Tuesday, February 23, 2010
It's not that we don't enjoy the traditional foods of winter, the braises, the stews, the soul-satisfying soups that simmer a long age on the wood-burning stove--we love that kind of food, we dream of it on sweltering July days, yearn for sweater weather and the steaming stewpot, crusty warm bread to dunk in collagen-rich broth.
But now it is the last week of February, Mardi Gras just past and images of Carnivale dancing in our heads, and while we're not cruise-taking, beachy sort of people, we appreciate a little southern comfort, from time to time. This time around, we took it out in tacos--southern comfort with a northern twist.
I love the idea of fish tacos, but in reality I'm frequently dissappointed by them. Too often they consist of indifferent (even unspecified) fish wrapped in not-so-fresh tortillas deluged with overbearing gloop--sour cream, watery salsa, shredded lettuce, boring pink tomatoes, even cheese!* Like many simple foods, a good taco relies on the quality of its few components, and each must be top-notch. The components of a great fish taco: the tortillas, the fish, the condiments.
First, the tortillas: Ours were freshly made--Mary-made--flour tortillas, which are nothing more than flour, water and fat, but in this case, what wonderful fat: in lieu of the traditional lard (which would be great), a combination of Hope butter and duck confit fat. The tortillas came out supple, silky, tender and incredibly fragrant from the duck fat with its many-times refreshed infusion of the quatre-épices spice mixture that flavors our duck confit. What a loaf of fresh homemade bread is to a plastic-bagged supermarket loaf, that's how these tortillas compared to the usual commercial product (not that there aren't some good ones out there; and, I would still make these tacos even if I had to use store-bought tortillas).
Second: The fish. The perfect fish for fish tacos: walleye. Who knew? Walleye is the "state fish" of Minnesota, of course. As a cherished symbol of our cultural identity as Minnesotans, its culinary qualities are, of course, vastly underrated. Now, this is not to say that the eating qualities of walleye have gone unnoticed here. Heck, everyone knows that they eat way better than northern pike ("slimy jackfish," my Grandpa Leitkie used to call them, but we still ate them), or bass. Neck and neck with perch as fish-fry fare, for sure. But because of its north-woods, cabin life associations, walleye doesn't have much of a gastronomical rep. At your typical supper club you'll get a choice of deep-fried or baked "almondine", if you can get it at all. Also, ordering the "state fish," even in a Minnesota restaurant, can be a bit of a buyer-beware situation, as it was revealed a couple of years ago that many restaurants were actually serving a farmed fish similar to walleye called "zander," imported from Europe. Euro-trash zander dressed as walleye, the shame!
I write the above as a great big mea culpa: Before buying the walleye for these tacos, I can't remember the last time I purchased it. I was always afraid it would pale in comparison to the taste memory of fresh-caught walleye from cold Lake Brereton in eastern Manitoba, where my family had a cabin when I was growing up.
When I decided to make fish tacos, I knew I wanted to make it with local fish. Looking into the counter at Coastal Seafoods, however, the choices were few. Farmed rainbow trout from Star Prairie is always available, and it's a fine product, but I wanted a thicker fillet, and preferably white fish, to work with. That left me with walleye, and here I must admit that "local" must be a relative term--this fish came from Canada, fished through the ice with nets, probably in Manitoba or Saskatchewan (at the store I was originally informed that it was from Lake Superior, but that didn't sound quite right to me, and a little more checking got me a more accurate answer--thanks to Chris at the Minneapolis Coastal store). The company that brings us this fine fish is the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corp., and here's a pretty fascinating video showing how we get fresh Canadian fish from under the ice in the dead of winter.
And the quality of this fish, well, it was fantastic--smelled as clean as a northern lake, sliced up into dense, pearly fingers. I used larger chunks of fish than you usually get in a taco. That way the flavor of the fish came through even with the breading and the condiments. The flavor was all you want from walleye--sweet, clean, toothsome, utterly edible.
Finally, "the gloop," that is to say, the condiments: Something tangy-creamy is good; sour cream would be fine, sparingly applied, but I had made some home-cultured "crème fraiche" using Cedar Summit cream. It melted onto the hot battered fish. A fresh crunchy salsa is de rigeur, but we're far from tomato and cucumber season. I used sweet corn, frozen from the market last summer, which I simmered for a couple of minutes in a little water, butter, and salt. To the al dente corn I added some chopped red onion (market), and a small apple (Bide-A-Wee), peeled and diced almost the same size as the corn kernels. Crumbled a dried red chili in there, splashed in some of our own cider vinegar. In spite of the red onion and chili, this salsa was looking very Minnesotan, indeed--quite pallid. I remembered some pickled anaheims I'd put up in 2008. They keep forever, so I chopped a couple into the mix. They looked nice and added a bit of zing.
I put together another little salad of Wisconsin black radish and North Dakota blood orange...lying: the blood orange was from wherever those come from, surely a good distance from our beloved home in Zone 4. I peeled and julienned the radish, tossed it with some salt and let it set awhile. Squeezed it out and rinsed it. Zested the orange on a Microplane into the radish slivers, peeled and sectioned the orange, squeezed the juice out of the remaining membrane and tossed it all together (except the membrane), simple as that.
Now the batter, well, that was an instance of sheer genius. While a couple of inches of oil were heating in the wok I had Mary beat up an egg white to pretty firm peaks. To the beaten white I added a good pinch of salt, then ice water, about half a cup, I'd say, then around a quarter cup of corn starch and maybe a third cup of AP flour. I mixed that up quickly, not to develop any gluten; the batter was like very thin pancake batter. I salted my walleye fingers, tossed them in cornstarch to just barely coat them, then into the batter, lift and drain off excess, into the hot oil (canola). Cook till just lightly brown, turning them around, about three minutes total. I had quite a bit of batter left after cooking the fish, and half an onion just sitting there; these made tempura-battered red onion slices, of which I could have eaten a good many.
Remember the watercress? That added the essential fresh, green, seasonal component to the dish. Way better than shredded iceberg. But I probably didn't need to say that. I had high hopes for the corn and apple combination in the salsa; on its own it wasn't as good as I had hoped, but in combination with the cream, fish, great tortillas and the rest, it more than held up its end.
I know this sounds like a rather elaborate procedure for tacos, but it all came together quite naturally, because I was just working with what was on hand, nor reinventing the wheel in concocting any of the various parts.
The Lake Superior Special Ale we drank with this was in honor of the walleye coming from Superior, so I thought at the time. Since the U.S. and Canada do share Gitchee-Gumee's bounty, and since this meal relied entirely on its union of north-and-south-of-the-border components, we'll just say, "Hands across the water!" and "Cheers!" It went down right nice, eh?
*Our friend Melinda, aka Nomenclature Tsarina Lulu, has strong opinions about a variety of topics, and we concur with her judgment that the only proper unions of fish and cheese are in a tuna melt and a Filet-O-Fish sandwich.
Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw