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Fish tacos – a lot of work but so worth it

Deep-fried white-fleshed fish, shredded cabbage and a creamy white sauce is the holy fish-taco trinity.
Deep-fried white-fleshed fish, shredded cabbage and a creamy white sauce is the holy fish-taco trinity.

The prototypical fish taco originated in Baja California, Mexico, and the preparation referred to in this country as “Baja-style” is similar to what you might find on the Mexican peninsula. It usually involves deep-fried white-fleshed fish, shredded cabbage and a creamy white sauce. This is the holy fish-taco trinity, and the dish continues to make its way outside of Mexico and into restaurants all over the United States.

Too often, though, the key elements of fish tacos get modified and tampered with in ways that dilute the deliciousness of the final product: blackened fish, overpoweringly smoky chipotle sauce, too-sweet mango salsa, watery pico de gallo, fancy slaws that crowd out the fish.

So, for several years now, I have resorted to preparing fish tacos myself, and I’ve developed a set of guidelines that, if followed, yield a taco more satisfying than any of the tequila-marinated, jícama slaw-adorned, roasted pineapple salsa-topped options out there.

The first rule is you must beer batter your fish – no grilling, no baking, definitely no blackening.

The second is that the cabbage must be shredded extremely fine.

The last element is the most labor intensive but also one of the most important: Press your own tortillas instead of using store-bought ones, and make them just 4 inches in diameter. Your tacos should be small enough that the ends of the fried fish strips poke out pleasantly at either end.

These are better than most of the versions you’ll find in restaurants or taquerias. Unless you’re in SoCal with a perfect Baja-style joint on every block, in which case you’re very lucky and I salute you.

Fish Tacos

Yield: 4 servings (about 16 tacos)

Time: 1 hour

2 cups Maseca or other masa harina used for making tortillas

1¼ teaspoons salt, plus more for seasoning

½ cup mayonnaise

½ cup Mexican crema or sour cream

¼ cup whole milk

1 tablespoon Sriracha sauce, or more to taste

1 small garlic clove, minced

3 limes

1 quart canola or vegetable oil

2 cups all-purpose flour

One 12-ounce bottle Negra Modelo or other lager

1 pound firm white fish fillets (such as catfish, cod, halibut, or tilapia), cut into 3-inch-by-¾-inch strips

¼ small head green cabbage, very finely shredded, preferably on a mandolin

1 ripe avocado, thinly sliced

1 cup fresh cilantro leaves

For the tortillas: Combine the masa harina, ¼ teaspoon of the salt, and 1¼ cups water in a medium bowl and stir until the mixture comes together. If the dough is dry and crumbly, add more water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until it comes together. Knead gently for 2 minutes.

Divide the dough into 16 balls, each approximately 1½ inches in diameter. Cover the dough balls with a damp cloth to keep them moist. Line a tortilla press with two sheets of plastic wrap. Place a dough ball between the layers of plastic and press until the tortilla measures 4 inches in diameter, then carefully peel off the plastic wrap. (If you don’t have a tortilla press, you can use a heavy book and a little elbow grease to press them between sheets of plastic wrap.) Repeat with the remaining dough balls.

Put a large, dry skillet over medium-high heat. When it’s hot, cook the tortillas, one at a time, for about 50 seconds on each side. Cover the cooked tortillas with a dishtowel to keep them warm.

For the sauce: Combine the mayonnaise, crema, milk, Sriracha, garlic and the juice of ½ lime in a small bowl. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Cut the remaining 2½ limes into wedges.

For the fish: Heat the oil to 350 degrees F. in a deep pot over medium-high heat. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, beer, and 1 teaspoon salt; the mixture should have the texture of pancake batter. When the oil is hot, dip the fish pieces in the batter and fry them in batches until golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Drain on paper towels and season with salt.

For the assembly: Arrange the tortillas on a serving plate and place one piece of fish on each. Top each taco with a large pinch of shredded cabbage, a drizzle of sauce, a slice of avocado, and a few cilantro leaves. Serve immediately with lime wedges and cold beer.

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