It all begins with a perfect summer day, warm and lightly breezy. The sun is low in the sky, reflecting off your sunglasses as you pull up to the bar for a cheap, watery beer that could not taste better passing over lips still salty from the ocean. The bartender promises great fish tacos and they sound like the perfect filler for a growling stomach, hungry from an afternoon of bodysurfing.
They come out, and with a squeeze of fresh lime you take your first bite.
Eh…the cabbage is dry and flavorless, the lime is too bright and the fish is greasy. On a good day it’s rubbery, on a bad day it’s mush. The mayonnaise mixed with hot sauce and large stems of cilantro do little to add either depth or subtlety. Fortunately, the bar has more beer, enough to drown your dismay.
With the first warm days of spring coming hope renews. This year, fulfill every expectation of spring love. Flavorful cabbage, softened but still crisp, lightly fried fish, flakey and light, bright, citrusy tomatillo salsa and tart, rich avocado crema. This, my friends, is the perfect fresh bite on a warm afternoon.
Grab your sunglasses and ice down the beer. I’ll grab some tortillas and be right over.
Tacos de Pescado
This looks like a lot of steps and ingredients. Let me break it down: you’re marinating fish for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, you throw together a quick salad dressing for the cabbage and mix avocado and lime zest together with Mexican sour cream. If you are making the tomatillo salsa from scratch (trick question, the answer is always “yes”) then you throw those 5 ingredients in a food processor for 30 seconds. Et voilà (that’s Spanish for…oh, never mind) you are ready to fry the fish and eat the best fish tacos you’ve ever tasted!
- 1/4 cup fresh lime juice
- 1 bunch cilantro, chopped
- 1/2 tsp cumin
- 1/2 jalapeño, minced
- 2 tbs olive oil or hot chili oil
- 2 tilapia filets, about 1 pound
- 1 clove garlic
- 1/2 tsp coriander
- 1/2 tsp cumin
- 1/4 cup Sherry vinegar*
- 1/4 tsp dijon mustard
- 1/2 cup good quality olive oil
- 6 cups shredded napa cabbage
*We love using Sapore’s Serrano Chile Honey Vinegar with this vinaigrette
Avocado Lime Crema:
- 1/4 cup avocado
- 1/2 cup Mexican crema or crème fraîche (You can make this. Here’s the recipe. Plan one day ahead)
- 1/4 tsp lime zest
- 1 egg
- 1/2 cup flour
- Cayenne or chile powder
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- Corn tortillas
- Tomatillo salsa (Make it from scratch. Here’s the recipe.)Directions:
- Make the marinade for the fish: Whisk together lime juice, 1/4 cup cilantro, cumin and jalapeño. Whisk in oil and season to taste with salt and pepper. Coat tilapia with marinade, and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
- Make the vinaigrette for the cabbage. Chop garlic and sprinkle with a pinch of coarse sea salt. Mash into a paste with the flat side of your knife or tines of a fork.
- Whisk together garlic paste, coriander, cumin, Sherry or Serrano Honey Vinegar and mustard with a pinch of salt and pepper.
- Whisk in oil to form a thick emulsion and dress cabbage heavily. Refrigerate for 20 minutes.
- Make the avocado, lime crema: Mash avocado with a pinch of salt. Stir in crema and lime zest. Season to taste with additional salt and pepper.
- Prepare fish for frying: Whisk egg in a medium bowl. In another medium bowl, whisk together flour and cayenne, with a pinch of salt and pepper.
- Warm tortillas in a 250 degree oven.
- Remove fish from marinade, brush off herbs and cut into 1” pieces.
- Dip fish in egg, then flour. Shake off extra flour and place on a platter.
- Heat 2 tbs olive oil in a 12” skillet over medium heat. Fry in a single layer, without crowding,turning once. About 5 minutes total per batch. You can cut a piece in half to see if it’s ready. The thin side of the filet will cook faster than the thicker chunks. Remove these from the heat first. Set fried fish on paper towels to drain.
- Layer each tortilla with cabbage, tomatillo salsa, avocado crema and top with fish. Love your life.
Physalis is one of my favorite genera of plants. Not aesthetically or even culinarily, but because of it’s family relations. Physalis philadelphica, also known as the tomatillo, is a close relative of Physalis alkekengi, those bright orange Chinese lantern plants that fill gardens and vases each fall.
“But wait,” you’re thinking, “isn’t the tomatillo related to the tomato?” Well yes, they are both members of the nightshade, or Solanaceae family. However, that makes them about as similar as other Solanaceae including potatoes, eggplants, peppers and even the petunias in your pots.
Now you’re thinking, “who cares?” True, this knowledge won’t impact your ability to make a great salsa. It may, however, make it more fun.
I’ve tried it boiled and roasted, but this simple, fresh salsa is light and easy, citrusy and bright. Peeling a tomatillo involves removing the papery skin and washing them clean, they may still be a little sticky. The glossy green skin gets eaten.
- 4-6 tomatillos, peeled, washed and cut in quartered
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1/4 cup chopped cilantro – stems and all
- 1/4 cup fresh lime juice, about 1 fresh lime
- 1 jalapeño
- Place tomatillos, garlic, cilantro and lime in the bowl of a food processor.
- Slice jalapeño in half, and using a teaspoon (eating not measuring) remove the seeds and ribs. Roughly chop and add to food processor. Wash hands with soap and water for 30-60 seconds. Don’t touch your face, anywhere, for the next 10 hours. Wear gloves to bed.*
- Pulse until finely chopped, but not liquified. Add a tablespoon or two of water to thin, if needed.
- Eat with tortilla chips or fish tacos.
*In this age of hysteria, I would like to qualify this statement as hyperbole. Chile peppers aren’t that dangerous, but don’t rub your eyes or lick your fingers for a little while.
It’s 5pm, and today has been long. The last thing I want to do is go home and cook, at least, not until I’ve opened a bottle of wine, which usually leads to an hour of sitting on the couch followed by dialing for dinner. I’ve got a fridge filled with ripe tomatoes, sugary-sweet peaches, sockeye salmon and crisp green beans. Honestly, I would rather debate Miley’s new haircut (get over it!) than face another night of steamed veggies and baked fish.
I’ve just killed your buzz. Here you are thinking that I will arrive home with a basket of farm fresh produce on my arm to be lovingly prepared, while discussing the events of the day with my loving husband soothed by a soundtrack of jazz vocals. A long-stemmed glass of something fabulous in hand, we’ll sit down to a candlelit evening at the dining room table, cloth napkins draped over our laps.
For real?! I’ve got a full time job, I’m beat and I want cheap Chinese and glass of whatever I know I won’t really taste after the second glass anyway. Which is when I think about compound butter.
Rolled in my fridge is a pound of farm-fresh, Amish butter (yes, from Dan at Agora). The other night I softened it and folded in fresh cilantro, lime zest, cumin and scallions. In under 30 minutes this evening I can sear a salmon filet, dress a salad and steam those green beans. A thin slice of the cilantro-lime butter will melt over the cooked fish. I’ll toss another with the beans. Suddenly I face the prospect of a richly sauced, yet light, healthy dinner on the table.
Plus, it’s cheaper than eating out, so we can treat ourselves to a good bottle. Something bubbly.
Cilantro Lime Compound Butter
Slices of the compound butter can be spread on fresh corn-on-the -cob, grilled meats or hearty fish like tuna or salmon. Try tossing a tablespoon with steamed green beans or zucchini.
- 1/2 pound softened butter
- 1 tsp cumin
- 1/2 tsp chili powder or Spanish Paprika
- 1 tsp finely grated lime zest
- 1/4 tsp white balsamic vinegar*
- 2 scallions, whites plus 1 inch greens, finely minced
- 3 tbs finely chopped cilantro
*Or Champagne vinegar. I bought mine at Sapore.
- Soften the butter at room temperature and stir it briefly in a medium bowl until creamy.
- With a rubber spatula, fold in the dry spices and lime zest.
- Fold in the vinegar a few drops at a time.
- Fold in the scallions and cilantro.
- Season to taste with salt and pepper.
- Using a piece of wax paper or plastic wrap, roll the butter into a log and refrigerate until firm.
My mission: create a watermelon martini using Sapore’s new Ruby Red Grapefruit White Balsamic Vinegar as bitters. My thought? “I don’t know the first thing about mixing cocktails, and today’s tipplers have a discerning palate.” My first mistake? Publicly throw down the watermelon martini gauntlet on Facebook.
It turns out the same skill set you use to hone a recipe for farm-fresh produce works pretty well for cocktails. I wanted something that showcased bright, clean, sweet watermelon flavor, like the fruit, not the Jolly Rancher. I wanted cool, herbal notes to ground it and lend some depth.
Fresh pressed watermelon juice was the place to start. Gin gave it herbal depth as did basil simple syrup, whose sugar brought out the sweetness in the fruit. The Ruby Red Grapefruit vinegar lent that certain je ne sais quoi – depth, brightness? A squeeze of lime made it pop.
I’m no mixologist, but I’ve got a new favorite cocktail, at least for the next few weeks.
The Mid-Summer Ruby
Ingredients for one cocktail:
- 3 ounces fresh pressed watermelon juice (see below)
- 1 ounce smooth gin – use Bombay and save the Beefeater for a great gin and tonic!
- 1/4 ounce basil simple syrup (see below)
- 1/2 tablespoon Ruby Red Grapefruit Vinegar*
- lime round to garnish
*You can find Ruby Red Grapefruit Vinegar at Sapore – order it online – or look for grapefruit bitters at your local specialty liquor store.
- In a cocktail shaker with ice, add watermelon juice, gin, simple syrup and vinegar. Shake and strain in to a martini glass or a lowball with ice. Garnish with a lime round. Squeeze over the cocktail before drinking.
Watermelon juice and simple syrup:
- Watermelon juice can be made by pressing cubed watermelon through a food mill and then straining it through cheese cloth. Or, you can purée it in a blender, strain it through a sieve and then strain again through cheese cloth.
- Make the basil simple syrup by stirring together 1 cup sugar and 1 cup water over medium high heat. Let cook until the sugar dissolves. Remove from heat, and add 1 packed cup whole basil leaves. Let steep for 15-20 minutes and strain to remove solids.