Friday, August 14, 2009

Friday Fish

Fish Tacos. Unlike most recipe photos,
your finished product will actually look like this!
Photo by Zachary Zavisiak for The New York Times

One of the great things about being back in Seattle is the abundance of good Mexican food of all kinds – authentic or Tex-Mex, upscale or humbly served out of a truck in a gas station parking lot or from the back of a bar. Not to put New York down – after a time we found a few spots that measured up to our exacting standards (the tamales from the cart next to the indoor flea market off 6th Avenue in Manhattan remain unparalleled for flavor, consistency, and price; the ball fields in Red Hook were great before they got overrun; the now defunct Tres Amigos on the L.E.S. will always hold a special place in my heart, even if more for the memories than for the food; and La Esquina later upped the ante), but on the whole really good South of the Border joints were few and far between.

Area taco trucks. Top photo courtesy;
bottom photo via

One of the meals whose ubiquity we missed most was the Baja Peninsula staple so suited to the seemingly never-ending supply of good seafood on the Pacific coast: Fish Tacos. When done well, I can think of very few dishes that rival this one – small pieces of flaky white fish fried crisp and sprinkled with lime and salt, placed in a warm corn tortilla and topped off with salsa fresca, cabbage, and a drizzle of tangy white sauce. Perfection. Just before we left NYC we discovered the gem in Far Rockaway that is Rockaway Taco (Strath wrote about the trip here), and had we stayed in Brooklyn I would have been more than content to make that my second home; as it worked out, since October we have been steadily eating our way through a line-up of fish tacos (and burritos) in Seattle.

The goods from Rockaway Taco; more details here and here.

But – and to get to the point of all of this – the one thing I never thought possible was to produce a fish taco in our own kitchen that could rival (and maybe even surpass) the best of those perfectly balanced little flavor pockets. That all changed when I clipped this article and accompanying recipe out of The New York Times Magazine on my birthday this year and decided to give it a try. I've made these at least five times since with unerring success, and I kid you not, this recipe is surprisingly easy and makes a killer fish taco. It's worth reading the accompanying article for some background and tips, but at the very least, follow the three rules laid out therein (courtesy of Dave Pasternack, chef and owner of Esca in Manhattan), and you'll be golden:

No. 1: You’ve got to get over the fear. ("The recipe is going to work. Trust the process.")

No. 2: Buying the fish is half the battle. ("
For tacos, something fresh and white and firm. Emphasis on the fresh. Out in the cold waters off Montauk, the cod bite is on and the flatties are coming soon: big doormat flounder caught on hooks and line. Montauk snowshoes, they call these monsters, and if you see them in the market, it’s time to make tacos.

No. 3: Crust is crucial. ("You want, at home, a fish taco that has the crunch and texture of the deep-fried version available at the beach in Ensenada, though with better flavor and less mess.")

This recipe makes a very spicy fish taco, so if you want less hot, cut back on the jalepeno in the salsa and the chipotle in the white sauce. With all of the chopping and dicing, the prep time for both is about an hour, but once that's done the fish takes just a few minutes in the pan – and you could easily make the sauce and salsa a day ahead and refrigerate.
Photo by Zachary Zavisiak for The New York Times

Try it. I promise you won't be sorry.

Fish Tacos
2 medium tomatoes, seeded and finely chopped
1 small red onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 cup roughly chopped cilantro
1 jalapeño, halved lengthwise, seeded and cut crosswise into half moons (optional)
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup sour cream
2 limes, 1 halved and 1 cut into wedges
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon canned chipotle pepper, finely chopped (optional)
1/2 cup flour, preferably Wondra or other fine-milled flour
1 1/2 teaspoons chili powder
1/2 cup milk
1/4 cup peanut oil, plus a splash more for greasing pan
Pat of butter
1 pound flounder or any firm white-fleshed fish, cut across the grain of the flesh into strips about 1/2 inch wide by 3 inches long
12 6-inch fresh corn tortillas
2 cups shredded green cabbage
A saucy hot sauce, like Tapatio or Frank’s.

1. In a medium bowl, combine the tomatoes, onion, garlic, cilantro and jalapeño (if using).

2. In a small bowl, whisk the mayonnaise and sour cream until combined. Season to taste with the halved lime, salt, pepper and chipotle (if using).

3. In a medium bowl, mix together the flour, chili powder and 1 1/2 teaspoons each of kosher salt and black pepper. Pour the milk into another medium bowl, and place the fish into it.

4. Pour 1/4 cup of the peanut oil into a 12-inch frying pan and place over medium-high heat until it shimmers and is about to smoke. Remove the fish pieces from the milk bath and dredge them lightly through the flour mixture, shaking to remove excess. Add the butter to the pan. Place some fish pieces in the oil, without crowding them, and cook until deep golden brown on one side, 3 to 4 minutes. Turn carefully and cook for 1 minute more. Remove to a warmed, paper-towel-lined plate and sprinkle with salt. Repeat with the remaining fish.

5. Meanwhile, lightly grease a skillet with a drizzle of oil and set over medium heat. Heat the tortillas, one or two at a time, until they are soft and hot. Keep them warm, wrapped in a dish towel.

6. Fill each tortilla with 3 pieces of fish, browned side up, followed by tomato salsa and a pinch of cabbage. Drizzle with the cream sauce. Serve 2 to 3 tacos per person, with lime wedges and hot sauce on the side. Serves 4 to 6.

Enjoy with:
Happy Weekend.

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