“If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it.”
- Baz Luhrmann, “Everbody’s Free”
I lived in Southern California for graduate school. As an East Coaster, I really did not like the place much. Everyone was far too friendly for his/her own good. Palm trees at Christmas gave me the willies. Walking the streets of LA was akin to playing Frogger with only one life. The pick-up line du jour was “So, what kind of car do you drive?” (My standard answer was “The kind that drives.” Needless to say, I didn’t date much in grad school.)
But I did learn to appreciate some things in SoCal. The abundance and variety of fresh fruits and vegetables at the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market. Cherimoyas became my new BFF. The Hotel Del, so I could play Marilyn Monroe for a day. And fish tacos. Although fish tacos are officially the property of Ensenada (in Baja California), if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then San Diego is chock full o’ flattery. There are fish taco joints everywhere. Sanitary, unsanitary, drive-ins, dives, sit-downs – and don’t ever get in an argument with a local about their favorite spot – fists will start flying.
And beyond the number of fish taco joints, are the number of variations on the fish taco. The small stalls in Ensenada along Mercado Negro, the fish market, serve local fish, battered and deep fried, with cabbage, crema and salsa so hot that it’s gonna make your mama weep. (The Mercado Negro also has some eye-popping ceviche, but that is for another post.) There are also shrimp, grilled fish, scallop, and anything-that-comes-out-of-the-sea, tacos. With condiments, the permutations are endless. The one thing that a fish taco does NOT have is cheese. And any joint that puts cheese in their fish taco is clearly not up to snuff (probably some corporate suit or desperate gringo).
After I moved from California, I would dream about those tacos. I would wake up in a cold sweat and swear that the taco fairy came to visit me. Alas, it was not to be. It was DIY time. But I had a problem – there are very few fish taco recipes. I didn’t know anyone that made their own – you go out for a fish taco, you don’t make them. Yes, Food Channel, I know that Bobby Flay is good-looking, but he knows squat about fish tacos.
After much improvising (and a lot of awful fish tacos), I think I finally devised a recipe that a SoCal’er would recognize. I think the secret was nailing the Mexican crema – ubitquitos in Latino markets, but hard to find anywhere else. Make your own salsa and you’re almost there. As for the fish – use any firm white fish (salmon, or any other fatty fish, overwhelms the rest of the ingredients). It does not have to be expensive or fresh (and I don’t mean rotting fish). And please, use an MSC-certified or other sustainable fish (for a list of recommended fish, click here). This is one of those recipes that the fish does not matter so much as the fact that it is fish. It will not affect the taste. As for the tortillas, if you don’t make them yourself (I promise, another blog post will cover how to make your own!), choose organic (I prefer the Whole Foods brand of organic corn tortillas) or the thinnest locally made brand available (Check the ingredient list. Those made with lard are the best tasting.) If you are lucky enough to have a local tortillería in the vicinity, use those.
For those who want the SoCal experience without the sunburn, fish tacos are the way to go. But trust me on the sunscreen.
As mentioned above, you can use any firm white fish for this – fresh or frozen. I prefer my fish grilled or sautéed. The deep fried version is tasty, but it is far too much trouble – and it is a pain when you are making them for a crowd. Also, you can use jarred salsa, but I think it tastes better if you make your own. Remember the beer – ice cold – and think of ocean breezes.
1/2 red onion, thinly sliced
1 1/2 c. red wine vinegar
1/4 c. olive oil
1 1/2 tsp. ancho chili powder
1 1/2 tsp. dried oregano (Mexican oregano, if you can find it)
1/2 tsp. ground cumin
1/2 bunch of fresh cilantro
1 jalapeño or chili according to taste (habenero, scotch bonnet, etc.), chopped and seeded
1 pd. flaky white fish, cut into 4 pieces (cod, pacific halibut, tilapia, etc.)
1/4 cabbage (red or green), shredded
1/4 cabbage (red or green), shredded
8 corn tortillas
Vegetable oil for heating tortillas
6 oz. of crème fraîche or sour cream
1 lime, unwaxed (if waxed, wash in hot water and dry with a paper towel)
Fresh Tomato Salsa
6-7 ripe tomatoes (if not in season, use 2 pt. of cherry or grape tomatoes), finely chopped
1 white onion, finely chopped
1 bunch of fresh cilantro, finely chopped (you can also use the stems)
1 jalapeño or chili according to taste (habenero, scotch bonnet, etc.), chopped and seeded (can be omitted)
1. Take onion and place in a small, non-reactive bowl. Pour red wine vinegar to cover. Set aside for at least 30 minutes (can be stored for several weeks in the fridge in a closed container).
2. Pour olive oil, chili powder, oregano, cumin, cilantro and jalapeño and mix well. Coat fish with marinade and marinate in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.
3. Place sour cream/crème fraîche in a bowl. Zest lime over the cream, avoiding the pith (I find a Microplane useful for this purpose). Juice lime and pour into cream. Stir to combine. Set aside.
4. In a medium, non-reactive bowl, toss tomatoes, onion, cilantro, and jalapeño, until combined. Juice one lime and stir to combine. Season with salt. Add more lime juice if necessary. Set aside.
5. (If your tortillas are freshly made, skip this step.) Pre-heat the oven to 200°F. Put 1 tsp. of vegetable oil in a non-stick skillet and place over medium-high heat. When oil is hot (water will spatter when flicked in pan), stack 2 tortillas on top of each other and place in skillet. Heat for 30 seconds, and flip the stack. Turn the top tortilla over, onto the bottom tortilla. Flip the stack again and heat for 30 seconds. Flip top tortilla again onto the bottom tortilla. Flip stack and heat for 30 seconds. Do not let the tortilla brown. Repeat with remaining tortillas. Place tortillas in foil and keep hot in the oven.
6. Heat a non-stick sauté pan over medium-high heat. Place fish onto hot pan and season with salt. Cook fish for 3-4 minutes (depending upon thickness of fish) and turn over, and cook for another 2 minutes. Take pan off heat and flake fish, scraping (with a wooden or plastic utensil!) crusted marinade from the bottom. Season with more salt if necessary.
7. To assemble tacos. Take 1 tortilla and place 3-4 tbs. of fish in the middle. Put shredded cabbage on top of fish. Drizzle with crema and serve with additional quartered limes and salsa on the side.