Tempura Salmon Tacos

As I mentioned not long ago, I’ve completely caught N’s obsession with tacos and now I want them all the time. In past years I thought the concept of “Taco Tuesday” was a bit silly and boring, but now it seems brilliant, because of course you wouldn’t do the same old ground beef and shredded cheddar every week; you would change it up and have charred vegetable tacos one week, slow cooked carnitas with pickled onions another week, and of course you would need fish tacos in there at least once a month.

Fish tacos tend to come in two camps: grilled and fried. When grilled, the fish is flaky and barely smoky and feels righteously healthy (at least as healthy as a taco can be), especially since it’s usually topped with confetti of cabbage, maybe a minute dice of tomatoes and, if you’re me, some paper thin slices of radish for a little peppery crunch. A spicy creamy drizzle and a generous dollop of guacamole are requirements.

But if I have to choose, I’m sure it will come as no surprise to you that I’m almost always going to go with fried. Encased in batter, sometimes cornmeal, sometimes flour, sometimes with beer, the fish stays molten hot and so juicy, and the batter is (ideally) crisp and crunchy and thus adds perfect texture even to a soft tortilla. Of course, many people’s objection to this format will likely be that it is unnecessarily heavy or fatty, and they are right: the wrong batter can be gloppy and greasy and excessive. Luckily, I have a solution to that: tempura.

Light and crisp and golden and melt-in-your-mouth-barely-there, tempura is, of course, that perfectly crunchy deep-fried coating for seafood and vegetables so common in Japanese restaurants. Its lightness is frequently achieved through the use of seltzer water as the liquid component in the batter, and sometimes rice flour, which fries up lighter and crispier than wheat flour.

The big problem with tempura, though, and what makes it a pain to do at home, is the deep-frying part. For a simple fish taco dinner, heating up a vat of oil is not high on my priority list. So I wondered if you could achieve satisfying tempura results with a shallow fry, not unlike old-fashioned fried chicken in a cast iron skillet. A few experiments later, I can definitively report that, although you have to be a touch more careful with the batter sticking to the pan, shallow-fried tempura is a completely viable option. Less oil means less time, less waste, and less of that fried smell in your kitchen (although it’s worth noting that an open window and a few votive candles lit for an hour or two can clear out most of that). My tempura batter takes the best of both worlds of fried fish, combining rice flour and baking powder not with the traditional seltzer, but with beer for a little extra flavor along with the requisite fizz.

Fish tacos are usually made with white fleshed fish of some kind – cod or halibut or mahi – but I love salmon, and have had some stellar fish and chips platters using this dense, meaty, pink option, so here I’m using it in lieu of more traditional options. You can certainly change out the type of fish you use, but I can’t speak for the cooking time of other fish since I’ve only tested the salmon with this method.

Of course half the fun of a fish taco is adorning it with various toppings, so here I’ve got two on offer for you: a red cabbage slaw bright with lime and cilantro, and a smash of avocado and corn to make up just before serving. We thought they needed nothing more, but if you like that creamy spicy sauce, I suggest whisking a few drops of sriracha into some buttermilk for a tangy kick to drizzle on.

Tempura Salmon Tacos
Serves 4
About ½ hour, if you are quite organized
For red cabbage slaw:
¼ head of red cabbage, grated or shredded or very finely slices (you can use green cabbage here too; I just like the unexpected bright color of the red)
¼-½ cup chopped cilantro, leaves and tender upper stalks
zest of 1 lime
juice of ½ lime
½ teaspoon salt
optional: 1-2 tablespoons mayonnaise or wasabi mayonnaise, if you like your slaw creamy
For tempura salmon:
1 pound salmon, cut into 1×3-4 inch strips (approximately)
⅔ cups rice flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
6-8 ounces beer (go with a pale ale or lighter; this is not a place for a deep roasty stout. Save that for waffles)
2-3 cups vegetable oil
For corn avocado smash:
1 ripe avocado (I like haas)
½ cup fresh or defrosted corn kernels
2 tablespoons thinly sliced green onion tops (dark green parts only)
¼ teaspoon salt or to taste
¼ teaspoon black pepper or to taste
lime juice to taste
To serve:
Tortillas (we like crunchy corn shells for this, but soft or blistered corn, or even flour, would also be tasty)
Optional garnishes: radish slices, crema, buttermilk and sriracha, sour cream, additional cilantro, green onion, or lime


  • First, make the cabbage slaw. Toss together the cabbage, cilantro, lime zest and juice, and salt in a medium bowl. Set aside for at least 10 minutes to let the salt and lime juice permeate. If you like a creamy slaw, toss in 1-2 tablespoons regular or wasabi mayonnaise just before serving.
  • With the slaw done, turn your attention to the fish. In a cast iron or other large, heavy skillet, heat enough vegetable oil to come about 1 inch up the sides. While the oil heats, prep a warming tray: place a wire cooling rack over a baking sheet and place in the oven. Heat the oven to 300F.
  • Next, slice the fish into 1×3-4 inch strips or “fingers.” You can alter the size if you prefer, but this size cooks quickly and fits well into a taco shell.
  • When the oil reaches a temperature between 350-375F, whisk together the rice flour, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl. If you prefer a very light batter, add 8 ounces of beer, whisking constantly as you pour it in. If you prefer a more substantial batter, add only 6 ounces of beer.
  • Now you are ready to fry. Add 5-6 strips of the fish to the tempura batter, submerge to ensure they are fully coated, then gently add them to the oil one at a time (it will sizzle aggressively), being sure they are separate from one another in the skillet. Cook 1-2 minutes per side, until the batter is lightly golden and the fish is barely cooked through (this doesn’t take long; you’ll be surprised how fast it is). Remove the fish to the warming rack in the oven. Continue to fry the fish in batches until it is all cooked.
  • Either in between, or just after the last batch of fish goes into the oven to keep warm, make the corn avocado smash. Halve, pit, and cube up the avocado into a small bowl (I like this method) Use a fork or the back of a spoon against the side of the bowl to lightly smash the cubes of avocado to your desired texture. I like it fairly chunky. Add the corn, green onion tops, salt, pepper, and lime juice, and gently stir to combine.
  • To serve, add a few fish strips to a warmed, grilled, or toasted tortilla, then top with the slaw and the smash in your desired order and quantity. Eat immediately.

Cabbage and Celery Seed Slaw

Food Blog April 2014-3715All too often, it seems, I find myself either ahead or behind the curve. Last week I was offering you Easter bread the day after Easter. This week, I’ve got a slaw recipe that really merits a space on your Memorial Day table, but May is still barely on the horizon. I can’t really blame anyone for this – not even me (at least that’s what tell myself). The fact is, summer is now so close – I have a mere three weeks of classes left to teach – and, if we’re honest, it’s been such summery weather in Los Angeles for so many weeks now, that the divide between what might be summer and what could have been spring is so dubious it barely existed.
Food Blog April 2014-3703While I wait for real summer, I content myself with small pleasures. Sitting on my patio out back, with the afternoon breeze just strong enough to keep the sun from being too hot. Remembering why I assigned that novel to my morning classes as I gasp my way through Margaret Atwood’s bewildering narrative in its relentless, sharp prose. Devouring, lest you think me too romantic, an entire package of chocolate-dipped marshmallow peeps I found in a clearance Easter candy bin. I know. They were so good, though, tiny milk chocolate eyeballs and all.
Food Blog April 2014-3705Despite my inability to work “in a timely fashion,” I think you should keep this simple little slaw recipe around. It’s a tangle of cabbage so bright, so fresh, with not a speck of mayonnaise in sight. It would be equally welcome piled high as a side dish for sausages or barbecued anything as it would squashed between soft brioche halves on a pulled pork sandwich. If we’re going to get really dreamy, it could likely sit quite comfortably atop a lobster roll for a man-I-wish-I-were-on-a-beach-somewhere lunch fantasy.
Food Blog April 2014-3706The inspiration for this slaw comes from a side dish N. had with a plate of fish and chips at Mud Hen Tavern in Hollywood, celebrity chef Susan Feniger’s newest venture. I tasted the humble pile of cabbage shreds and became instantly intrigued by the nutty, savory herbal notes that I couldn’t quite place. I don’t often do this, but I asked a server, and was soon speaking to one of Feniger’s cooks, who told me his secret ingredient was celery seed. He gave me a few instructions about how they make it, and from there it was just a matter of playing with quantities.
Food Blog April 2014-3704Celery seed is a funny little spice – tiny, musty smelling seeds, but with a distinct sharpness. Crushed raw and solo between your teeth they are too strong: a bitter kick with the aftertaste of raw celery stalks. Toasted, though, or crushed and lightly simmered in olive oil until their flavor blooms, they add a deeply savory note, a mix of umami and something almost floral, that I’m now totally obsessed with and want to add to everything.
Food Blog April 2014-3712This slaw is so simple, provided you’re willing to start the process a few minutes in advance. Celery seed, pepper, and, in my variation, a smashed garlic clove, get simmered in olive oil to infuse their flavors. Once it’s cool, the oil, with some of the celery seed dust (it imparts a lovely speckled look and an extra hit of flavor), gets tossed through a jungle of green cabbage threads along with a sprinkle of sugar, a pinch or two of salt, and a hint of vinegar. That’s it. You can let it sit for a while to allow for integration and mellowing of flavors, or you can eat it immediately, savoring every crisp bite.
Food Blog April 2014-3708Food Blog April 2014-3709Substitutions or alternatives: for a different kind of tang, you could swap out the sort of vinegar you use. Red wine vinegar, champagne vinegar, or, for a salivary inducing sweet brightness, even rice vinegar, would also be lovely. Let your main dish steer you in the right direction. As for the celery seeds, I wouldn’t exchange them for anything. If you must, though, I suppose you could crunch a few mustard seeds or coriander and infuse those into the oil instead. Crushed coriander in the oil and a few judiciously torn cilantro leaves mixed in with the cabbage, for example, might make for a beguiling crunch atop a fish taco…

Food Blog April 2014-3713

Cabbage and Celery Seed Slaw
Makes 4-6 side dish servings
⅓ cup olive oil
1 garlic clove, peeled
3 whole peppercorns, or about 10 grinds of black pepper
1 teaspoon celery seeds
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon white wine vinegar
1 lb. cabbage, cut into fine strands with a sharp knife (or use your food processor, or a 16 ounce bag of pre-sliced)


  • In a small pot or saucepan, heat the oil over medium-low heat. While it heats, prepare the seasonings: use the flat blade of a knife to push down gently on the garlic clove and then the peppercorns, crushing them to allow more efficient release of flavor.
  • Using the same flat blade of the knife, crush the celery seeds. Because they are tiny, just pushing down on them as you did with the garlic and peppercorns won’t do much. Instead, spread them out a bit, and then draw the flat of the knife across them, pushing down as you go. Repeat a few times, until at least half of the seeds are smashed almost to a powder.
  • When the spices are adequately crushed, add them to the oil and turn the heat down to its lowest setting. After a sudden sizzle, you want a slow, gentle poach. The oil should just barely fizz around the edges of the garlic clove.
  • Simmer on this low, low, lowest of low heat for 15 minutes, until the garlic clove is evenly browned and soft, and the oil smells incredibly aromatic. Remove from heat and let cool.
  • While the oil cools, prepare the cabbage. I had a 2 pound head of cabbage. To prepare it, slice it in half straight through the core. Then, cut that half in half, again through the core, so you have two quarters. You can then remove the core easily with one diagonal slice for each quarter. To create thin strands, as in the photo above, slice across the quarters perpendicular to the previous cut, creating twin sets of cabbage strings.
  • Once the oil has cooled to room temperature, strain it through a fine mesh strainer straight into your serving dish. You may not need the full ⅓ cup. I would start with 3 or 4 tablespoons and see where that takes you. Some of the celery seed dust will seep through the strainer, but that’s okay. It gives a lovely speckled look and lets you know what flavors to anticipate.
  • Add the salt, sugar, and vinegar to the oil in the bowl and whisk it up a bit with a fork. Add the cabbage, toss well to coat evenly, and then taste for seasoning and moisture. I found I wanted a breath of extra salt. You may want a bit more oil, or additional vinegar, to suit your liking.
  • Serve immediately, or let sit for 10-15 minutes to let the cabbage soften slightly and the flavors meld.