt this was long enough.  Remove the fish and wipe dry (with a paper towel or napkin). Strain the sauce that remains and put aside.

Marinating the fish Photo by Brittany Avila.
Marinating the fish. Photo by Brittany Avila.

Place butter in a heavy skillet, set at med/high temperature. I used about half a cup, because in my own and Paula Dean’s opinions you can never have too much butter.

Early Californians would have used a comal instead of a stove top to fry fish. This was an iron griddle placed over a fire and most commonly used to cook tortillas. Photo by Brittany Avila.
Early Californians would have used a comal instead of a stove top to fry fish. A comal is an iron griddle placed over a fire and most commonly used to cook tortillas. Photo by Brittany Avila.

Place fish on the skillet and fry until a golden brown color. Remove from the pan and let cool.

While frying the fish, add wine to the remaining sauce. (I used a cheapo bottle of wine ($3.00) since it is only for cooking and the variance in taste will not be as noticeable.)

Heating the sauce.  Photo by Brittany Avila.
Heating the sauce. Photo by Brittany Avila.

Heat the sauce over the stovetop in a small pot. When finished pour over the fried fish.

Garnish with parsley (this is not just for looks, I believe it adds a hint of taste too).

The finished dish!  Photo by Brittany Avila.
The finished dish! Photo by Brittany Avila.

If you don’t consider yourself a wine snob, pour yourself a glass of your leftover cheapo wine, pair with some rice (it went well with my meal) and enjoy!

Sources

Cleveland, Bess Anderson. “Fish and Poultry.” California Mission Recipes. Rutland, VT: C.E. Tuttle, 1965.

Kimbro, Edna E. “Early California Kitchen and Hearths.”  July 23, 1992. MS Presidio Research Center .

Photo by Fritz Olenberger
Photo by Fritz Olenberger

Brittany Avila is SBTHP’s Office Manager and is enjoying  pursuing her dream to be a maestro de la cocina

2 thoughts on “Cooking With a Pinch of History: Fried Fish”

  1. This is such a great idea: applying the culinary arts to the history of our site. Famous line from Shakespeare is if Music be the Food of Life Play on; let’s reverse that for this culinary program: If food be be the music of life play on!.

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