1 part chaos, 2 parts calm
By Mary Ann Ebner
Summer may not always live up to its lazy reputation, but when the season arrives, meals come together with a little less prep and a lot less urgency. With July’s warmth and a more relaxed pace, salads and raw food medleys stand in as main dishes. And with minimal time at the grill while the rice cooker steams up a batch of long grain, anyone can pull together a platter of fish tacos to lighten up mealtime.
Old friends know that I share a fish-taco romance with my husband. He deserves credit for making taco night part of the ritual during our courtship when we lived along California’s Central Coast. After evening runs from Monterey to Pacific Grove, dinner called and the caller was typically a plate of savory fish tacos somewhere on the peninsula, usually in town or the next town over. Fish tacos had long replaced sardines in this coastal community — once a canning capital — but even transplants like us could appreciate the town’s fishy history. We ate our share of fish tacos and even enjoyed a few sardines.
After we left California and moved five or six more times before landing in New York’s Hudson Valley, we realized that we’d let our favorite fish dish slip away. When we became parents on a tighter budget and splurged on fish, we occasionally broiled salmon with dill weed. We turned out perfectly fine meals but they didn’t remind us much of earlier fish taco endeavors. We’d drifted a little too far from beer-battered and fried whitefish topped with crunchy salsa and finished with zesty lime juice all tucked into fresh corn tortillas.
But as life seems to go, things often have a way of repeating themselves, even if reinvented with just a hint of resemblance. It was our 2014 trip to Costa Rica that took us back not only to our own vows to each other but to fish tacos (though our personal vows run far deeper than those to any food devotion). Though not a California Baja fish-fried classic taco, the ones we sampled near Arenal and Manuel Antonio rekindled our affinity for this lost symbol of our courtship and set our sons’ hearts ablaze with a great taste they could appreciate. Served primarily with fresh corn tortillas slathered with a creamy curry sauce, our favorite taco tasting in Costa Rica was anchored with flaky grilled white fish, smothered with tomatoes and bright green cilantro.
Making them at home is now a family affair. Everybody helps out, from whipping up a curry sauce to grilling the fish. It’s hard to pass on a Baja-style fried fish filet perched in a fresh tortilla, but for a slightly healthier plate, we lean more closely to a quick-cooking fish prepared in minutes on the grill. From Foodtown or the farmers’ market, almost any fish will do. Try halibut, tilapia, mahi mahi or even tuna. Personally, I think the whiter fish are better in tacos. With a fork, flake cooked fish into bite-sized pieces and layer the fish with rice and beans into tortillas.
If someone around your table doesn’t eat seafood, fill tortillas with the rice and beans and generously spoon on the cilantro, tomato and onion salsa or your favorite fresh fruit salsa. To finish a proper fish taco, add a generous squeeze of lime juice to your creation. The tarty juice of the lime enhances the flavor of the fish and everything else along with it, even complementing steamed rice.
Fish tacos make a fast and fresh option for hopeless romantics of the heart or those with a discriminating palate. For a summer meal that offers simplicity and a little fun, skip the utensils and roll out the fish taco bar.
Yield: Makes 8 generous servings.
1 to 1 ½ pounds flaky whitefish or your preferred fish
freshly ground black pepper
pinch of cayenne pepper
2 large whole tomatoes (diced)
1 sweet onion (chopped)
¼ cup olive oil
1 bunch fresh cilantro (chopped)
1 tablespoon curry powder
1 cup mayonnaise (plus 2 tablespoons olive oil if using commercial mayonnaise)
2 fresh limes (1 for juicing and 1 sliced in wedges)
1 avocado (pitted, peeled and thinly sliced)
16 small corn tortillas or (8 medium flour tortillas)
Fold together diced fresh tomatoes, chopped onion and cilantro in mixing bowl. Add a splash of olive oil, salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.
Mix curry powder with mayonnaise and freshly squeezed juice of 1 lime. If using basic bottled mayo, beat in two tablespoons of quality olive oil. Set aside.
Brush fish with remaining olive oil and dust with salt, a twist of black pepper and cayenne pepper. Grill (or pan-sear) over medium heat until cooked just through.
Warm tortillas on stovetop or in microwave and make your own fish tacos immediately by slathering tortillas with curry sauce and filling with flaky fish and salsa. Rice and beans are also perfect options to fold into the tortillas. Serve with avocado slices and lime wedges. Try fresh pineapple and mango chunks as a side.