After our rollicking fun on Cinco de Mayo in Southern California (see yesterday’s post for the fun story), the next day as we nursed our hangovers, my friends and I headed to the beach to sweat out the “evil waters” we had consumed the night before. We would stop at a gourmet deli and grab our lunch items and zesty, Kosher dill pickles. Everything would be packed on ice and off we would go to find the perfect place on the beach for our day. There is nothing better when you have spent hours baking in the hot summer sun than biting into an ice cold Kosher dill – it makes you feel like you’re enjoying a brisk day in Alaska. Swimming in the ocean, making sure we could see all the cute boys strutting up and down, and sharing laughs as only good girlfriends can – these were some of the best days of my youth.
When I was visiting my friends, the one thing they insisted I had to eat was fish tacos. I had never had them and couldn’t wait for my first taste. One bite and I was hooked. Fish tacos are a little hard to fathom until you’ve tasted one. Combining fish with salsa and other toppings just didn’t sound appetizing to me, but I was happily converted. The problem with most fish tacos is that people treat them like fish and chips. They bread or batter the fish and then deep-fry it. This leaves the fish greasy with a coating that slides right off. Wrapped in flour tortillas and piled with shredded cheese and taco sauce, you wind up with a taco that tastes like nothing but the breading and toppings. The delicate flavor of the fish disappears.
A good fish taco has white fish, often mahi mahi, marinated in a spicy sauce and grilled just until done. Broken into bite-sized pieces, it is served with a light slaw and a squeeze of lime in fresh corn tortillas. The fish is hot and flaky without being greasy, the slaw crisp and refreshing, and the lime gives it just enough acid to cut through the richness of the fish. Once you’ve had fish tacos made this way, you’ll never go back to the fried kind again.
I like to serve mine with an avocado cream made from sour cream, guacamole, and fresh lime juice. It adds a wonderful flavor and creaminess that complements the fish without overpowering it. Grilled fresh pineapple gives a bright sweetness that enhances the flavors of the fish. You can used canned pineapple rings, but by all means use a fresh pineapple if you can find one. If carving a whole pineapple is intimidating for you, don’t worry. Many grocery stores now sell pre-packed fresh pineapple where they’ve done all the work for you. If you are using canned pineapple, drain it thoroughly and leave out for 30 minutes or so to dry out slightly.
When you are barbecuing delicate foods like fish or fruit, or small items that may fall through the grill, there is an inexpensive tool that is very helpful. It can be called a grill skillet, BBQ topper, grill basket or other names, but it is a heat-proof perforated container that holds small items. The one I like best has a removable handle. If you have a gas grill, a handle isn’t an issue, but if you use a kettle-style grill (like a Weber), the grilling surface is lower than the edges and a handle doesn’t allow the pan to sit flat on the grill. Baskets without handles don’t allow you to stir or toss the ingredients easily. Having a non-stick surface will help tremendously to protect delicate foods – in particular seafood – from sticking and falling apart. It is also wonderful when you want to grill vegetables. You can cut them into small pieces and this gives you more surface area available to caramelize and a stronger smoky flavor.
There are a ton of recipes on the Internet for beef tacos, so I thought I would give you a couple of different ways to make pork fillings. Both take some time to prepare, one with a long marination and the other with slow cooking, but you will appreciate the amazing fully developed flavors. I love traditional carnitas and pulled pork and have combined those two into a Mexican-seasoned filling. It is incredibly easy to make, you throw everything together and then put it in the oven and forget about it. It comes out tender, moist, and so delicious! You can use it as a filling for tacos as I have here, use it to top a salad, even turn it into a sandwich filling. Don’t you love foods that are so versatile!
The second pork filling is a very traditional Mexican preparation called “al Pastor.” Meaning “shepherd-style” or cooked over an open fire, grilled, or on a rotisserie, al Pastor is somewhat similar to Shawarma or Gyros. Once cooked it is typically chopped and heated in a pan to crisp. Made this way is absolutely delicious but challenging to reproduce in our home kitchens. Steven Raichlen, one of the kings of grilling, has created a barbecued version that rivals any I’ve ever had in a restaurant. And bonus, they are easy to make!
The only thing that takes time is marinating the meat, so make sure you plan ahead for this step. Steven uses pineapple in two ways. He purees it in the marinade to tenderize the meat and then grills it to toss with the pork. The combination of ingredients in this recipe is truly remarkable. It has sweetness from the pineapple, heat from the chiles, the intensity of raw onion, the succulence of the pork, lime for tanginess, and a hit of fresh herbs. Like all the best dishes, you want to hit as many of the primary flavors as possible … sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and the newest one, umami. If you are one of the few people who don’t like the combination of fruit and meat, you can forego grilling and adding the pineapple to the finished pork, but be sure you use it in the marinade.
Tacos are one of the most fun meals and while I love traditional fillings, you don’t have to limit them to those. Think outside the ordinary … what else could you use? How about Asian or Indian seasoned foods? Maybe fried chicken? A whole slew of grilled veggies? Or what if you we really go for fun and make dessert tacos! I can imagine flour tortillas filled with baked apples, sauteed plums, or OMG, peaches with a little splash of liqueur. I think this may just be the theme for my next dinner party – taco appetizers, main course tacos, and sweet tacos for dessert … look out, I’m getting creative again, LOL!
Have a wonderful Cinco de Mayo celebration. Don’t drink and drive, but enjoy the fabulous Mexican food and music. Ole!
Jane’s Tips and Hints:
To grill pineapple, slice it into rings leaving the core intact. Brush the slices lightly with olive oil, and place on a medium-hot grill. Cook until pineapple becomes golden and the natural sugars begin to caramelize. You can chop it into small pieces or leave it in big chunks, but discard the tough core.
Kitchen Skill: How to Carve a Fresh Pineapple
First and foremost, you need a very sharp long knife. Set the pineapple on its side and slice off the top and bottom. Stand the pineapple upright and carefully cut off the rind in strips, starting at the top and working downward. Follow the line of the fruit, cutting deep enough so the “eyes” are removed. If you miss a few, that’s fine. You can dig them out with a spoon. If you like, you can use the top of the pineapple as a decoration for the table.
Cut the pineapple in half lengthwise. Cut each half lengthwise into thirds or fourths, and then cut the core out of each wedge. Discard the cores and cut the rest of the pineapple into chunks. The size of the chunks will depend on what you are using it for. If you are making a salsa (like the recipe below) you will want to cut the pineapple very finely. If you are grilling the pineapple, slice it horizontally into rings instead of lengthwise into wedges.
Chipotle Fish Tacos
Jane Evans Bonacci © 2009
Yield: 4 servings
1/4 head of Napa cabbage or other green cabbage
1/4 cup cider vinegar
1 tsp sugar, or more to taste
1/2 tsp salt, or to taste
Dash of ancho chili powder, optional
1 to 1-1/2 lb mahi mahi, cod, or other flaky white fish
1/4 cup olive oil
Juice of 1 lime
1 tbsp ancho chili powder
1 chipotle pepper in adobo sauce, chopped
1/2 tsp adobo sauce, optional (if you want more heat)
1/4 cup chopped cilantro leaves
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/4 cup prepared guacamole
1/4 cup sour cream
2 tsp grated onion or shallot
Freshly squeezed lime juice
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
8 corn tortillas, warmed
Grilled pineapple rings, optional
Minced jalapenos, optional
In a measuring cup combine vinegar, sugar, salt, and ancho powder if using. Core the cabbage and shred thinly. Place in a large mixing bowl and toss with seasoned vinegar. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Preheat grill to medium-high heat, or light a charcoal grill.
Place fish in a medium dish. Combine marinade ingredients and pour over fish. Let marinate for 15 to 20 minutes.
While fish is marinating, make avocado cream. Combine guacamole, sour cream, and onion in a small bowl. Stir in enough lime juice to thin it slightly. You want it thin enough to drizzle over the fish. Add some salt and pepper, taste and adjust seasonings. If it is too tart, add a pinch of sugar. Pour into a squeeze bottle if you have one.
When grill is hot, remove fish from marinade and place, skin-side up on hot grill. Cook for 4 minutes on the first side and very carefully flip over and cook another 30 seconds. Remove to a plate and let rest for 5 minutes. Flake with a fork into bite-sized pieces.
Warm the tortillas on the grill for about 20 seconds on each side. Place a little slaw on each tortilla, top with some fish and drizzle with avocado cream. Serve with lime wedges, grilled pineapple, minced jalapenos, and remaining avocado cream.
Smoky Shredded Pork Tacos
Jane Evans Bonacci adapted from a Real Simple recipe
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
2 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1 chipotle chile en adobo, chopped or 1/2 to 1 tsp ground chipotle pepper
1/2 cup apricot, plum, or peach jam
1/4 cup white wine or dry vermouth
2 to 2-1/2 lb boneless pork shoulder
1 med onion, chopped
1 yellow, orange, or red bell pepper, seeded and roughly chopped
Flour or corn tortillas, warmed
1 cup fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
1 lime, cut into wedges
In a small bowl, combine salt, pepper, cumin, coriander, chipotle, jam, and wine. Stir until smooth. Rub over pork and place in slow cooker. Top with onions and bell peppers.
Cover and cook on high for four to six hours or until very tender. Remove pork from liquids and shred, discarding any excess fat. Place pork into a large bowl and add the cooking liquids.
Serve with the tortillas, cilantro, lettuce, tomatoes, cheese, jalapenos, and lime wedges.
Tacos Al Pastor with Smoky Two-Chile Salsa
From Steven Raichlen in Bon Appetit Magazine
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
1 large white onion, halved
1 fresh pineapple, peeled, cut crosswise into 1/2-inch-thick rounds (leave core in)
1/2 cup fresh orange juice
1/4 cup distilled white vinegar
1/4 cup guajillo chile powder * (you can buy it or make your own)
3 garlic cloves, halved
2 tsp coarse kosher salt
1 tsp dried oregano (preferably Mexican)
1 tsp ground cumin
1 large or 2 small chipotle chiles & 1 to 2 tsp Adobo sauce from canned chipotle chiles en adobo
2-1/2 to 3 lb boneless pork loin, cut into 1/2-inch slices
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
Smoky Two-Chile Salsa (recipe follows)
Coarsely chop 1/2 onion. Place all but 2 slices of pineapple in a covered container and refrigerate.
Discard core from 2 pineapple rounds and coarsely chop. Place chopped onion and chopped pineapple in blender. Add orange juice and next 7 ingredients; puree marinade until smooth.
Place pork in large resealable plastic bag. Add marinade and seal bag, releasing excess air. Turn to coat. Chill at least 4hours and up to 1 day.
Prepare barbecue (medium-high heat). Grill remaining pineapple slices until warm and slightly charred, 4 to 6 minutes per side. Grill pork, with some marinade still clinging to it, until slightly charred and cooked through, 2 to 4 minutes per side.
Transfer pineapple and pork to work surface; chop pineapple into 1/2-inch cubes, discarding cores. Chop pork. Transfer to platter; toss to combine.
Meanwhile, finely chop remaining onion half and place in medium bowl. Add cilantro; toss to combine. Set aside. Grill tortillas until warm and slightly charred, about 10 seconds per side.
Serve pork-pineapple mixture with onion-cilantro relish, Smoky Two-Chile Salsa, and lime wedges.
*To make your own guajillo chile powder, finely grind about 6 large dried stemmed and seeded guajillo chiles in a spice mill to yield about 1/4 cup powder.
Smoky Two Chile Salsa
From Steven Raichlen in Bon Appétit Magazine
Yield: about 2 cups
8 large dried guajillo chiles or New Mexico chiles, stemmed, seeded, coarsely torn
2 cups hot water
1/2 medium onion, halved lengthwise through core end; remove core
3 garlic cloves, peeled
1 to 2 chipotle chiles en adobo
1 to 2 tsp adobo sauce from canned chipotles en adobo
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
2 tsp fresh lime juice
Coarse kosher salt
Place torn chiles in bowl. Add 2 cups hot water; soak at least 2 hours or overnight. Drain chiles, reserving soaking liquid separately.
Heat small nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add onion and garlic to dry skillet; cook until browned in spots, about 6 minutes for garlic and 10 minutes for onion.
Place cored onion and garlic in blender. Add drained chiles, 1 cup soaking liquid, 1 chipotle chile, 1 tsp adobo, cilantro, and lime juice; puree until smooth. For additional heat, add remaining chipotle and 1 tsp adobo. Puree until smooth.
Transfer to bowl. Season to taste with coarse salt.
DO AHEAD: Can be made 1 week ahead. Cover and chill.
NOTE: To smooth out the flavor and reduce heat, you may add some tomato sauce to pureed chiles. Reducing the amount of chipotles and adobo sauce will also reduce heat.
Adapted from a Gourmet Magazine recipe
Yield: 2-1/2 cups
1/2 ripe pineapple or 2 cans pineapple chunks, drained thoroughly
1 medium firm ripe mango (or you can use frozen and thawed)
1/2 medium red onion, peeled, cored, and chopped finely
3 tbsp fresh lime juice
1/2 small jalapeno chili (red or green), seeded and minced
1 tbsp finely chopped fresh cilantro
Peel and core pineapple. Peel mango and cut flesh from pit. Cut pineapple and mango into 1/4-inch dice and place in a bowl toss with onion and lime juice. Add diced jalapeno, cilantro, and salt and pepper to taste. Toss thoroughly. Before using, chill salsa, covered, at least 2 hours and up to a day. This helps the flavors blend.
You can also make this with just pineapple or just mango if you prefer. Before serving, taste and adjust the seasonings.
Unauthorized use, distribution, and/or duplication of proprietary material without prior approval is prohibited. If you have any questions or would like permission, I can be contacted via email at: heritagecook (at) comcast (dot) net. Feel free to quote me, just give credit where credit is due, link to the recipe, and please send people to my website, www.theheritagecook.com.