How to make the perfect fish tacos | Felicity Cloake | Life and style

As a California girl, the new Duchess of Sussex claims “few bites of food” make her happier than fish tacos from Mexico’s Baja peninsula just south of the border: “Being from Los Angeles, I was conditioned to like Baja-style food from the womb … trust me, they are insanely good! I dream about those tacos.”

As with all the best dishes, there’s some debate about its origins, with the city of Ensenada and the town of San Felipe both claiming paternity: the first credits Japanese migrants for the crispy, tempura-style fish, and the latter the local climate, which apparently is only tolerable on a regular diet of mustardy beer batter. One serves the fish in corn tortillas, the other in corn or wheat, one fries in oil, the other lard, one adds guacamole and ketchup – and that’s before you even get to the choice of fish or salad.

Meghan herself favours a distinctly Californian-style grilled version with peppers and onions – and, 5,000 miles away, we’re even less bound by local loyalties. So, if you happen to find yourself stuck in a damp, grey city more into fish and chips than fish tacos, what’s the best way to make them at home?

The fish

Unsurprisingly, the fish found in the ocean off Baja California bear scant resemblance to those in my local fishmongers. Mexican expert Rick Bayless says that “practically any” boneless skinless fish fillets will work (Markle enjoys salmon), but Bayless likes “larger-flake, lighter-flavor fish best”. His sea bass, J Kenji López-Alt’s hake and Rick Stein’s cod, from his book The Road to Mexico, are easy enough to source, but I use monkfish and stone bass in place of the more exotic mahi mahi and flounder.

Hake and both varieties of bass prove a little soft for our liking, but monkfish and cod work brilliantly, being firm enough to hold their shape, and juicy enough to withstand the rigours of deep-frying: look for cod or similar white fish cheeks, which are not only a little cheaper than steaks, but are also already conveniently cut to size.

Rick Bayless’ fish tacos: ‘practically any boneless skinless fish fillets will work’.



Rick Bayless’ fish tacos: ‘Practically any boneless skinless fish fillets will work.’ Photographs: Felicity Cloake

Preparation

Whatever fish you use, once it’s battered and deep-fried, it should begin to look a bit more familiar – unless you go down the American route. Sam Anguiano of LA’s Pink Taco rubs his fish with Old Bay seasoning and grills it over fresh mesquite for the “ultimate fresh flavour” – in the absence of mesquite, I go for a hot griddle pan.

They’re delicious, as are Sam Sifton’s seasoned-flour versions, shallow fried in oil and butter, but texturally neither can compete with the crunch of hot batter: as López-Alt wisely observes, “if there’s any cooking method in the world that can make all foods taste great, it’s deep-frying”. (I don’t try frying them in lard, as I can’t get hold of any free-range stuff in time, but if you have a good extraction system, from my extensive experience with fish fried in beef dripping, I’d recommend it.) If you’d like a healthier version, then by all means grill them … but know you’ll be missing out.

Sam Anguiano’s LA version is grilled over fresh mesquite. You may not have any of this.



Sam Anguiano’s fish is rubbed with Old Bay seasoning, then grilled over fresh mesquite.

Although Stein is clearly a man who knows how to batter a fish (flour, salt, baking powder and ice-cold beer), his simple, rather British version can’t compete with the spicy tang of Bayless and López-Alt’s more highly seasoned recipes. Yellow mustard is apparently de rigeur in Baja California, but I can’t help thinking the more fiery English sort would be even better.

López Alt adds paprika, and Sifton chilli powder, while Bayless goes for Mexican oregano and chicken stock, which gives his batter a wonderfully savoury flavour, although vegetable would do for pescatarians. Any extra chilli feels unnecessary given the accompaniments, and López-Alt’s egg and double flouring process gives his batter a crunchy, fried-chicken-like solidity which, while undoubtedly pleasing to eat, doesn’t prove quite as popular as Bayless and Stein’s lighter, crisper versions, possibly because they’re easier to overeat.

The sauces

J Kenji Lopez Alt’s tacos have an ‘addictively savoury flavour’



J Kenji López-Alt’s tacos: ‘addictively savoury.’

You could just dollop on sour cream and chilli sauce and be done with it, but most of the recipes call for homemade “crema” made from a mixture of sour cream and mayonnaise, with Stein thinning it with lime juice and Bayless milk, while López-Alt sticks with mayonnaise mixed with sriracha, and Anguiano sour cream mixed with Louisiana hot sauce. I find the more liquid versions hard to keep in the taco, but López-Alt’s is a little too solid for me to drizzle. Souped-up sour cream with your own favourite brand of chilli-based condiment will do the job: although it’s a long way from home, López-Alt’s sriracha gives an addictively savoury flavour, and Stein and Sifton’s chipotle chillies in adobo sauce provide a more complex smokiness. Even good old Tabasco works in a pinch.

Although salsa isn’t mandatory, it does give extra freshness to the dish, especially if, like Stein and Sifton, you make your own pico de gallo from tomatoes, onion, coriander and chilli, mixed with a generous amount of lime juice and salt. A salad of raw chopped cabbage is non-negotiable, however: we like the crunch of Stein’s white version, but red or green would do just as well. Anguiano also includes a cucumber slaw with red onion and serrano pepper dressed with orange, lemon and lime juice: nice on the side, but too wet for my liking in a taco.

Faced with a dearth of decent fruit, López-Alt uses quick pickled red onions instead of the tomatoes he says are typically added to fish tacos in California for their “brightness and acidity”. Although we are now in peak tomato season, I’d urge you to make a batch of his onions anyway. They’re incredible. His avocados are another optional extra: you don’t need them, but I do like the creamy, squidgy texture they bring to the party – and if a taco isn’t too full to pick up, surely you’re not doing it right.

The tortillas

You can use corn or flour – but I don’t know why you’d go for the latter when corn tortillas have so much more flavour. They’re still oddly hard to track down in this country, but if you don’t live near a stockist, then buy them online. They freeze very well, which means you’re only ever a few ingredients away from taco-based bliss: now with the seal of royal approval.

Perfect fish tacos

Prep 20 min
Cook 5 min
Serves 4

4 ripe tomatoes
½ small red onion
1 jalapeño chilli
1 small bunch coriander
Juice of 1½ limes
¼ tsp salt
120ml sour cream
2 tbsp chilli sauce, plus extra to serve
½ white, green or red cabbage
1 avocado, optional
200g plain flour
¼ tsp salt
½ tsp baking powder
1 tsp mustard powder
1 tsp chicken or vegetable stock cube or powder
300ml cold lager
Neutral oil, for frying
8 corn tortillas
400g cod cheeks, or other firm, white fish, cut into strips

Deseed and dice the tomatoes, and put in a bowl. Finely chop the onion and chilli, removing the seeds, if you like, and add to the bowl. Roughly chop the coriander and stir into the bowl with lime juice and salt to taste.

Step 1: prep the vegetables.



Prep the vegetables first, because the fish takes no time to cook. Photographs: Dan Matthews for the Guardian.

In a second bowl, mix the sour cream and chilli sauce to taste. Finely shred the cabbage and roughly chop the avocado, if using.

Combine the dry ingredients for the batter, then whisk in just enough beer to make a thick paste



Combine the dry ingredients for the batter, then whisk in just enough beer to make a thick paste.

Mix the flour, salt, baking and mustard powders in a medium bowl and crumble in the stock cube. Whisk in just enough cold beer to make a thick paste the consistency of double cream.

Bring a deep pan a third full of oil to about 180C/350F. Meanwhile, warm the tortillas in a dry pan and wrap in a tea towel.

Dip the fish in the batter, shake off any excess and deep-fry in batches for four minutes, turning once halfway.



Dip the fish in the batter, shake off any excess and deep-fry in batches for four minutes, turning once halfway.

Dip the fish in the batter, shaking off any excess, then fry in batches for about two minutes on each side, until golden brown. Drain on kitchen paper and season.

Fill the tacos with the cabbage, fish, salsa, chilli soured cream and avocado and tuck in.



Fill the tacos with the cabbage, fish, salsa, chilli soured cream and avocado and tuck in. Photograph: Felicity Cloake for the Guardian

Put a spoonful of cabbage in the middle of each taco and the fish on top. Add the salsa, chilli sour cream and avocado, if using, and serve with extra hot sauce.

Baja-style fish tacos: good enough to prompt a royal removal to California, or does Mexico have finer examples to offer? Do you like them deep-fried or simply grilled, with chunky salsa or chilli sauce? And why is it still so hard to find corn tortillas in the UK?

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