Sunday, August 23, 2009

Fish Tacos with All the Fixings

This post originally published 8.23.2009. Photos added 9.20.2009.

[REDACTED: Friend, I’m sorry. I just came home from a weekend out of town, and so I did not cook and photograph this dish for you like usual. But I plan to cook it next Friday—and then you could cook it, too, and it would be like we were having dinner together. Cheers!]

Two or three summers ago, I made it my mission to create the perfect fish taco. After extensive research at restaurants, fish shacks, and taco stands around the Twin Cities, I settled on a few (highly opinionated) fish taco axioms:

  • Grilled fish, not breaded and fried. Breading hides the fish; it’s for poseurs. Also, the entire arrangement will be wrapped in a tortilla, which is technically a kind of bread.

  • Corn tortillas only. No wheat. Wheat tortillas are the wrong size, texture, and flavor. Plus they are morally bankrupt! Tortillas are made of corn! ¿Entiende?

  • There should be vegetables, but you should never put iceberg lettuce in a fish taco. In fact, you should never put iceberg lettuce anywhere. Certainly not in your mouth.

  • There should be some sauce. A finely chopped pico de gallo is good. There’s a special fish taco sauce, too. At the very least, there should be a lime to squeeze on the taco.

  • Finally, it would be a really nice touch to serve some black beans and queso fresco to go along with the tacos.

I used these rules to develop my own recipe for fish tacos with all the fixings. This would be a good thing to serve to friends for a last summer hurrah on the patio. Maybe throw in some margaritas or Negra Modelo and a nice fruit sorbet for dessert.

Fish Tacos with All the Fixings

This will serve four people. There is a lot going on in here, and this is the order in which I think you should fix things.

Prep List:

The pickled onions:

This excellent pickle comes from Diana Kennedy’s The Art of Mexican Cooking.

1 lb red onions, trimmed, peeled, sliced thin
½ c fresh lime juice
1 ½ t sea salt

Put everything in a glass bowl, mix, and allow to macerate for 2 hours. Maybe stir the onions halfway through and press them down into the juice. They will make more liquid as they pickle. They’ll keep, refrigerated, for weeks. (But when you find out how good they are on a sandwich, they will never live as long as a week.)

Back to prep list

The seasoned fish:

2 t thyme
1 t black pepper
¼ t cumin
½ t cayenne pepper (more if you are a chile-head)
½ t salt
1 lb catfish fillets

Mix or grind the seasonings together. Rub them into the fish fillets. Stack the fillets and set aside 1 hour or more.

Back to prep list

The sauce:

Besides the bare minimum of squeezing a lime over the fish, it's fun to dress up your tacos with sauce. You can use a fresh homemade pico de gallo. You can use any kind of good quality bottled salsa. I also serve this one.

8 oz sour cream
Juice of 1 lime
Bufalo chipotle sauce or any hot chile sauce

Mix them all together, adding chile sauce to taste and lime juice until the sauce is like a thin mustard. I use a funnel to pour the sauce into a squeeze bottle.

Back to prep list

The fixings:

  • Half a head of red or green cabbage, cut as fine as you can. (I’d use a knife. Food processors tend to mush up the cabbage.)

  • One or two jalapeƱos, cored, seeded, and sliced into thin rings.

  • A bunch of cilantro, picked off the stem if you are patient or chopped if you are not. It is acceptable to have some soft stems in your cilantro.

  • The pickled onions.

  • The sauce(s).

  • Tortillas: They must be the small corn kind. You will need four per person, two for each taco.

  • Black beans: These go next to the taco, not on it. If you don’t want to make your own, then Bearitos has a nice fat-free refried black bean.

  • Queso fresco: Crumble it and put it on the hot beans. Mmmm.

Back to prep list

Grill the fish:
Grill it two or three minutes on a side, then test it with a knife. If it is almost as cooked as you’d like, take it off the heat. The fish will continue to cook a little on the serving plate.

Back to prep list

Heat the tortillas:
You need 16 small corn tortillas to make 8 tacos for 4 people.

I have one of those hateful glass-top electric stoves. Its only saving grace is that I can do this right on the stovetop. You may prefer to heat up a dry skillet.

Put the first tortilla on the hot, dry surface for about three seconds. Flip it over (use your fingers if you are clever or a spatula if you are cautious) and put the second tortilla on top, then wait three seconds. Flip the stack over, then add the third tortilla and wait three seconds. The tortillas should be getting some dark spots on them from this treatment. Even if a bit of charred tortilla gunk accumulates on the hot surface, you’re still good.

Continue flipping the stack and adding a tortilla until all the tortillas are on the stack. Do the final flip, wait the final three seconds, and then transfer to a warm plate and cover with a clean dish towel.

Back to prep list

Assemble the tacos:
For each taco, lay two tortillas on the plate so they overlap. Take a fork to the fish fillets and flake/break off about two ounces of fish per taco; put this on the tortillas. Squeeze on some lime. Dress with fixings as desired, being careful not to overstuff. Top with a wee bit of sauce(s). Put a nice spoonful of black beans on the plate and put some crumbled queso fresco on top of them.

To eat the taco, fold the tortillas over the bottom and then fold the sides over to make a packet. It’s better to make a lot of little tacos than one giant taco.

¡Buen provecho!