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.
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
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.