My favorite recipe for Baja fish tacos is slightly adapted from Deborah Schneider's cookbook Baja! Cooking on the Edge (Rodale 2006). To capture an authentic Baja flavor, Schneider uses a beer batter, green cabbage and several sauces. If you're short on time, add diced avocadoes instead of making the avocado sauce, and use bottled hot sauce and salsa in place of the chilies de arbol sauce and pico de gallo. All you need is a deep, wide pan for frying the fish and an open flame for warming the tortillas. Since the entire meal can be made in advance, you just have to refry the fish and warm the tortillas once your guests arrive.
Makes 1/2 cup
1/4 ripe avocado, peeled
Pinch of salt
A few drops of lime juice
1 to 2 tablespoons water or milk
2 cilantro springs, stemmed and chopped (optional)
Place the avocado, salt and lime juice in a small food processor. Add 1 tablespoon water or milk (for a slightly creamier consistency) and pulse. Add more liquid as necessary until sauce is the consistency of thick cream. Add the cilantro and pulse until just blended.
Mayonesa Secret Sauce
Makes 1/2 cup
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 teaspoon white vinegar
1 1/2 tablespoon water or milk
Place the mayonnaise in a small bowl and slowly stir in vinegar. Add water or milk until the sauce is thick and creamy.
Chilies de Arbol Sauce
Makes 1/2 cup
1 garlic clove, smashed with the side of a large knife
1 teaspoon canola oil
1 cup dried chilies de arbol (about 30 chilies), stemmed**
1/3 cup water
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon white vinegar
Pour canola oil in a small skillet over low heat. Add smashed garlic and cook 4 to 5 minutes until golden and aromatic. Place in a small food processor.
Wearing gloves, seed the chilies (unless you want hotter sauce, in which case, leave the seeds), and place in the processor. Process until well pulverized. Add water and salt and puree until as smooth as possible. Scrape into a bowl and add the vinegar. Let stand at least 30 minutes. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt and/or vinegar as necessary.
**Chilies de arbol are thin, red chilies about 3 inches long, and can be found in the Mexican food section of most major supermarkets or in Latin American markets. These small chilies are big on heat, so use this sauce sparingly.
Makes 24 servings, enough for 6 to 8 people
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon granulated garlic
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
1/2 teaspoon dried whole Mexican oregano, rubbed to a powder*
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
12 ounces (1 bottle) cold beer, plus more to thin the batter if necessary
2 pounds firm, meaty fish (I use halibut or Pacific sea bass)
A little squeeze of fresh lime juice, from 2 to 3 limes
Canola oil, for frying
24 (6-inch) corn tortillas, warmed (you can substitute flour tortillas, but the corn imparts a more authentic flavor)
Mayonesa secret sauce
Salsa de chilies de arbol
Pico de gallo
Finely shredded green cabbage (not lettuce)
Cilantro leaves (optional)
For the batter, whisk together the flour, baking powder, garlic, cayenne, mustard, oregano and salt and pepper in a large bowl until well blended. Stir in the beer until there are no lumps. (The batter can be made several hours ahead and refrigerated.)
Cut fish into pieces the size and shape of your index finger. Sprinkle with some lime juice and salt.
Pour oil into a deep, wide pan to the depth of 2 inches and heat over medium-heat to 350 degrees (if you have a deep-fry thermometer). Otherwise, test the heat by dropping a little bit of the batter into the oil. It should quickly bounce to the surface and be surrounded by tiny bubbles.
Pat the fish dry with paper towel. Check the thickness of the batter by dipping a piece of fish in it; it should be the consistency of medium-thick pancake batter, coating the fish easily and dripping very little. Add a little beer or water if it seems too thick.
Add a few pieces of fish to the batter. Using tongs, lightly swish each piece until thoroughly coated. Remove fish, letting excess batter drip into the bowl before gently placing in the hot oil. Cook a few pieces at a time until they float and the batter is set but still light in color, about 2 to 3 minutes. If a piece sticks to the bottom of the pan, just leave it, and it will release itself.
Remove the fish to a rack to drain, reserving the frying oil. At this point the fish can be cooled and refrigerated, uncovered, if you're preparing ahead.
When you are ready to serve, reheat the oil to 350 degrees, and quickly refry the fish a few pieces at a time for about 1 minute until crisp and golden brown.
Heat tortillas on a dry griddle for 1 minute per side or, using metal tongs, simply hold over an open flame until warmed and slightly charred.
To serve, place refried fish, warmed tortillas and condiments on a table so guests can make their own tacos. To assemble tacos, hold a tortilla in your hand, and spread a spoonful of avocado sauce on it. Place a piece of fried fish on top and sprinkle with a little lime juice. Drizzle with some mayonesa sauce, a few drops of chilies de arbol sauce and some pico de gallo. Top it off with some shredded green cabbage and fresh cilantro.
*Whole Mexican oregano can be found in the Mexican food section of most major supermarkets or in Latin American markets.