Texture. Almost all parents know how crucial it is to their kids’ food; it can mean the difference between a plate deftly cleaned versus the twins eliciting your dog’s superpower as tongue-dripping Roomba. Maybe your kids already feed the pet on the regular. In that case, it’s even more important you read this.
Cooked spinach slimes its way into kids’ nightmares. Ditto steamed clams, (don’t even think about testing me on this one—the little bivalves act like snottified Ipecac). Cooked carrots, any soup with cream. Starting to see a pattern? And I mean beyond the one forming occasionally across your linoleum.
Crunch. Crumble. Something to give the mouth to do besides gelatinous slurping. Kids like big sounds. They love food that shatters between their teeth in a symphony of riot and taste. But come on, you’re a seasoned veteran; you know this by now. You know a handful of Honey Nut Cheerios goes a long way in elevating an otherwise stultified car trip. As do most snack foods. So how to you bring the noise when looking to add a veritable spark to any dinner? The secret agent is panko breadcrumbs.
Panko is different than the typical breadcrumbs drifted into insipid piles across casseroles everywhere like mini versions of the Sahara. Panko are a lighter and crispier breadcrumb originally from Japan, but are now readily available here in the United States. They have a life affirming crunch while staying impossibly light when baked or fried. And I call them a secret agent because they make otherwise dubious food items–to your children anyway–an outright treat. Like fish. Yes. That’s right. I said fish.
Snag a pound of fresh tilapia ($5.99/lb.) or haddock or cod ($6.99/lb. on sale, $8.99/lb. otherwise) from a trustworthy purveyor. Fish should glisten, be malleable, and NEVER have a bleachy smell. If so, put your basket down and back out of the store slowly. Don’t break eye contact and just keep smiling until it’s safe to run.
Barring bad fish, grab a box a panko ($2.19) from the Japanese section, or even your typical breadcrumb section. 4C makes a fine version. No, seriously… Now get one fresh lemon, ($.99), a thumb-sized shallot ($3.99/lb.)—think Chris Hemsworth thumb versus the Macaulay Culkin variety—and a can of chicken stock, ($.99). I assume you have butter (What’s that? You’ve got margarine, you say? Hit the bricks, devil spawn.) extra virgin olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste. Boom. That’s it. Maybe a few roasted potatoes on the side. You’re in business.
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. It’s important you rinse your fish well and then pat dry with a paper towel. Mince shallot and sauté in pan with one tablespoon olive oil until translucent. Using wooden spoon, scrape out into bottom of ovenproof dish big enough to fit fish without overlapping. Lightly coat fish with more olive oil and sprinkle with a generous amount of coarse salt and freshly cracked black or (even better) white pepper on both sides. Place in the ovenproof dish on top of the shallots and do not overlap the fillets. Pour chicken stock around the fish until it almost covers but does not completely submerge, (think Jack in Titanic before he let go) and place in oven for 4 minutes tilapia, 6 minutes cod/haddock. Take out. Now spoon the warm stock & shallots rapidly over fish like they’re luxuriating at a swanky spa.
Gentle cover each fillet with panko. Drizzle the panko with melted butter, (one tablespoon per fillet) and a little salt and pepper. Chuck back in your oven for an additional 6 minutes or so, or until the panko is a beautiful golden-brown. Take out and immediately zest a little fresh lemon over each fillet (use the cheese grater you keep in that drawer near the sink). Spoon a bit of the bubbling stock onto a plate. Place a piece of fish atop this warm, intoxicating slurry. Slice the lemon into wedges and serve alongside fish. Add freshly roasted potatoes (or hell, even fries) on the side. Serve with a little ketchup for the fries.
Tell your kids to squeeze out the lemon’s guts across the fish. They’ll laugh. You’ll smile. And the room will fill with sound of satisfying crunching. No Roomba required.