In coastal Mexico, from the Baja peninsula to the Yucatán, fish tacos are not so much a recipe as an appetizing equation: fish + wrappers + condiments = fish tacos. Consequently, they're infinitely customizable.
There's the protein: impeccably fresh fish, minimally or exuberantly seasoned and served hot off the grill. There's the wrapper: a warm corn or flour tortilla -- sometimes two -- preferably handmade by someone who knows their masa on a cast iron comal or tortilla press. There's usually at least one homemade salsa or relish: perhaps a piquant pico de gallo, a bright-tasting salsa verde, or a refreshing jalapeño-spiked pineapple "salsa."
Additional accoutrements may include very thinly sliced cabbage or crisp head lettuce, fresh avocado or guacamole, fresh or pickled onions (see tips below), sliced or diced radishes, diced bell peppers, fresh cilantro leaves, hot sauce, and perhaps the cooling touch of grated cheese, sour cream, or Mexican crema. Here are some potential variables for the equation above:
Salmon + Avocado and Corn Salsa
Seared Tuna + Sprouts + Wasabi Sour Cream
Monkfish + Pineapple "Salsa" + Chipotle Sour Cream
For fish, buy the freshest you can find -- off the boat if possible. Or make friends with your local fishmonger. Freshness is more important than species. I personally prefer seafood that is wild-caught and sustainable. (For guidance, go to seafoodwatch.org. They even have a downloadable app.) You can buy boneless skinless fillets or even whole fish, gutted and scaled. For the grill, firmer-textured fish works best. Good choices include grouper, mahi mahi, salmon, monkfish, arctic char, cod, swordfish, red snapper, tuna, and sea bass. Lobster and shrimp make excellent tacos, too. To serve 4, figure on at least 1-1/2 pounds of seafood.
Prepare any condiments. Chop cabbage or lettuce or other vegetables. Make a salsa or relish. Transfer sour cream or Mexican crema, if using, to a bowl or food-safe squirt bottle.
Immediately before grilling, season the fish or shellfish with coarse salt or your favorite seafood-friendly rub, like my Ragin' Cajun, a kind of blackening spice mixture. Alternatively, you can drizzle the fish with olive oil or fresh lime juice or orange juice before seasoning. You can also marinate it for up to 30 minutes.
While the fish cooks, quickly warm tortillas (corn or flour--your choice) on the grill and keep warm, covered tightly with foil, until ready to serve.
I like to lay out all the ingredients, taco bar style, so guests can assemble their own tacos. Include a bowl of lime wedges for squeezing on the tacos or for embellishing ice-cold longneck cervezas. Rice and refried beans optional.
5 Tips for Superlative Fish Tacos:
- Wrap fresh fish in plastic wrap and store over a pan of ice in the coldest part of the refrigerator for up to a day.
- Though it appears to be a sturdy fish in the seafood case (and makes great fish tacos), cod has a tendency to break into big flakes when exposed to the high heat of the grill. Use a mesh grilling basket or screen when grilling cod, or lay it on top of an oiled piece of heavy-duty aluminum foil.
- Make fresh salsas, like pico de gallo, no more than 2 hours before serving.
- Quick pickle onions for a crunchy and colorful taco accompaniment: Peel and halve a large red onion lengthwise, then thinly slice it crosswise. Place in a saucepan with 1 cup of water, 1/2 cup red wine vinegar, 1 tablespoon of sugar, and 1-1/2 teaspoons salt. Bring to a boil, then cool. Refrigerate in a covered jar for up to 1 week.
- Smoke or chargrill vegetables before using them in salsas or relishes for over-the-top flavor.
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Steven Raichlen is the author of the Barbecue! Bible cookbook series and the host of Project Smoke on public television. His web site is BarbecueBible.com.