Monday, July 19, 2010


I wanted fish tacos. And lo, I did make them. The End.

Except I’m not sure I know why I wanted fish tacos, considering I’ve eaten them maybe three times before in the course of my life. I’m guessing I just saw them on a food blog somewhere and they suddenly seemed like the most perfect, light, fresh, summery, Southern-California thing to stuff my face with. I’m especially susceptible to the romance of food photography in the summer, the sparkly lemonades, the effortless salads, the insouciant sandwiches, the kicky kebabs, the chic grilled steaks, all prettily arranged on sun-drenched picnic tables looking like they don’t care (bonus points if you know that movie reference), seeming to promise me entrance to some higher plane of casually elegant being where I will nonchalantly produce cool, delicious treats from my kitchen in mere moments without ever breaking a sweat.

Whatever the inspiration, it took me a long time to find a recipe that matched the Ideal Fish Tacos in my head. I wanted the fish to be breaded (I always think of the classic fish taco as being batter-fried, but a lot of online recipes just have you grill or sautée) , but not deep-fried (both for health reasons and because I’m a wuss when it comes to hot oil). Exactly like the panko-coated pan-fried halibut from my beloved fish and chips recipe, actually—in fact, I belatedly realized, I could actually just use that recipe, maybe leaving out the parsley and swapping lime zest for the lemon zest. Perfect! Except that neither Trader Joe’s nor Whole Foods had any halibut last week. I could have used cod, tilapia, or another whitefish, but then I spotted the frozen, pre-battered halibut (basically just fancy fish sticks) at Trader Joe’s and my love for halibut, combined with my laziness, won out. The fish looked to be decent, the ingredients relatively simple and wholesome, and it could be baked in the oven in about 15 minutes. It’s sort of funny that I ended up doing this, because during my intensive recipe search I’d stumbled upon, and rolled my eyes at, this Real Simple fish taco recipe that’s basically the same thing (albeit with Gorton’s fish tenders, which I suspect are several steps down from what I used). Luckily, the end result was really tasty, crisp without being greasy, even though the fish beneath the batter was a wee bit dry. In the future I’ll try breading my own (and forgoing the halibut if I must), but high-quality pre-battered stuff would be acceptable again if I were in a particular hurry.

I also, for some reason, had a really specific vision when it came to the condiments. When I think of classic fish tacos I think of cabbage and a white sauce (usually mayonnaise-based), neither of which I really like very much on their own, but I’ve got to admit they do go well with fish. The fish taco recipes I found online came with a host of varying condiment suggestions, from pico de gallo to pickled onions to mango salsa to guacamole, but my impulse was not to stray too far from tradition—and, for some reason, to avoid normal salsa, because somehow the combination of fish and tomatoes doesn't appeal. I decided to concentrate on the flavors that tantalized me most in the recipes I was skimming, all three of which seemed to marry well with both the fish concept and the taco concept: lime, cilantro, and avocado. I always use broccoli slaw (from Trader Joe’s) instead of cabbage with the fish and chips, so I decided to do the same thing here and found this simple, lime-and-cilantro-laced recipe for a fish-taco-friendly version. Ironically, Trader Joe’s didn’t end up having broccoli slaw that day, so I ended up using shredded cabbage after all—and it was still quite tasty. Then, taking a cue from this excellent recipe from Whipped, I pureed yogurt (the original used sour cream, but I prefer yogurt for most things) with avocado and more cilantro and lime for a fresh, zippy sauce that is also, I might add, addictive on tortilla chips, chili, or just, you know, your fingers.

Considering I cobbled it together from three different sources—and then ended up having to scrap my original plans and improvise thanks to the vagaries of ingredient availability—I’m really pleased with how this meal turned out. I’m not normally an inventive type, and neither A nor I was even certain how much we even liked fish tacos, but I had a dream…OK, that sounds a little grandiose. How about: I had a craving for a fresh and fun summer meal, and I satisfied it exactly. And just for a minute, eating my bright, pleasingly green-and-golden fish tacos and drinking a cold beer, I felt like one of those glossy food-magazine people. Except that we were eating indoors, sitting on the floor in front of the TV, fending cats away from the table, and I was sweating.

One final note: I used a 10-ounce package of fish and halved the slaw recipe and it served two (a generous three tacos apiece), with leftover avocado cream. You could easily scale up the fish amount and make the whole slaw recipe and serve three or four. I don’t think it would be worthwhile to end up with leftovers, though—except for the avocado cream, I can’t see this being good the next day.

Cilantro-lime slaw:
4 cups broccoli slaw or shredded cabbage
⅓ cup thinly sliced green onions
¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon olive oil
¼ teaspoon salt

Avocado cream:
1 ripe avocado, peeled, seeded, and chopped
½ cup sour cream or plain yogurt
¼ cup fresh cilantro
Juice of ½ large lime
Salt to taste (a few good pinches)

Pan-fried fish:
1 pound 1½-inch-thick halibut fillets (or cod, tilapia, or another whitefish)
¾ cup panko
1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
1 teaspoon finely grated lime zest
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 large egg whites
2 tablespoons dark ale
2 tablespoons olive oil
10 ounces to 1 pound good-quality breaded frozen fish fillets

6–8 corn tortillas

1. To make the slaw, toss together the broccoli or cabbage, the green onions, and the cilantro in a large bowl. Mix in lime juice, oil, and salt and toss well to coat.

2. To make the avocado cream, place the avocado, sour cream or yogurt, cilantro, lime juice, and salt in a food processor or blender and process until smooth.

3. To make fish, cut halibut into sticks and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. While oil is heating, combine panko, salt, lime zest, and cayenne in a shallow bowl; in a separate shallow bowl, whisk egg whites and ale. When oil is hot, dip fish sticks in ale mixture, turn to coat, and shake off excess; then place fish in panko mixture and turn to coat all sides. Add fish sticks to skillet and cook about 2 minutes on each side, until all sides are golden and fish is opaque in center. Transfer fish to paper towels, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and serve immediately. OR, if using frozen fish fillets, skip this whole step and prepare according to package directions.

4. Heat a skillet over medium heat and warm tortillas on each side for a minute or so, until soft and pliable. Place tortillas on plates and top with a piece or two of fish and generous amounts of slaw and avocado cream.

Serves: 2–4
Time: 1 hour
Leftover potential: Not good, except the avocado cream will last for several days in the fridge and makes a great dip for chips or veggies.

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