Sometimes creating a fantastic dish is a simple thing. But sometimes it’s a process. A recent potluck birthday party inspired such a process, for I knew my dear foodie cohorts Akbar and Hamilton would be in attendance, and any old schlocky potluck staple wouldn’t do. No, sir. This dish would have to impress. And the guest of honor, Mick, was certainly worthy of something spectacular. Indeed, I’d have to pull a rabbit out of a hat. Braised rabbit? No, too rich. Something light and tasty.
Hmmm, let’s see what’s in the fridge? Lemon confit. Flour tortillas. Chile-herb oil made from the balcony garden’s bounty. Lots of cilantro. Green onions. A few red fresno and cayenne peppers from the balcony garden. Ah-ha! An idea was forming. Settle in and let me walk you through it…
I decided on a fantastic fish taco. Why? Several reasons. Finger foods are nice at a potluck. Fish tacos look festive. I had recently bought a nice ceramic tray that would display them in a delightful manner. The stars were aligning. I put up a message on Facebook inquiring as to where the best place to buy fresh fish was. Lo and behold, several friends pointed me in the direction of the Maine Avenue Fish Market here in DC. Rwah? (Insert Scooby Doo ears here.) Why had I never heard of this place? Right on the waterfront, it’s only like seven minutes from where I live, and it’s stocked with the most amazing assortment of fresh fish and shellfish I’ve ever seen!
I know it sounds kind of mundane, but after admiring the incredible abundance of fresh fish, I decided upon cod for the tacos. Cod is a great fish for tacos, because it takes on a marinade well, and it flakes just right, two characteristics that, for me, make it the perfect choice. I couldn’t resist picking up a dozen oysters while I was there (a half dozen from Chincoteague Island and a half dozen labeled “Virginia”). I couldn’t resist! I also had a relatively new oyster knife at home waiting to be broken in. And believe me, when it comes to shucking, I need the practice. And I love love LOVE oysters (you may not be able to tell, but the pic below is a bunch of delicious oyster on ice).
But on to the project at hand. I mentioned a marinade. I decided on a smoky and spicy charmoula, having recently read a recipe in the May ’10 issue of Saveur. From our friends at Wikipedia: “Chermoula or charmoula is a marinade used in Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisian cooking. It is usually used to flavor fish or seafood, but it can be used on other meats or vegetables.” Here’s the recipe (I made a couple of additions, which are noted with asterisks):
3/4 Cup extra virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 Tbsp fresh lime juice
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp hot smoked paprika
10 sprigs fresh cilantro, chopped
*10 sprigs fresh parsley, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 red fresno chile
1 shallot, halved and thinly sliced
*1 tsp kosher salt
* pinch of saffron
Puree all ingredients in a food processor. Cover and let sit for at least an hour for flavors to blend.
So let’s get started on these tacos, shall we? I used a 5-inch bowl to cut down the tortillas into a finger-food size. I cut the cod into taco-sized chunks and marinated it in the charmoula for thirty minutes at room temperature before sauteeing it in chile oil. Oh right, the chile oil! I had made that a few days prior, using chiles and herbs from the balcony garden.
This was also inspired by the May ’10 Saveur, but here’s my version:
Herb and Chile Oil
1 Cup extra virgin olive oil
4 cloves garlic, halved
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
2 sprigs fresh thyme
2 sprigs fresh oregano
1 bay leaf
1 fresh cayenne pepper, whole
2 fresh red fresno peppers, sliced into rings
Combine the ingredients in a 1-qt saucepan. Heat over medium heat until an instant-read thermometer reads 200 degrees. Remove from heat and let cool. Oil will keep refrigerated and covered for up to two weeks.
To finish the taco, I made a “salsa” out of candied lemon and chile, again using chiles from the balcony garden. I mentioned that I had some leftover lemon confit in the fridge. Lemon confit is basically fresh lemon slices simmered in simple syrup until they are translucent, or candied. I chopped up a few slices and then sliced some chiles and simmered them in the lemony simple syrup for about ten minutes, until the chile was candied as well. Then I drained the chile and mixed it with the chopped lemon to make a sweet and hot “salsa” to complement to the fish. Clever, huh?
To add some crunch, I julienne sliced some pancetta and crisped it up in a saucepan and then mixed it with some fried capers. After assembling the tacos, I added some final color and crunch by scattering over some fresh cilantro, minced red onion, and sliced green onion. Here’s the result:
Don’t they look festive? Not to brag, but I think they were a hit. here’s the “after” photo:
Oh, a quick confession before I go. Remember those oysters I bought at the seafood market? While the cod was sauteeing, I stood there at the counter and shucked six in a row and downed them right there at the counter. For breakfast. It was only 10 am, so I can’t even call it brunch. It wasn’t easy either. Those suckers from Virginia have tough shells, and they don’t let you in easy! (You shouldn’t read too much into that last statement — or should you?)
There will be more on oysters soon – October is oyster month. But I should mention for those of you that get a bit squeamish at the thought of those slippery little suckers sliding down my throat in all their raw glory: Enjoying oysters is a bit of a process, too. It takes time. I used to date an opera singer in Santa Fe who introduced me to oysters when I was in my early twenties. I tried them, I didn’t particularly like them, but I didn’t dislike them either. Little did I know: the process had started. Over the years I would try them again and again, and then one day it would just hit me: I loved oysters, I craved their brininess, their sweetness, their pure ocean taste. For you, the process may start with oysters Rockafeller, or enjoying a fried oyster here and there, or sampling a raw oyster and shrugging and thinking “I don’t get it.” One day, you’ll be just like me, craving these little buggers and seeking them out. The process has begun.