I first had fish tacos in Hawaii. I was spoiled from the start. If you’re starting to shake your head emphatically while backing away from me and looking like I do whenever one our beagles pass gas, I’m going to assume you’ve never had a fish taco. Or that you have some sort of moral or physical aversion to fish. If it’s the latter, I’ll let it slide. But if there’s no other legitimate reason you’ve never had a fish taco other than the fact you think it sounds gross, then you have an education coming, my friend.
For fish tacos are amazing. They are glorious. They are all things wonderful. In my top food choices, this actually ranks #1. Yes, even above pizza. I know, I was shocked, too. But it’s so versatile. You can switch out the fish (PSA: check out Seafood Watch to make sure you’re choosing sustainably), the toppings, the salsas…the sky is the limit. Yes, you could make the same arguments about pizza, but here’s the kicker for me. Fish tacos just taste fresh.
I’m not sure if my husband has really paid attention, but fish tacos have appeared in heavy rotation lately when I sit down to come up with our weekly menu. Sometimes (and only after I can justify it with a long run) the fish is fried. More often than not, though, I prefer to grill or bake the fish of choice. Sometimes it’s trout. Sometimes it’s cod. One time it was shrimp and crab. But what I’m really drawn to now is sea bass. It’s the perfect fish vessel to carry a good marinade, to bake or grill (I haven’t tried it fried, to be honest), to flake up nicely for the tacos. It doesn’t have an overly fishy taste, and the texture is just, well, divine. There’s some fat to this fish, which really comes out in the baking process, but it’s not overly oily. To quote Goldilocks, it’s just right.
There are a ton of variations for a good fish taco. And it can look like a lot of individual pieces are involved that are time consuming, but it’s really not. I’ve drawn out the process before by making tortillas at home, but since a local I’ve gotten to know well has a tortilla press and can make some outstanding variations she then sells at the farmers market, I usually just buy a pack or two from her.
I normally break this meal down into four components: the fish (1/2 pound is usually plenty for two), the salsa, the veggie toppings, and the crema. I experiment every time, and no fish taco has really been the same. But I’ll just focus on the recipe I pulled together recently because I’m pretty proud of this one.
I’ll break it down here (and give some alternatives/additions in the recipe section):
Fish: sea bass chunks marinated in balsamic vinegar (Our local fishmongers pre-chunk this, but you could just as easily buy it in fillets and chop them up; it’s going to be flaked at the end, anyway, so no fancy cuts are needed.)
Salsa: watermelon and tomato (Yeah, I know, I’ve already made you skeptical by saying fish tacos are incredible, and now I want you to try watermelon salsa? LADY, you’re crazy. But I’m not. Trust me, I’m not being crazy here. I may be crazy elsewhere, but not here. Just calm down.)
Veggie toppings: roasted jalapenos (Depending on what you pick up, this could provide some really good heat; not like off-the-charts hot, but a good, slow burn. Which is what we prefer in our household.)
Crema: orange habanero (More heat!!! Bring it on!!)
Balsamic Sea Bass Chunks and Roasted Jalapenos (servings: 2)
Red pepper flakes (optional)
2-3 green jalapenos, whole (I prefer to leave ours intact; if you want less heat, cut open and remove the ribs, which is where most of the heat of a pepper originates)
Salt and pepper
Heat oven to 400 degrees. Place the sea bass in a bowl, drizzle over enough balsamic vinegar to coat, sprinkle with the red pepper flakes, and season with salt and pepper. Line a glass casserole dish or baking sheet with aluminum foil, coat with a thin layer of olive oil, and add the fish (make sure to leave some space on the side for the jalapenos). Place the jalapenos in the dish, drizzle with olive oil, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place the dish in the oven and cook for 40 minutes (flipping the jalapenos halfway through the baking time). When finished, flake the fish and place in a serving bowl. If you’ve left the jalapenos intact, cut off the top and slice (and you’ll burn your fingers in the process, so suck it up; also, wash your hands after this step, especially if you’re a guy going to the bathroom before you eat; also, wash your hands after you use the bathroom–that’s just common courtesy).
Watermelon and Tomato Salsa (servings: 2, with a bit leftover)
Note: Yes, you could omit the watermelon. If you’re a wuss. Just give it a shot. Seriously, it adds a sweetness to the salsa that perfectly counterbalances the heat from the roasted jalapenos. Watermelon and tomatoes actually pair well together (don’t forget, tomatoes are technically fruits, anyway, so using another fruit here isn’t so far-fetched of an idea). If you like this, you could experiment with other fruits: blueberries, peaches, etc.
2 vine-ripened tomatoes, diced
1/2 red or yellow onion, diced
1/2 c. watermelon, diced
Fresh cilantro, minced
Salt and pepper
Mix all ingredients in a bowl; ideally you want to let this sit in the fridge for a while so the flavors can “marry.”
Orange-habanero Crema (servings: 2)
Note: This is probably a total white girl invention because I’ve been using cremas for our fish tacos since picking up the Gwyneth Paltrow cookbook. (Shut up; don’t hate on her. I will not stand for it!) But it does add a tangy-ness and “zip” to the taco. And yes, I recommend Vegenaise (I used the soy-free version here). I admit I was raised as a Kraft mayo kinda girl, but Vegenaise just tastes better to me. But, you know, use whatever you prefer! Also, the juice from one lime could be used here instead of the orange juice.
2 Tbsp. mayo (preferably Vegenaise)
3-4 dashes hot sauce (optional; preferably habanero)
Juice from 1/2 orange
Salt, to taste
Mix all ingredients in a small bowl. Depending on how thin or thick your prefer your crema, you could reduce or up the amount of citrus juice used.
Tortillas (preferably homemade; I’ve used a pesto version here, made locally; these can either be heated up on a nonstick skillet for a few minutes on each side or wrapped in aluminum foil and warmed for 10 minutes in a 400-degree oven)
Balsamic sea bass
Watermelon and tomato salsa
Hot sauce (HEAT!!!)
There’s really no right or wrong way to do this, but here’s my method: Spread a thin layer of the crema onto the warm tortilla. Add a layer of roasted jalapenos, followed by the fish, the salsa, and a few dashes of hot sauce. Insert into mouth. Die of happiness. And you can bank on seeing other fish taco versions here, so if you give this one a go and like it, there will be other ideas tossed out that may inspire you. And if you have a great fish taco idea, do share!
You are out of your mind if you think we actually leave any leftovers when fish tacos are involved!