In search of the perfect whitebait recipe

PETER BINGHAM
Last updated 13:12 11/10/2011
tdn whitebait stand
The legendary whitebait fritter

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It's the season for whitebait and the delicacy has been running.

Associate editor Peter Bingham and fish guru Peter Bennett try two different recipes.

Whitebaiting brings out the best No 8 wire ingenuity in Kiwis.

Catching the "white gold" requires skills that vary from river to river and at $120 a kilogram (retail) it's big business for some, particularly in the South Island.

In Taranaki it's a seasonal pastime for most and largely the domain of people at the back end of their working lives. Big catches on our more popular rivers can provide a financial return (either over or under the table) but for the majority it's just the chance of catching a few cups of the delicacy that drives them.

Some of the private stands on the Mokau and Tongaporutu rivers are works of art and some of the mechanisms used for getting nets in and out of the river deserve patenting.

The "bloody good nature" of some whitebaiters is the often the source of a feed for many of us.

The fine chaps at Egmont Seafoods (ESL) sort of fall into that category. They don't get to fish the tide but they do know someone who knows plenty of others who do. Cascade Whitebait, based on the West Coast of the South Island, is their supplier of both fresh and frozen.

"People get hung up on the price but we kept ours as low as possible," Peter Bennett said. "We only make about $20 a kilo but people like them so we get them in. Pound for pound they're still cheaper than oysters."

ESL sells 20kg to 30kg a week and you can buy them in an assortment of pack sizes.

They're interesting critters, whitebait. There are five varieties but the most common is Galaxias maculatus (inanga) which is a market favourite because of its transparency.

Everybody seems to have their personal recipe for cooking whitebait so we decided on the "battle of the Petes" this week.

Pete Bennett cooked a feed for his workers (and the bank manager who just happened to time his visit to perfection). It was a simple recipe that produced a nice thick fritter served on an english muffin. He placed a dollop of fritter mix (see recipe) in a ring on a hot plate and cooked it until the whitebait on top of the fritter turned white.

"The rings are an efficient way of making a consistent fritter and you don't have to flip them. They fit perfectly on a muffin."

He insists on using free-range eggs "because of their wholesome deep colour" and ESL gets a ready supply from the Okato business of Barry and Ruth Proffitt.

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Driven by a need to try something different, I decided to sautee mine. This was new territory and proved more finicky than the "riverbank" method where you whisk a couple of eggs with enough whitebait to make a juicy fritter. But it was a novel alternative and served on a bed of fluffy potato mash, garnished with lemon zest, salt, pepper and parsley. The taste of the whitebait seemed more pronounced but it was too easy to eat them in haste. Fritters last longer.

The secret to the taste was to cook them only until they turned white. Too long and they become toothpicks.

BING'S SAUTEED WHITEBAIT

250gm of whitebait

garlic butter

flour

parsley

salt and pepper

These are best cooked in half-cup servings. For each serving thoroughly drain the whitebait and spread them out on a dry teatowel. Lightly sprinkle flour over the whitebait and lift the corners of the towel to ensure an even coating. After removing the excess flour, place the coated whitebait into a hot fry pan containing the melted garlic butter. Use a slice to toss the fish until they just turn white. This will only take a few seconds. You can serve them as you go and they are perfect on a bed of fluffy mashed potatoes and grated lemon rind. Garnish the finished dish with lemon juice, salt, pepper and parsley.

PETE'S WHITEBAIT FRITTER ON TOASTED ENGLISH MUFFIN

250 grams of whitebait

1 free range egg

salt and pepper to taste

1 sprig finely chopped parsley - (optional)

egg rings or similar - (approx 75mm diameter x 10mm high)

packet of english muffins

1 lemon

Beat egg with vigour. Add salt, pepper and parsley and beaten egg into the whitebait and gently fold through as though you were massaging a sore shoulder. Cut the muffin through the middle, lightly butter and put face down into hot pan or skillet. Place your egg rings or whatever on the hotplate and spoon in the whitebait mixture to the desired amount. If you don't have rings, don't worry, these are only to keep the shape consistent. Cook until the top bait is white through - should be about 3 to 5 minutes. Place the fritters on top of the muffin, sprinkle some more salt and pepper to taste and squeeze a small amount of lemon juice to zing the taste buds. Makes six muffin-sized fritters.

- Taranaki Daily News

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