April 28, 2016

Blackened Fish Tacos

Cinco de Mayo is one of those holidays that's just fun to celebrate. All you have to do is eat yummy Mexican food, which--Hallelujah!--can involve carbs (can you tell I'm still bitter about Passover?). Unfortunately I'll still be stuck in Europe with my final exams, but there's no excuse for all of my American readers (aka the vast majority of you) not to celebrate. And what better way to celebrate this culturally appropriated holiday than by eating your body weight in tacos, especially secretly healthy spicy fish tacos?

Blackening is one of the most underrated methods of cooking fish. It involves crusting the fish in a mixture of spices and searing in a skillet--preferably cast iron--until, well, black. However, there's a difference between blackening and burning; proper blackening technique should toast the spices to make them more fragrant and draw out more flavor without actually burning them. This is a very delicate balance, but it's worth the effort to perfect it.

My sister complained that my spice mixture was a little too spicy for her taste. As a result, I adjusted it accordingly, but feel free to change it to your family's tastes. I use a blend of paprika, garlic powder, onion powder, brown sugar, cayenne, chili powder, cumin, oregano, thyme, salt, and pepper. There's notes of heat as well as notes of sweetness with some other spices in there to balance things out. Once they hit the hot pan, these spices become extremely aromatic and flavorful, which is perfect for tacos.

Of course, it also matters what you're blackening. I like to go with mahi mahi since it's a firm white fish that stands up to the spice and the cooking technique. It flakes easily enough to break into pieces when assembling the tacos but doesn't fall apart when you're eating it. If you can't find mahi mahi or it's just too expensive, you can substitute halibut, cod, catfish, or tilapia. You can even try this recipe with shrimp or chicken if fish isn't your thing.

To assemble the tacos, you can use any kind of tortilla you prefer: flour, hard corn, or soft corn. I went with the traditional soft corn tortillas warmed in an oven for a few minutes to soften them. I normally love cheese on tacos, but I'm not a big fan of seafood and cheese together so I skipped it here. I did make a quick slaw with cabbage, carrots, and jicama for crunch and to cool down the heat of the blackening spices. Guacamole is good on pretty much everything, and it's particularly delicious piled onto these fish tacos. I also have a bunch of salsa recipes online, including corn and tomato salsamango salsa, and pineapple rum salsa that would all be fantastic complements to the spicy fish. Just channel your inner Chipotle (minus the food poisoning) and go all out with your tacos. It is Cinco de Mayo, after all.

1 1/2 lbs Mahi Mahi or Other Fish/Protein
1 T Paprika
2 tsp Garlic Powder
2 tsp Onion Powder
2 tsp Brown Sugar
1 tsp Cayenne
1 tsp Chili Powder
1 tsp Cumin
1 tsp Oregano
1 tsp Thyme
1 tsp Salt
1/2 tsp Pepper
Tortillas and Taco Toppings, for Serving

Whisk the spices together. Pat the fish dry, then toss in the spice mixture until coated.

Heat some oil in a skillet. Cook the fish on both sides until crisp and cooked through, about 4 minutes per side.

Cut the fish into large chunks and pile onto the tortillas. Top with vegetables, guacamole, or anything else you have on hand.

Serves 4

April 19, 2016

Samoa Matzo Bark

Normally by this point in the year I'm sick of Passover and Passover hasn't even started yet. I haven't been shy about declaring this my least favorite holiday of all time despite recognizing it's cultural importance. But really anything that reduces my carbohydrate intake is going to make me a little grumpy. Luckily, there's a way to dress up matzo so that it's not quite as bland and boring, and it's inspired by one of the best Girl Scout cookies of all time: the Samoa. If you're from the unfortunate regions of the world that don't have access to Girl Scout cookies or from an area in the US that only knows of their inferior sibling Caramel de Lites, you're in for a treat.

I'm a big fan of dessert barks. They're basically an excuse to pile whatever you want onto a big tray and smash it to bits, or at least bite-sized shards of deliciousness. It's a really good way to get your bread-starved anger out. The most famous is chocolate bark (which is also kosher for Passover depending on what you use!), but matzo bark deserves some love too when your dessert prospects are severely limited.

It all starts with matzo. I hate the stuff, to be honest. There are ways, however, to transform it from a plain crunchy cracker to something craveable. I've used it as breading for fried chicken (even more smashing involved) and the "bread" in kugel. This is probably my favorite way since it involves chocolate. You can really use whatever you have on hand; plain unsalted will give you the most neutral base but salted will give a salted caramel note to the bark. There's also whole wheat, gluten-free, egg matzo, and a whole lot more. As long as you don't use some savory flavor you'll be fine. The whole point is to add substance and crunch and let the other sweet notes take over the flavor profile.

The chocolate layer (my personal favorite) is next. I put the chocolate on first to protect the matzo from the moisture from the caramel. If any of the caramel gets on the matzo, it will start to seep in and make it all mushy and gross. If there's one way to make matzo more unpalatable, this is it. The good news is you can use whatever kind of chocolate you like. I generally use semisweet chocolate chips since they are cheap and have just the right balance of sweetness and bitterness. You are welcome to use milk or white, but keep in mind that you're about to pile a ton of sweet caramel and coconut on top.

The caramel layer is also incredibly versatile. You can melt down chewy caramel candies, whip up a shortcut caramel sauce, or go all out and make a batch of real caramel from scratch. You can toss in some vanilla beans or orange zest or even a pinch of cayenne to add an extra dimension to the bark. Whatever you decide, drizzle it on the hardened chocolate layer until it's covered with as much caramel as you want.

Immediately after you add the caramel, sprinkle sweetened shredded coconut on top. It's important to do this quickly or it won't stick as well. I like to toast my coconut first to add color and texture and enhance the coconut flavor. Just make sure you make enough to snack on while making the bark. Actually, that principle applies to the whole recipe as well; you'll be wanting to snack on this for all 8 days.

8 Pieces Unsalted Matzo
12 oz Chocolate, Melted
1-2 Cups Caramel (see below)
1-2 Cups Sweetened Shredded Coconut, Toasted

Spread the matzo in a single layer on cookie trays, parchment paper, or cooling racks. Using an offset spatula, spread the chocolate evenly around all the matzo. Set aside to cool or chill until firm. Drizzle with the caramel and top with the coconut. Drizzle with more chocolate if desired.

Quick Caramel Sauce:
1 ½ Cups Dark Brown Sugar
1 ½ Cups Cream
6 T Butter
1 Vanilla Bean (Optional)

Bring the brown sugar, cream, butter, and vanilla bean seeds to a boil in a medium pot over medium-high heat, whisking constantly until sugar dissolves. Boil until caramel thickens, whisking often, about 10 minutes.

April 7, 2016

Grilled Swordfish with Honey Mustard & Carrot Radish Slaw

A few weeks ago I accidentally bought a 20 euro piece of swordfish from a local fishmonger in a farmers' market. I had just returned from Sicily and was a little irritated that my roommates/travel companions who only ate french fries refused to eat anywhere I could get swordfish. It's a Sicilian specialty, and I hadn't had fish in a while but unfortunately it didn't suit their delicate palates. Luckily, it's easy to get fresh swordfish in Rome; any good fishmonger will have an entire swordfish ready to be cut into pieces for whoever walks in. I decided I wanted some and politely requested a single portion in butchered Italian. Of course the guys in the shop laughed at me since it's pretty much impossible to cut a single portion from a fish bigger than I am. I sighed and asked for just a piece since I was determined to have some swordfish, and I saw a sign next to the fish that said 20 euros per kg, which is only around $10 a pound and is pretty cheap for swordfish caught that morning. Unfortunately they cut me a pretty big piece and the price was double what I thought it would be, so I ended up with a very pricey piece of fish. You can't exactly return it, but you can cook it up all fancy and pretty and delicious, which is where this recipe comes in.

Another tidbit of information from Rome is that as soon as I came back from Spring Break earlier this week the city had transformed from chilly and gloomy to hot and sunny and lively. One of the benefits of the change in weather is all the new produce; I've found tiny, sweet cantaloupes and fresh berries and all sorts of other gorgeous produce. It's only natural to pair fresh spring veggies like radishes and carrots with some incredibly fresh fish, and this is the way to do it. I marinate the swordfish in Italy's finest olive oil and herbs before grilling until browned and flaky. It gets topped with a honey mustard sauce and a crunchy slaw of carrots, radishes, and jicama. The colors pop in contrast with the fish to make the best spring fish dinner you can imagine.

To let the slaw shine, I keep the fish simple. I just let it sit in some olive oil flavored with thyme, rosemary, and sometimes some garlic. Of course I throw in some freshly ground pepper and coarse sea salt as well. Since the marinade is so simple, it's important to use good quality ingredients like fresh herbs and real extra virgin olive oil. I know it uses a lot but you really can taste the difference.

All good fish dishes need a sauce, and here I use a homemade honey mustard to add some tang to the brine-y fish and the sweet vegetables. It's a combination of mustard (preferably Dijon), honey, thyme, and a splash of olive oil to improve the consistency. If you want to add a spicy kick to the dish, this is the place to do it. It's easy to stir in some cayenne pepper or a dash of your favorite hot sauce.

The slaw is the finishing touch. It's equal parts jicama, carrots, and radishes. The colors are beautiful, it's the perfect balance of sweet and sharp, and it's unbelievably crunchy. To make it extra pretty, I use a mandoline to slice everything to the same thickness and then use a round cookie cutter to make sure the slices are all the same size. If you plan carefully, you can get carrots and radishes that are about the same width and then just cut the jicama with the cookie cutters to match. Of course you can also have these in all different shapes and sizes. You don't even have to make round slices; you can cut all the vegetables into matchsticks for a faster prep time.

This dish is truly stunning if you assemble it before serving instead of plopping it on your table separately. I slather some of the honey mustard sauce onto each piece of fish and layer on slices of the slaw to cover the top. I'd serve it immediately so the vegetables stay crisp and the fish stays hot and juicy. Hopefully you won't get sucked into paying way more than you intended for dinner, but my Italian fish-buying ordeal wasn't nearly as bad knowing I could make something this fantastic.

1 1/2 lbs Swordfish
1/4 Cup + 3 T Olive Oil
8 Sprigs Thyme
2 Sprigs Rosemary
1 Cup Sliced Carrots
1 Cup Sliced Radishes
1 Cup Sliced Jicama
3 T Mustard
2 T Honey

Whisk 1/4 cup olive oil together with the leaves from half the thyme and all of the rosemary. Season with salt and pepper and generously brush onto the fish.

Heat and grease a grill; grill the fish until cooked through.

Whisk the remaining olive oil, mustard, honey, and remaining thyme together. Toss the carrots, radishes, and jicama together.

Spread the honey mustard onto the fish and top with the slaw.

Serves 4