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.

Beer Braised Cauliflower Tacos with Chimichurri

2016 Food Blog June-0973 The first heat wave of the summer has hit Southern California (actually, if I’m honest, it has hit most of the country. Stop cackling, Seattle), and as a result, the things I most want to consume are tacos, grilled anything, bright, herbaceous sauces with plenty of acid, and beer. Fortunately for everyone concerned, today’s recipe combines three of the four. Entirely decent odds.

2016 Food Blog June-0946I had these tacos at a brewery restaurant in Venice, just on the other side of Highway 1. We’ve done cauliflower in tacos before, but that was a wintry dish. This one, with bright, sharp chimichurri sauce and briny crumbles of feta, is all summer.

2016 Food Blog June-0964As many breweries do, this one tries to use their beers in their food as well as in pint glasses, which makes a lot of sense. A glug or two of dark beer into a cheese sauce is perfect, and braising everything from beef to cauliflower in a simmer of ale rather than red wine just fits the venue.

2016 Food Blog June-0972I suppose in this instance, braising isn’t quite accurate – a braise is a long, slow cook in liquid, and here the beer deglazes the pan and then simmers just until the cauliflower florets are tender – but the name sounds nice, doesn’t it? Anyway, the normally mild, sometimes musty vegetable picks up some color and char from a very hot skillet, then sucks in some of the nutty bitterness of whatever beer you pour, sputtering and steaming, into the pan with it. It’s not quite the same depth and richness as roasted cauliflower, but a lighter incarnation that is a bit less sweet.

2016 Food Blog June-0958Once you pile the florets up into a nicely toasted tortilla, you spoon on some chimichurri sauce, a bright, Argentinian answer to pesto, possibly of Basque origin, that is traditionally used to both marinate and top grilled meat. It’s usually dominated by parsley, though sometimes cilantro and oregano make appearances, and gets its sharpness from raw garlic and a healthy dose of vinegar. Mine starts out traditional and then tempers the tang with red wine vinegar, rather than straight white, and sneaks in a bit of sundried tomato and green onion (though you could also use shallot) for a sauce that would make an equally good salad dressing, if you have some substantial greens laying around that need a kick. My version also uses much less oil than some, so feel free to glug in a bit more if you want a looser sauce.

2016 Food Blog June-0963A few crumbles of feta on top of the veg, and you’re ready to serve. And if you’re really feeling the beer-y flavor, perhaps a side of these black beans. Hit it, summer.

2016 Food Blog June-0976

Beer Braised Cauliflower Tacos with Chimichurri
Makes 1 cup chimichurri, and enough cauliflower for 4-6 tacos
About 30 minutes
For chimichurri sauce:
3-5 garlic cloves, peeled
2 tablespoons shallot or the whites of green onions
1 tablespoon oil-packed sundried tomato, drained
¾ cup packed parsley, stems and all
2 tablespoons cilantro, stems and all
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
5 tablespoons (¼ cup + 1 tablespoon) red wine vinegar
⅓ cup vegetable or olive oil
For cauliflower tacos:
1 large head cauliflower, cut into bite-size florets
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cumin
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
12 ounces dark beer
soft corn tortillas, lightly grilled or toasted over an open flame
crumbled feta cheese, to serve
pico de gallo, to serve (optional)
additional cilantro, to serve (optional)

 

  • To make the chimichurri, blitz the garlic, onion or shallot, and sundried tomato in a food processor until the ingredients are well broken up. This ensures no large chunks of garlic in the final product. Then, pack in the parsley, cilantro, salt, black and red pepper, and vinegar, and pulse the food processor 2 or 3 times at 1-second intervals. Finally, drizzle in the oil and pulse again, 2 or 3 times at 1-second intervals, until everything is well chopped, but not so long that a fully emulsified paste is created. We are looking for the mixture to retain some texture. Set aside until ready to serve.
  • In a large bowl, toss the cauliflower with the 1 teaspoon salt, the cumin, and the 2-3 tablespoons olive oil. Preheat a large skillet or a grill pan over medium-high to high heat and, when it is quite hot, tumble in the oiled, seasoned cauliflower. It will sizzle tremendously.
  • Char the cauliflower on all sides – you are looking for dark bronzed marks on the outside, but not to cook it through – this should take 3-4 minutes.
  • Deglaze with the beer by adding it all at once and stirring gently. Turn the heat down to medium-low and cook until the florets are tender but still have some texture; about 5 minutes.
  • To serve, use a slotted spoon to pile up about ¼ cup of florets in each tortilla. Spoon over a few teaspoons of chimichurri, then a few teaspoons of crumbled feta. Add pico de gallo and a few extra cilantro leaves if desired, and serve immediately.

Roasted Cauliflower and Chick Pea Tacos

Food Blog February 2015-0342I’m sure it won’t surprise you to learn this, but I am one of those people who makes a meal plan. Every week, before we head to the grocery store, I write out a shopping list. I like to know what we’ll be eating most nights ahead of time, to be sure the pantry is adequately stocked, but also to prevent a lot of impulse buys or take-out emergencies (also I just love making lists. You probably aren’t surprised by that either). When I put the meal plan together, I usually ask N. for some input. Sometimes it’s because I need a little inspiration, sometimes it’s because I want to make sure he’s getting a meal or two he’s excited about, and sometimes, I’ll admit, it’s just because I want him to feel like he has some say about what happens in our kitchen.

Food Blog February 2015-0322This considerate move doesn’t always play out as helpfully as expected, however. Most weeks, without even looking at the list or at the meals I’ve proposed, he immediately says “tacos.” Nothing else gets this kind of instantaneous, definitive response. Tacos. Sometimes, when he says this, we’ve just had tacos. Sometimes, when I query him further, he doesn’t seem very enthusiastic about the suggestion he’s just made. Sometimes I’m just not in the mood for tacos (I mean, we JUST had them) and so I nod and smile and write down something else instead.

Food Blog February 2015-0324Finally, though, I got curious, and yesterday I asked him why he suggests tacos so frequently. Does he really like them that much? What is it about a taco that he finds so compelling? Turns out it’s not the food, exactly, but the name. Be warned, people. This is what happens when you fall for a words person. He really likes the sound of the word “taco.”  It is, he claims, an interesting sounding word. You can put emphasis on each of the syllables in turn, you can change the pronunciation of the vowel, you can draw out the length of each part of the word, all with different sounds and results. He then proceeded to say “taco” four or five times. It is, I must admit, a fun word to say. I’ll wait while you try it a few times…

Food Blog February 2015-0328As much fun as the word is, N. noted that he likes the dish as well, and it got me thinking about the constituent parts – what makes a taco a taco? As I see it, tacos break down into three major components: the shell, the “meat,” and the sauce. Of course you can – and often should – add cheese and lettuce and other garnishes, but I think you have to have at least these three parts. Once you have these critical components, you can take your tacos in a variety of directions.

Food Blog February 2015-0335Perhaps because N. is so fond of them – whether it’s the word or the dish itself – I quickly tire of the standard ground-meat-with-cheese-and-things compilation, and look for other options. We’ve had grilled zucchini tacos with crumbled queso fresco and lime, dozens of incarnations of fish tacos (my favorite always involves a corn relish and plenty of smashed avocado), tofu tacos overloaded with pepperjack cheese, and I’m working on a potato taco inspired by an amazing version at – of all places – the Getty Museum cafeteria. This time around, though, I wanted something a little more outside the box (or should I say outside the shell? No, you’re right, I probably shouldn’t. Let’s pretend it didn’t happen). I’m not sure where the combination came from (if I’m honest, probably Pinterest), but I decided on a tumble of roasted cauliflower and chick peas, liberally spiced with a ras al hanout-esque blend and drizzled with a sauce of tahini and yogurt, tangy with lemon and flecked with parsley.

Food Blog February 2015-0332What resulted was not N.’s favorite taco ever (though I doubt it will stop him from requesting them), but I am finding, a day or two later, that I’m mildly obsessed with them, especially the sauce. It wasn’t fancy, but there was something quietly brilliant about how the yogurt and parsley lightened up the earthiness of the tahini. Roasted vegetables, though I will almost never say no to a bowl of them, can feel a little heavy. Blanketed with this sauce, they are bright and buoyant, and the creamy spread is just as fitting against the soft unctuousness of the cauliflower as it is against the toasted crunch of the chick peas.

Food Blog February 2015-0336This is one of those recipes where the list of spices looks daunting, and by all means, if your spice cabinet is not as ridiculous overflowing full as mine is, go easy on yourself and use a pre-mixed blend. I won’t judge. Ras al hanout is a North African combination of spices, one of those lovely warm mixtures incorporating options American dishes usually reserve for desserts. Really, though, any mixture of Mediterranean or Middle Eastern spices would be lovely here – choose your favorite and apply accordingly.

Food Blog February 2015-0338Once you’ve got the spices sorted, this dish is a multi-tasker’s dream. The cauliflower and chick peas need a good chunk of time in the oven at high heat, and while they are roasting you have plenty of time to whip up the sauce, warm the taco shells according to your favorite method, and even concoct a side dish (we ended up with sautéed cubes of butternut squash folded into a bit of cooked quinoa and a shower of green onions). By the time the filling finishes roasting, all you have left to do is scoop and serve, and if you’ve been reasonably efficient it has probably taken you just under an hour.Food Blog February 2015-0342*Note: you’ve probably noticed by now, and may be horrified by the omission, that these tacos don’t include a cheese component. With the yogurt and the deep earthy roasted flavors of the vegetables, I found I didn’t miss it. If you can’t do without, however, I suggest a few crumbles of feta to fill the void.

 

Roasted Cauliflower and Chick Pea Tacos
Makes 10-12 tacos

For the tacos:

½ teaspoon ground cardamom
½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon ground coriander
½ teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
½ teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon coarse salt
6 tablespoons olive oil
1 head cauliflower, cut into bite-size florets
15 ounce can chick peas, drained and dried
1 cup loosely packed baby spinach leaves
taco shells
For the sauce:
½ cup tahini
½ cup plain greek yogurt
½ cup flat-leaf parsley
2-3 tablespoons lemon or lime juice, or a combination
1 teaspoon honey
½ cup water, to thin
salt and pepper, to taste

 

  • Line two baking trays with aluminum foil and place them in the oven. Preheat oven, trays and all, to 450F.
  • In a small bowl, combine all of the spices and the salt, stirring to be sure they are well-blended. Add the olive oil and stir or whisk to combine.
  • In a large bowl, toss the cauliflower with about ⅔ of the spiced olive oil mixture, then spread on one of the preheated baking trays in a single layer (if possible).
  • In the same bowl, toss the chick peas with the remaining olive oil and spice mixture, then spread onto the other baking tray.
  • Stow both baking trays in the oven and roast at 450F for 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, remove the tray of chick peas, shake them around a bit to deter sticking, and set aside. They should be toasty and crunchy. Shake and stir the tray of cauliflower pieces to promote even browning, then return just the cauliflower tray to the oven and roast for another 10-15 minutes, until both sides of most pieces are nicely browned.
  • While vegetables are roasting, combine the tahini, yogurt, parsley, honey, and lemon juice in a food processor and whir to create a thick paste. With the food processor running, dribble in the ½ cup of water slowly to transform the paste into a sauce. You may not need the entire ½ cup – thin to your desired consistency. Season to taste with salt and pepper, then set aside and prepare your chosen form of taco shells according to your preferences.
  • When the cauliflower is nicely browned and tender, toss it with the chick peas and stuff the mixture into taco shells with a few spinach leaves for freshness. Top with tahini yogurt sauce and serve immediately.