While fish is on the minds and menus of many observing the Lenten season, there are more options than the local parish fish fry. Not that church fish fries could ever be considered a bad thing, it’s just that there’s another fish story to tell.
Let’s talk fish tacos.
Fish tacos are an awesome combination of fried or grilled fish, crunchy toppings and a smear of a creamy sauce to cool it all off.
What’s not to like about beer-battered and fried cod drizzled with lemony cream; grilled mahi mahi with charred peppers and a fresh squeeze of lime; blackened tilapia with creamy avocado sauce, all served on warm corn tortillas topped with shredded cabbage and tangy pickled onions?
To make a fish taco, you can use just about any kind of mild white fleshed fish: cod, mahi mahi or tilapia. The fish can be lightly seasoned with salt and pepper or a variety of spices. You can grill, broil or pan sauté or fry the fish. The classic Baja-style fish taco are pieces of fish, about the size of a frozen fish stick, lightly dipped in a beer-batter and then fried.
What fish tacos must have — no matter the fish, style of cooking, seasoning or sauce — is a finish with a fresh squeeze of lime.
Like most other foods, fish tacos have a history.
Arnoldo Contreras, 31, co-owner of La Luna Supermercado in Detroit recalls them fondly from his childhood days growing up in Jalisco, Mexico. There, he says, the fish was simply grilled and served in a soft corn tortilla. And that is just how he makes them today.
“The fish cooks fast because it’s really tender,” Contreras said. “I salt and pepper, grill it and it cooks up in a couple of minutes. It’s simple.”
Once grilled, Contreras, chops the fish and puts it on corn soft tortillas. He serves it with a squeeze of lime or lemon, cilantro, onions and tomatillo salsa.
“When you grill the fish (instead of frying) it takes more time and you have to watch it so it doesn’t fall apart, but to me it’s 100 times healthier because it’s not deep-fried,” Contreras said.
Chef Luis Garza, 50, owner of El Asador Mexican Restaurant in southwest Detroit says the fish taco (grilled or fried) is one of his best sellers averaging more than 120 orders each week during Lent.
“We use only mahi mahi and top it with shredded cabbage, red pepper, red onions, cucumber, sliced tomatoes, lime juice and cilantro,” Garza said. “We also top it with a chipotle aioli.”
Garza’s chipotle aioli, he says, is a blend of mayonnaise, chipotle and plain yogurt.
HOW THEY EVOLVED
Some say the fish taco was born in 1930 in Ensenada, Mexico, where Japanese immigrants brought their tempura batter technique to Mexico.
The popularity of the fish taco in the U.S. is credited to Californian Ralph Rubio. Rubio discovered and got hooked on fish tacos in the early ‘70s during spring break surfing trips to Mexico.
The story goes that after eating fish tacos at one particular taco stand, he tried to convince the stand owner to bring his business to San Diego. The owner wouldn’t, but what Rubio got out of him was some semblance of a recipe.
With the help of family members, Rubio perfected the recipe, and in 1983, he opened his first restaurant with fish tacos as the signature item. Rubio now operates more than 193 Rubio’s Coastal Grill’s in California, Arizona, Colorado, Utah and Nevada. His restaurants have sold more than 200 million fish tacos according to www.rubios.com
It’s that southern California street food style that Brandon Zarb, 28, executive chef of Imperial and Public House, both in Ferndale, Mich., is going for.
“Our fish tacos, served only on Mondays are a real driver on our menu,” he said. “The toppings and fish change with the season.”
Right now, Zarb is serving tacos made with grilled swordfish marinated with lime juice, olive oil, chili peppers and coriander.
“A lot of the appeal of the fish tacos is the freshness and the lightness rather than, say, the carnitas,” Zarb said.
Whatever your pleasure with fish tacos, please don’t anger the culinary Gods and throw a fish stick and some tartar sauce in a tortilla. Try today’s recipes instead to spice up your fish repertoire.
BAJA STYLE FISH TACOS
These fish tacos have a beer-batter coating.
Makes: 6 / Preparation time: 20 minutes / Total time: 45 minutes
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 cup dark Mexican beer
1/3 cup mayonnaise
2/3 cup Mexican crema or reduced-fat sour cream
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons water
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Oil, for frying
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt, plus more for seasoning
2 pounds skinned halibut cut into 5-by-1/2-inch strips
Freshly ground black pepper
2 cups shredded cabbage
1 cup tomatillo salsa (store-bought or homemade) for garnish, optional
Pickled jalapenos, for garnish, optional
Pickled red onions, optional (see note)
In a large bowl, mix the flour, salt and pepper in a medium bowl. Gradually add in the beer while whisking. Set aside and let the batter rest for 15 minutes before using.
To make the cream sauce: In a medium bowl mix together the mayonnaise and crema. Whisk in the lemon zest, lemon juice and water. Season, to taste, with salt and pepper (can be made 3 days ahead, covered and refrigerated).
For the fish:
In a large skillet, over medium heat, add enough oil to reach a depth of 1-inch. Heat the oil until a deep-fry thermometer registers 350 degrees or when the end of a wooden spoon sizzles when inserted into the oil.
On a large plate, combine the flour and salt. Season the fish pieces all over with salt and pepper and coat with the flour. Working in batches, dip the fillets in the beer batter and coat on both sides. Fry in the hot oil until golden brown and cooked through, about 5 minutes. Transfer to paper towels to drain.
Make tacos with the tortillas and fish and top each with cream, shredded cabbage, tomatillo salsa and pickled jalapenos, if desired.
Cook’s note: to make the pickled red onions. Thinly slice one medium red onion and place in a bowl. Stir in 1/2cup white wine vinegar, 2 tablespoons sugar, 1 cup water and 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt. Refrigerate 1 hour or overnight.
Adapted from www.foodnetwork.com
BLACKENED FISH TACOS WITH AVOCADO-CILANTRO SAUCE
Serves: 6 / Preparation time: 15 minutes / Total time: 35 minutes
1 1/2 pounds tilapia fillets
1 1/2 teaspoons smoked paprika
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon onion powder
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons canola oil
12 corn tortillas
1/4 green cabbage, sliced thin
1/2 medium-sized red onion, thinly sliced
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
Juice of 1 lime
1/2 cup sour cream
1 ripe avocado, pitted and skinned
1/4 cup cilantro, chopped
Juice of 1 lime
1 jalapeno, chopped and seeded
Salt, to taste
Set the fish on a shallow dish or pie plate. In a small bowl, combine the smoked paprika, garlic powder, dried oregano, onion powder, cumin, salt, brown sugar, and cayenne pepper. Sprinkle the mixture over both sides of the tilapia fillets, and then rub the seasonings in.
In a food processor or blender combine all of the avocado-cilantro sauce ingredients. Pulse until well-combined.
In a large bowl, combine all the slaw ingredients and mix well.
Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed pan over medium-high heat. Once heated, add the tilapia (a few at a time if you can’t fit them all at once). Cook for 4-5 minutes on each side, or until the outside is blackened and the fish flakes apart easily.
Remove the fish from the heat, and if desired, warm the corn tortillas in the same skillet over medium heat, cooking for about 30 seconds on each side.
Break up the tilapia into 2-3 inches pieces. Stack the tortillas in twos. Distribute the fish evenly between the 6 sets of tortillas, and top with Slaw and Avocado-Cilantro Sauce. Serve.
Adapted from www.cookinglight.com
GRILLED MAHI MAHI TACOS WITH GRILLED PEPPERS AND ONIONS
Serves: 6 / Preparation time: 20 minutes / Total time: 30 Minutes
1 medium white onion cut into 1/2-inch-thick slices
1 package (8 ounces) mini sweet bell peppers
3/4 teaspoon salt, divided
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, divided
4 Mahi Mahi fillets about 5 ounces each
8 corn tortillas
1 small jalapeño pepper, thinly sliced
8 lime wedges (optional)
Preheat grill to high heat.
Arrange onion slices and bell peppers on plate, brush with some canola oil. Grill onions for 6 minutes or until grill marks develop. Turn and grill on second side until onions are tender. Grill the bell peppers, about 10 minutes, turning occasionally. Remove onions and bell peppers from grill, and let stand for 5 minutes. Slice onion rings in half. Thinly slice bell peppers; discard stems and seeds. Combine onion, bell peppers, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and 1/8 teaspoon black pepper in a small bowl.
Rub the fish with a little canola oil and sprinkle fish evenly with remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and remaining 3/8 teaspoon black pepper. Place fish on grill and grill about 3-4 minutes on each side or until fish is tender and cuts through easily with a fork or until desired degree of doneness.
Warm tortillas according to package directions. Divide fish, onion mixture, and jalapeño slices evenly among tortillas. Serve with lime wedges, if desired.
Adapted from www.cookinglight.com