How to Make Crunchy Fried Fish Tacos
The fishing this year has been simultaneously great and not-so-great. The great part is that I've been able to get out on the water more this year than in the last several combined. This is due to a combination of falling in with some seriously fishing-obsessed buddies and a freshly reinvigorated love of charter boat fishing on school nights. The not-so-great part is that most of the fish we've been catching are what serious fishermen commonly refer to as garbage fish.
Any night out on the water with good friends and a couple of cold beers is bound to be fun, but there are only so many cocktail blues, sea robins, and sand sharks you can catch before you begin to long for a striper on the end of your line.
Don't get me wrong: blues can be a lot of fun to catch and they'll put up a heck of a fight on a spinner from time to time, but I've never been a fan of them as eating fish. The meat is dark, gray, oily, and strongly flavored. Sure, if you've got a cold smoking cabinet they can make a fine addition to your Jewish breakfast spread, but as a fresh meat, it's not for everybody.
When I was younger, my family's typical method for dealing with a glut of blues was to blacken them. Paul Prudhomme, the grandaddy of popular American Cajun cuisine, was still on television, and his blackening blends were the hot commodity in the dried spice section of the supermarket. The deep crust you could develop in a cast iron skillet with hot butter and the intense aroma of the spices worked perfectly to cover up the textural and flavor-based flaws inherent to even the freshest blue fish.*
*I know there are some folks out there who love the flavor of fresh blues. To me you are like Rush fans: we will never, ever see eye to eye.
It's still a fine method, but recently I've taken to an even better one: fried fish tacos. If there's any cooking method in the world that can make all foods taste great, it's deep frying.
Frying fish for tacos can be as simple as dipping it in a thin beer- or egg-based batter and throwing it in a wok or Dutch oven filled with hot oil (some recipes even skip the batter entirely, going for a simple dredge in a dry flour mix), but fish cooked in that manner doesn't reach the height of crispness and has a tendency to soften rather quickly.
Instead, I like to employ a two-stage battering process. First, I dip the seasoned fish into a seasoned batter made with cake flour (its lower protein content helps keep the batter light and crisp), beer (which adds lightening bubbles and flavor), and egg, then I transfer it back to a dry flour mixture and toss it before deep frying it in peanut oil. I can't help but associate the flavor of blue fish with blackening spices, so I like to mix in a good deal of chili powder and black pepper.
If all goes well (and there's no reason it shouldn't!), the wet batter will drip off the fish into the dry mix, creating little pockets of doughy flour that stick to the exterior of the fish, adding tons of nooks and crannies to make the whole thing extra crisp. And best of all, those nooks and crannies stay crisp even after you've taken the time to tuck them into soft, charred corn tortillas stacked with shredded cabbage and a spicy mayonnaise.
In California, fish tacos are typically topped with chopped fresh tomatoes for their brightness and acidity. When I made these tacos, truly great tomatoes had yet to hit the markets in New York, so I opted for some quick pickled red onions instead. They take minutes to make and I have a near-constant supply of them in every refrigerator I am likely to be in close proximity to.
Crunchy, bright, and fresh, it's truly transformative, converting one of my least favorite fishes into something that I actually crave. That's a good thing if the fishing keeps going the way it's been going this year.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.