The best fish tacos

It is so not spring yet.

Not even close.

But winter’s over.  Okay it’s like, 70% over.  In terms of both probability and the calendar of Midwest Seasons.  It could blizzard again, but it probably won’t.  It should keep getting slowly warmer, with a cold day or an icy wind here and there.

So it’s pretty much over.  Like, it might as well be.  In Chicago, we round to the nearest heroic feat.  Like the groundhog, it’s the time of year when #notthatwarm makes its annual debut.

Examples:

  • I saw a dude in shorts the other day.  It was 37 degrees.  I mentally high-fived him.
  • On the way to dinner with my grandmother Saturday night, we noted the time:  5:41pm.  And we noted that it was not yet dark.  And we rejoiced.
  • Danny wore his skinny-brimmed straw fedora to my parents’ on Sunday.  He said it was to get him in the spirit for the upcoming tropical family vacation, but I know it was because the sun was shining and the temperature was such that a wool driving cap was truly, genuinely unnecessary.
  • I am totally over my winter coat. In reality, I love my winter coat because it somehow whittles off the extra five pounds that show up this time of year – quite an achievement for a winter coat. In mid-February, none of that matters because GET IT OFF ME I WILL LAYER MY FAVORITE SWEATERS INSTEAD. Which I did proudly, on a recent trip to the grocery store.
  • It smells like spring outside.  Not full-blown spring.  But like damp soil and whatever it’s thinking about just before it starts to grow new grass.
  • The bulbs planted along the walk of our apartment building are just now beginning to peek above the dirt.  And I am, as I am every year, astonished that spring seriously comes back again, just like she promised.

This isn’t to say that I’ve made my last batch of soup or that the days of my Dutch oven are numbered.  That keeps happening long into spring.  (Soup is just too good to stop making altogether.)

But it is to say that our minds are on lighter, fresher things.  Brighter colors.  Citrus that is not a bag of clementines.  Beer the color of caramel, not chocolate.  Ibrahim Ferrer, not Bon Iver.

If you are getting the feeling I’m setting the stage for tacos, you’re right.

{TRUE STORY, this just happened:  Danny just got back from the little shop around the corner to get our favorite tortillas.  He has announced to all of us that someday, if he opens a taco shop, he is going to call it Tortilla Town and the jingle will be set to the tune of Funky Town.  He is singing the jingle and dancing along to it.} 

Chicago is known for having some pretty slammin’ Latin food in general, and tacos in particular.  Combine that with the fact that street food is the new black, and you’ve got trendy taco places (good and just okay) popping up everywhere.

For the most part, I leave taco nirvana to the professionals.  Though I long for many things in my kitchen, a rotating spit is not one of them.  I would need a pep talk and probably a professional chef buddy to attempt anything involving lengua.  Goat meat is hard to find.

However:  there is one taco that these two gringos do better than – I will say it – any restaurant with a similar offering.

And that, my friends, is the fish taco.

The way we prepare these tacos, like most things that are delicious, was born out of budget, necessity, a quest for a healthy dinner, and, well, a hankering for tacos.  I make taco seasoning at home (lower in salt and infinitely cheaper than grocery store versions, and we can make ours as spicy as we want), we buy a bunch of tilapia when it’s on sale and freeze it in portions, and our favorite local tortillas are about 25 cents per package and delivered fresh 6 days a week to the shop around the corner.

Of course, half the time we make these tacos, we mix up a batch of margaritas too, or bust out the nice sippin’ tequila, undermining the whole budget/health vibe.  Whoops.

But at this time of year, when you can almost smell new green growth, and you’ve boycotted winter wear, and the secret’s out that spring really will be here soon, it’s not a bad excuse to throw a little party.

So get this:

  • 1 lb fresh or thawed tilapia fillets
  • a package of corn tortillas (our 
  • a bunch of cilantro
  • onion (I prefer white onions with tacos)
  • avocado
  • 1 lime, halved
  • about 1 cup shredded cabbage (red or white is fine)
  • about 1 cup shredded carrot
  • your favorite salsa and hot sauce
  • olive oil
  • taco seasoning (recipe follows)
And do this:

To be honest, this is not a difficult recipe.  The most complicated thing you’ll have to do is dice an onion.  Or maybe toast tortillas, if you are skittish about open flames.  (However THAT PART IS MANDATORY AND CANNOT BE UNDERESTIMATED.)
So first, I find it’s easiest to get your chopping/assembling of toppings and fixins out of the way.  This recipe is a great opportunity to work on your Cute Small Bowl Collection.
You should end up with a small army of bowls full of the following:
  • Cilantro, chopped fine
  • Onion, diced
  • Lime – cut one of the halves into quarters
  • Avocado, halved and cut into slices, ready to dig out with a spoon
  • A carrot & cabbage slaw of sorts – mix the cabbage and carrots with the juice of the other half of the lime, and some cilantro.  I sometimes grab a little shredded cabbage & carrot from the salad bar at the store if they happen to have it (sometimes I even pre-dress it with lime & cilantro if they happen to have those out).  This time I happened to have half a head of cabbage left over from a batch of ribollita, and we have also just replenished our enormous carrot stash, so I peeled the outside of the carrot, then continued using the peeler to make strips of carrot that I cut in half and mixed into the cabbage.
Now that that’s done, you can get to your fish.  As I mentioned, I make a taco seasoning out of what we tend to already have in the pantry, and the recipe for it is below.
Sprinkle each fillet with a generous amount of seasoning – not a full layer, necessarily, but heavier than you’d think; more than what you’d do for salt & pepper.  You can adjust this in future incarnations of your tacos, and I am willing to bet you’ll give it more next time.  Cooking them in the pan gives them an almost blackened look.
Splash a couple of teaspoons of oil in a large skillet, and heat the skillet over high heat.  Once it’s hot, put the fish seasoned side down in the pan.  Sear!!  While it cooks, sprinkle the other side of the fish (this side should be looking at you right now) with seasoning.  You can reduce the heat a little bit, but I prefer to cook it over aggressive heat to get some crispy edges.  Cook the fish for a few minutes on the one side, then flip, cooking for a couple more minutes.  It’s done when you press on the thickest part of the fillet and it flakes apart.
Kill the heat on that pan and let the fish hang out for a bit.  
Now it’s time to grill your tortillas.  This is the best way to approximate freshly made tortillas, and I’ve gotten to a point where, truly, nothing else will do.  It will change the way you feel about tortillas and homemade tacos in general.  Occasionally Danny will microwave his to make them a little more pliable, but I like the bit of chewiness this method provides.  Whatever you do, don’t do NOTHING to the tortillas.  Sick.
(It should also go without saying that you’ll need heat-safe tongs for this, as well as a gas stove.  Those with electric stoves are out of luck and should consider an upgrade.)
Over a low flame, simply place a tortilla on the grate over the burner, and let it toast for 30 seconds or so per side.  

A little char here & there is PERFECT.  You will love it, I promise.  (I am also the one who will eat a slightly over-charred tortilla.  This coming from the girl who cannot abide a dark piece of toast.)  Flip the tortilla with the tongs, then remove to a plate with a towel over it to keep the cooked ones warm.

Once you’ve got your tortillas set up, your toppings sorted out, and your fish cooked, YOU ARE READY TO PARTY.  Only one thing left to do:  with a fork or spatula, flake the fish apart in the pan. Don’t be shy about it.  I still like some hearty chunks, but just a few – this way the smaller pieces of fish combine with the other flavors in the tacos.
I took a photo of a finished taco, but the fish was buried beneath so much cilantro-avocado-salsa-slaw chaos that it looked pretty chintzy.  Like a 4 year old made a salad on a tortilla.  So you’ll just have to trust me and make it yourself.
OH YES!  The seasoning.  Here that is.  Keep it in a little jar in the pantry.  If you make these with the frequency we do, you’ll make a new batch every few months.

2 TB chili powder
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp onion powder
1/2 tsp dried oregano
1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
1 tsp paprika (I use a combination of smoked and regular)
1 TB cumin
2 tsp salt
2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
I throw all of these on a small piece of parchment paper, then roll the paper up and shimmy the spices into a jar.  Shake the jar to combine the spices.  Sip your margarita and bask in your spice superiority.

Comments

  1. we need to eat this. soon.

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