It’s difficult to imbue fried foods — even the best ones — with freshness and snap, to shear away that natural feeling of overindulgence that goes hand-in-hand with eating them.
Except, I’d argue, in the case of fish tacos.
There are also dishes that wring richly intricate tastes from a few ingredients: Shirred eggs and preserved lemons come to mind, although there are many in the worldwide running — and again, I’d say fish tacos are definitely among the pack.
I think it’s a combination of the substance fried — fish, the lightest meat there is — and the other fillings, which are usually raw, crisp and vibrantly colored. This is especially true of Baja-style fillings. Shreds of cabbage, radishes sliced as thin as contact lenses, pickled onions and a zippy crema, pinkish from Tabasco, help provide flavor without much bulk.
So this past Sunday, we made supper at my friend R’s place, like we do most Sundays, and what else would have sufficed for a chilled, homesick-for-summer crowd?
Here’s the hurlyburly “meez” evolving on the countertop. The hands on the left, at work on a chocolate Guinness cake, belong to the visiting L, my erstwhile college roommate and a master baker. The hands on the right, shown patiently grinding salsa (yes, the same salsa) in a mortar, are J’s.
Salsa porn! Even more deliciously filthy with chips.
Now, the key to frying the perfect fish taco is the batter. I generally go about it this way, flying by the seat of my pants: Pour a beer — we never go wrong with PBR — into a mixing bowl. Whisk in flour until the consistency is a touch thicker than crepe batter and forms an opaque coating on the back of a spatula. Season to taste with Tabasco, lime zest, salt and pepper. Note: The batter will taste awful, as an uncooked beer-flour tincture isn’t your average amuse-bouche. Just focus on the seasonings and try not to grimace. Drop in 1-inch pieces of a firm-fleshed fish. (We use tilapia, because it’s cheap.)
Fry the battered fish in very hot oil, about 350 degrees Fahrenheit, until honey-blond in color. Remove immediately with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.
Unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures of R frying the fish. This is because I’m a shameful weenie when it comes to deep-frying.
The fear started years ago, during college, when I caused a towering, 4-alarm inferno of a grease fire in a dorm kitchen. In my defense, the fire wasn’t at all my fault, although I was certainly the catalyst, and the real scapegoat put out the fire in about five seconds. (Later, he attributed his cool-headed damping of the flames to a long-ago summer job at Arby’s. Ha!)
But the sight of those blue flames still haunt me, and I remain terrified of hot oil, although I have no problems with similarly perilous flambéing and grilling. … Ahem. Sorry. Where was I? It’s dark in here. Ah yes, the remaining recipes!
1 cup sour cream
8-9 dashes Tabasco, or to taste
Combine and blend until smooth.
1 red onion, cut in thin quarter-slices
1 cup white vinegar
1/4 cup lime juice
1/2 tsp. granulated sugar
Combine first 3 ingredients. Add onions, stir and allow to marinate for 1 hour before using.