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Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Fourth is For Fish Tacos

It was the Fourth of July, so naturally I was in the mood for Mexican food…Before you judge me for my patriotic short comings let me justify this by explaining that I have been in Mexico for the Fourth for the last two years making great memories and frankly, this Monday just  did not lend itself to a hot-dog eating frame of mind.

Believe me, I did my fare share of burger eating and flag waving having finally found myself in the states this year, but I did all that on Sunday night when conspicuous consumption of patriotic beverages (sangria is American right?) and subsequent the use of bunting as fashion accessory was more appropriate (or at least didn’t negatively impact my professional life).

The actual 4th was very un-4thy this year in Baltimore; humid, dreary, featuring a constant and unpleasantly warm breeze, it was a day made for the comforts of air conditioning not BBQ’s and fireworks. As if trolling Instagram full of pictures of friends in other sunny locales, in tiny American flag bathing suits with various spirited beverages  weren’t bad enough, the fact I had to work a half day just added insult to injury.  By the time I finally wrapped work and started to think about dinner and the rest of my evening I was in no kind of celebratory mood.

Mark and I, both exhausted from the weekend which featured a 6+ hour wedding and a drive back and forth to Philadelphia, decided to honor independence day by binge watching the John Adams miniseries on HBO. What this really boiled down to was mark transfixed to the television and me hiding in the bathroom googling Whitney Houston, Jennifer Hudson and other diva’s national anthem renditions so as not to compete with the audio…We all fly our flags in different ways right?

Turns out, you can only watch Whitney’s 1991 Star Spangled Banner performance 4 times before your tear ducts run dry, so pretty soon I was in need of other amusement. You see, I was already lost on John Adams and to Mark’s chagrin I began asking incessant and historically ignorant questions about our founding fathers and their role in the American Revolution. To avoid provoking his ire, and risk revealing the extent of the holes in my recollection of American history, I turned my focus, not surprisingly, to food.

Gray day, gray mood, I decided to make something colorful with bright and strong flavors to counter the prevailing sentiment. As I reminisced on my 4th’s on the sand in Cabo and Sayulita of the years past, I knew that Mexican cuisine was going to be the inspiration, and specifically the flavors of the beach. I immediately started craving fish tacos, and fortunately I had some Mahi Mahi on hand. I picked up some bright red cabbage, a jar of chipotles in adobo, carrots, and a few crunchy serranos to make up my technicolor palette.

I started out by making a chipotle-carrot-red cabbage slaw. The cabbage provides the deep base color and crunch, the carrots brighten visually and sweeten the taste, and the chipotles in adobo lend creeping heat and seductive smoke. I added a bit of sugar to the slaw once mixed to counter the heat and help the cabbage break down while I prepared the fish.

One of my favorite seafood preparations in Mexican cuisine is anything “Al Aijillo” which is essentially garlic, oil, and hot red chiles as a sauce or coating for shrimp, octopus, calamari etc. I love the savory and unctuous flavor of the garlic mixing with the heat of the chiles, however, with my slaw already delivering significant heat, I couldn’t go with this preparation for my fish. Instead, I decided to rub the Mahi Mahi in a healthy coating of garlic powder and rather than add heat, I added cumin powder to deepen the flavor and make the dish more fragrant and earthy. Then, I heated butter in a pan and seared the fish until golden brown. About half way through, I added the juice of a lime to cut the garlic and brighten the flavors.

Now, usually when I do tacos, I will fry the filled tacos in vegetable oil imparting a chewy yet crunchy aspect to the shells. I suspected this would be overwhelming to the naturally more mild flavor of fish as opposed to the usual pork or beef. So instead, I “grilled” the tortillas by briefly laying them on my cook-top on top of the flame. I crisped them slightly, letting them puff up, and gave the edges a smoky char and somehow managed not to burn my fingers. I served the tacos with fresh slices of serrano peppers for the contrast of color and a final spicy crunch. We washed dinner down with a cold and inexpensive Torrontes that was the perfect counterpoint to the heat and savory fish tacos.

The night ended as they usually do, me sated and on the sofa, slowly falling asleep while muttering commentary to make it look like I’m paying attention to the TV, and Mark patiently explaining (insert any scenario here) why Ben Franklin was a much better diplomat and politician than John Adams could have ever hoped to be…we headed to bed to the sounds of the fireworks in Fells…Can’t get much better than that.

Happy Fourth of July!
Garlic-Cumin-Lime Mahi-Mahi Tacos with Chipotle Slaw

  • 12 oz Mahi Mahi fillet (or other white fish)
  • 6 Corn tortillas
  • 1 Small head of red cabbage -  finely chopped for slaw
  • 2 Medium serrano peppers – sliced into rounds
  • 2 Large carrots – grated finely
  • ½ Cup Mayonnaise
  • 1 Teaspoon sugar
  • 1 Can La Costena Chipotle Peppers in Adobo Sauce (or similar brand)
  • 2 Tablespoons garlic powder
  • 1 Tablespoon ground cumin
  • Salt to taste
  • 1 Lime
  • 3 Tablespoons salted butter (you can use oil if you prefer)

In a large bowl, combine cabbage, carrots, mayo, and sugar and incorporate well. Cut the Chipotles into thins strips and add them, with their sauce to the slaw mixture – combine evenly. You can add a bit of vinegar if you find the flavor to rich or prefer a less crunchy slaw, but in this case I did not use any. Set the slaw in aside or in the refrigerator if planning to wait to serve.

Pat your fish dry, and rub all sides with the garlic powder and cumin. Heat the butter in a large pan, but do not brown. Once hot, add your fish and sear until golden. Add a pinch of salt to taste and flip after about 4 minutes on medium heat. After another 4 minutes, add the juice of the lime and turn up the heat to cook of the liquid. I usually break up the pieces of the fish to get more charred surface area.

When ready to serve, carefully, grill your tortillas on your stove top by resting on the grate over the flame and flipping as they puff, crisp, and get a light char.
Place the fish in the center of the tortilla, add a generous serving of the slaw, and finish with the serrano peppers – serve immediately.