Anybody else remember eating fish sticks as a kid? The pre-breaded kind that you buy frozen and re-heat on a cookie sheet in the oven? I feel a strange fondness thinking back about those perfectly formed, mostly tasteless, little breaded logs of mystery fish meat — most likely because they remind me of Friday nights during Lent, which makes me happy for two reasons: Fridays signal the Weekend (favorite time of the week) and Lent signals Spring (favorite season.) Fondness aside, the fish sticks of our childhood didn’t have much going for them in the flavor department. And I’m pretty sure that their exact uniform shapes were not the result of a chef’s precise knife skills preparing the fish for breading, freezing, packaging and shipment. Makes me think of this great commercial, featuring a little girl’s indignation at being fed “minced” fish sticks: “What is this, ‘minced?’ You feed me ‘minced?’ You ever catch a minced fish?!?” We’re pretty sure that Martha Stewart never fed anyone minced fish, so we decided to try her recipe for fish sticks made from tilapia fillets as a modern version of this childhood classic. With just a few ingredients — tilapia, an egg, panko, olive oil and Old Bay seasoning — and an elegant dipping sauce made with mayonnaise, Dijon mustard, horseradish, lemon juice and parsley, the fish stick is all grown up.
To make the dipping sauce, combine 1/2 cup light mayonnaise, 1 tablespoon Dijon, 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, 2 teaspoons prepared horseradish, 1/4 cup fresh chopped parsley and salt & pepper and mix it all together. The sauce tastes a little bit like tartar sauce, only better.
If using frozen tilapia fillets, thaw them in the sink by running some cold water over both sides of the fillets several times over the course of 15-20 minutes.
Pat the tilapia dry with paper towels. Then cut each fillet in half lengthwise and remove the brown middle strip to cut down on any fishy taste.
Then cut the halves in half again, lengthwise.
Prepare the breading by combining 2 cups panko, 1 tablespoon Old Bay seasoning and 2 tablespoons olive oil in a shallow bowl. This is the first recipe we’ve cooked that incorporates olive oil into the breading. It’s a cool technique that helps bind everything together and makes for a more crispy end result. We’ll use this method again for other recipes that call for breading stuff.
This is also the first time we experienced the wonders of Wondra. For those not familiar with it, Wondra is a very fine, “quick-mixing” flour sometimes used in sauces or gravies as a thickening agent. It’s also used in baking. We dredged the tilapia fish sticks with a little bit of Wondra as the first step in the breading process to give a little texture and help the egg and breading stick to the fish better. Worked like a charm.
After the Wondra, dip the tilapia pieces into the lightly beaten egg that has been seasoned with salt & pepper.
Then coat the tilapia on all sides with a generous amount of panko. Regular breadcrumbs would work too, but we like panko because it has a lighter, yet somehow more crispy texture.
Place the breaded fish sticks on a foil-lined cookie sheet, then bake them in the oven preheated to 475 degrees until lightly browned — about 15 minutes total.
Turn the fish sticks over once, halfway through the cooking time.
We served the fish sticks with the herb dipping sauce and a garden salad. We served a souped-up cocktail sauce (add prepared horseradish and a dash of Worcestershire to store-bought cocktail sauce) for dipping as well. The fish sticks were crispy outside, flaky inside, with a nice hint of Cajun spice from the Old Bay seasoning. Nothing minced about this fish!