Whether you’re observing the last Friday of Lent by abstaining from meat or simply looking for lighter dining options now that spring’s officially launched, take a cue from south-of-the-border: serve grilled fish tacos tonight. (The community fish fry will get along just fine without you.)
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:
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. (Find my recipe for fiery Green Lightning Shrimp Tacos here.) 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. For more options, check out my book Sauces, Rubs, and Marinades (Workman, 2000).
If you’re almost ready to cook but are worried that the fish will stick to the grill grate, know there are several things you can do to prevent that from happening. First, preheat your grill to high. Let it get good and hot. Second, brush the grill grate with a sturdy grill brush and oil it well with a grill oiler or a folded paper towel clasped in long-handled tongs. An all-purpose stainless steel mesh grilling basket or a basket made specifically for whole fish enables you to easily turn seafood without sacrificing any to the grill gods.
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.
10 TIPS FOR SUPERLATIVE FISH TACOS: