Picking out fish for fish tacos is a tricky feat. On the one hand you want the tacos to taste awesome and that starts with some good fish. On the other hand blowing a bunch of dough on fancy cuts of designer fish is stupid if you’re just going to top the tacos with sour cream, onion, cilantro, hot sauce, etc. A nice middle of the road, mild white fish is ideal for these applications, and really these alone. The tilapia prices were a tad high at Dave’s that night, and I’ve never heard of basa (and after reading this, maybe I’m glad we chose otherwise) so we got a pound of catfish nuggets. Catfish has a clean, mild fishy taste, ideal for lots of cooking applications and it is possible to farm raise cat fish in ways that are both economically and environmentally sound. Catfish nuggets seem to be the ends of fillets and other cuts, not the prettiest pieces of fish I’ve ever seen (there were some free guts attached to ours!) but they would end up working nicely.
Our plan was to cut the fish into little bite sized pieces and pan fry them before they met tortilla. In order to impart some flavor and texture to them before they hit the pan I dredged them in cornmeal and chili powder with a little salt and pepper mixed in. I fried them for about a minute on each side in about an eighth of an inch of vegetable oil. In a medium frying pan this took about three batches to get through all the fish. As each batch finished I let them drain on paper towels and hit them with a pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper. To dress our tacos I finely chopped some onion and cilantro while Nicole made a creama out of sour cream, lime, and cilantro by pureeing the three in a bowl with a stick blender.
While all this other cooking was going on we had a black bean side dish simmering on another burner. While there is no defined recipe, this bean dish is something we’ve been tinkering with for a while now. The only real set ingredients are beans, beer, salt, and pepper. To make this we start by draining and rinsing a can of black beans. The beans go into a small sauce pan with a bout 4oz of beer, nothing fancy, usually PBR. The beans then get seasoned with salt and pepper. Since our cooking usually veers towards Mexican a few healthy dashes of Mexican spices go into the beans with some big splashes of hot sauce—Valentina or garlic Cholula—and a good squeeze of lime. If it’s around and/or we remember a clove of garlic is usually crushed and stirred in. Onions are optional before, during, after, or not at all. Cook this all together, stirring occasionally, until the beans soften slightly and most of the beer has cooked away. These are excellent already but can be dressed with hot sauce, sour cream, cilantro, onion, lime or any combination of the above.
Once all the fish was cooked and the beans were ready we lightly sautéed tortillas in a small frying pan with a few drops of olive oil to give them a little color and flavor as well as taking the chill of the refrigerator off; a pinch of salt on the tortillas while the oil is still hot is a nice finishing touch. If you’re disinclined towards this method you can always wet a few paper towels and ring them out at thoroughly as possible. Lay the paper towels out and lay the tortillas end to end across the towels. Roll this all up into a loose tube and pop it in the microwave for 15-45 seconds depending on the size and quantity of the tortillas and your microwave.
To assemble our fish tacos we made a small bed of creama for the fish to lay in then dropped five or six of the fish bites onto the tortilla. These were topped with a few minced onions and some cilantro along with hot sauce and a pinch of lime. The beans received a dollop of the creama as well, and some more lime and hot sauce. Altogether a simple, delicious meal that we devoured as we watched the fantastic 80’s horror homage House of the Devil.
If I had to do it all over again, and I definitely would, instead of seasoning the fish then frying it in oil I would cut the fish and let it marinate in some oil for half an hour or so. I would season the oil with chili powder, cayenne powder, and lime zest. Just before they hit the pan I’d drain the fish bites of excess oil and let them sear in the pan for about two minutes total. While the corn meal I used above gave the fish a bit of texture I think this method would allow the out side of the fish to sear better and develop a bit more flavor.