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.
Some things are easier to just buy. I’ve made ketchup and tortilla chips, and read recipes for mustard and Hoisin, but they’re just too much work to regularly make at home. Mayonnaise and salad dressings are not. Nor, I’ve discovered is Mexican crema.
It would be insulting to call crema “Mexican sour cream. More appropriate is a comparison to crème fraîche. Buttery smooth, and elegantly tart, crema is rich and balanced, a perfect compliment to the grassy heat of jalapeño.
After striking out at several Washington, DC grocery stores, I looked up a recipe online. With less than ten minutes of work, and about 24 hours of waiting, I had a full jar ready to use. I’ll never buy it off the shelf again.
Apparently, the difference between crema and crème fraîche is the balance of cream and buttermilk, resulting in different thicknesses. Sounds good to me.
- 1 cup cream
- 2 tsp cultured buttermilk
- Warm cream slightly over low heat, keeping it under 100 degrees. It will still feel cool. 2-3 minutes on low is plenty.
- Sterilize a container, like a ball jar, by submerging it in boiling water for 2-3 minutes. Drain and dry with a clean towel.
- Pour cream and buttermilk into the sterilized jar. Stir (with a clean spoon), and lightly cover. Leave out on the counter in a warm room, about 70 degrees, for 12- 18 hours, until the mixture has noticeably thickened.*
- Refrigerate for another 4 to 6 hours to set, and it’s ready to serve.
*Milk on the counter overnight sounds scary. Here’s my thought: The Mexicans and the French have been thickening cream on the counter for generations. There is no great oral tradition of death from crema. As always, be careful and know your sources – local dairy like Maryland’s Trickling Springs and Ohio’s Snowville creameries are a great place to start.
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.
I love quesadillas, that authentic Mexican treat that I first enjoyed overlooking Boothbay Harbor in Maine. It was the day before my 21st birthday and Sandy Larsen née Bugbee took me out to dinner. I believe that evening’s special involved crab and brie. Authenticity aside, it was delicious, and certainly freed me to think beyond chicken and cheese.
Just about anything tastes good grilled between two tortillas with hot melted cheese, including, it turns out, peaches. Sounds funny, right, but think about the joy of peach salsa over grilled chicken or with salty tortilla chips. Peaches are a natural with sharp Amish cheddar, mild Asian Barbecue sausage from Canales Quality Meats, warm cumin and bright red onion between hearty corn tortillas.
I cook the sausage and onions and assemble these ahead of time for entertaining. Stack them in the fridge, pull them out and fry them right up. A pizza cutter is your best friend for slicing these without pushing all the filling out. No salsa is needed, but this smoky peach salsa would gild the lily* beautifully.
*We don’t us phrases like “gild the lily” nearly often enough anymore. “Right as rabbits” is a bit neglected too.
- 3 Asian Barbecue sausages*
- 1 red onion, diced and sautéed
- 1/4 tsp cumin
- 8-10 6” corn tortillas
- 2 – 3 cups grated Cheddar cheese
- 3 peaches, peeled and thinly sliced
- 1/4 cup chopped basil
- Olive oil
*No Asian Barbecue sausages on hand? Sauté any good pork sausage and add a tsp of Chinese 5 Spice powder and a tablespoon of soy while cooking.
- Squeeze the sausage from the casings and sauté over medium heat, breaking them up with a spoon until crumbled, browned and cooked through. Remove with a slotted spoon and reserve.
- Add 1 tbs olive oil to pan and sauté onion until softened and edges begin to brown. Season with cumin, salt and pepper.
- Layer one corn tortilla with cheese, cooked sausage, peach slices, onions and basil. Top with more cheese and a second tortilla.
- Fry quesadillas in 1 tbs oil over medium heat, about 3 minutes per side, turning once when the tortilla begins to brown in spots.
- With a pizza cutter, slice into wedges and serve.