Seafood is a big deal right now–just see our Top Ten Seafood Trends if you need a reminder. And now the chefs from the Food Network’s Too Hot Tamales show say they are out to find the best fish taco in America.
Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger (a Top Chef Masters Finalist), partners in Border Grill, have joined with the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute to invite home cooks to submit their version of the fish taco. Recipes using any variety of wild Alaska seafood are welcome. The grand prize winner will be flown to Los Angeles to serve their winning fish taco alongside the two chefs on their gourmet taqueria on wheels, the Border Grill Truck.
We spoke with the two celebrity chefs to see if we could give Food Channel users the inside scoop on what they are looking for.
What is it about fish tacos—why do you think they have caught on with the American public?
Susan: Years ago, when Mary Sue and I took our first trip to Mexico in 1983, we were just thinking about Border Grill. We went to a town in the Yucatán and we were just going around and eating tons of street food. We went to this little place and we were standing in front of the window. This guy had all these things in front of him—a big thing of salmon, of fish, and he’d stand there and put the salmon in a shell, with mayo, radishes, a squeeze of fresh line, and he’d hand it to some customer and they’d eat it. That’s what initially excited us.
Mary Sue: We were on a specific mission to find the best tacos we could. We stood there for the longest time. Finally the guy took pity on us and brought some tacos out. We assured him we could pay, and ended up going inside and had tacos and learned a lot from him. Our Spanish is very broken but we were able to communicate through the language of food. I think the fish tacos we ate there have caught on because they are healthy, delicious, and versatile. There are a million ways of making them, from fried to crunchy, with exciting, tangy salsas. Since that inspirational moment, we’ve been playing around with different types of fish tacos ever since.
What do you think constitutes “the best” fish taco? Can you give our readers a hint of what things you’ll be looking for?
Mary Sue: What would excite me are innovative, creative ideas—something new and thoughtful. A balance of flavor and texture so there are a whole variety of things happening in your mouth when you take a bite. It has to be juicy, of course. And use sustainable seafood.
Explain that term.
Mary Sue: Sustainable seafood is any kind of seafood that is harvested in a way that is monitored and carefully watched, so that the fish stocks are going to be around so my grandkids are able to eat the same delicious things I’m able to eat. Before we monitored that, unbeknownst to a lot of us, we were headed in the wrong direction. It would be criminal to eat all the stocks of any kind of fish, leaving future generations without that resource.
Susan: We look at what Monterery Bay Aquarium suggests. We look to buy from fisheries—not over fishing, not polluting the waters, protecting the surrounding ecosystem. We buy a lot of Alaskan seafood because in their constitution they have mandated that the fisheries have to be sustainable. It’s a no brainer because then you don’t have to think about it.
What type of fish works best in tacos?
Mary Sue: Different fish lend themselves to different preparations. We were huge fans of black cod when we started. If it was a black cod taco, it would take well to a strong marinade. A milder fish might be fried in a crispy batter. A sockeye salmon might be good with a super tangy salsa. You can go any direction with any kind of fish. Each just calls out for a different kind of handling.
Susan: The black cod is a sweet, delicate fish, so a marinade has to allow the buttery texture to come out. A fish with a firmer texture may stand up to more spice, more heat, because it’s fattier. For deep frying, pollock or halibut, not salmon. Something made with shrimp or crab would be great. I love crab but would probably do it cold, with an aioli.
Mary Sue: I think it’s all about balance. The wild Alaska seafood is pretty spectacular on its own. It’s wild, living in these pristine waters. That’s why it tastes so good. I think we are looking for recipes that highlight and enhance that flavor but don’t overpower it. It’s like a little tightrope dance.
Why do you use wild Alaskan seafood in your recipes, and how hard is that to find for the average cook?
Mary Sue: I think if you go to any of the larger grocery stories that have good meat and fish sections they will have seafood from Alaska. Some of the national places like Sam’s Club have a fair amount of frozen product. The technology around freezing has changed so much that if a fish is caught and frozen at sea and handled properly it can be better than a fish that’s never been frozen and arrives at your table after a rough journey.
Susan: If you think about it, the fish that people think about eating quite a bit—salmon, halibut, cod—there are huge resources in Alaska of those fish. So the likelihood that the fish they are already buying is from Alaska is pretty high. It’s one of the largest seafood sources anywhere; 90% of the wild salmon is from there, so obviously the State has felt this is a resource that’s critical to protect. We got on board because we felt like these are not people who have anything to gain – it’s about saving our planet. We can effect change. People take their direction from what chefs do. Chilean sea bass got really well known because chefs started to use it.
Do you see a move toward people eating more fish?
Mary Sue: Fish has definitely become more and more popular. Seventy percent of the fish is still consumed in restaurants—I think people are still a little shy about cooking it at home, but they are aware of the health benefits. When I grew up, we had fish sticks on Fridays. We didn’t eat a lot of fresh fish. But now everybody seems to eat fresh fish once or twice a week.
Fish has become more and more popular; 70% of the fish consumed in restaurants; people still a little shy about cooking it at home, but aware of the health benefits. When I grew up we had fish sticks on Fridays; we didn’t eat a lot of fresh fish all the time. But now everybody eats fresh fish once or twice a week now.
Tell us a little bit about how you got started as a chef.
Susan: My mom was a fantastic cook. She was one of those cooks who tasted and seasoned and just had great taste buds. I worked in the kitchen with her a lot. She was always cooking so we had things in the freezer in case people came over on a Sunday.
Mary Sue: We loved to eat in my family; my mom and I cooked a lot together. I got inspired to cook back in the days when we had Home Ec in school. It was a career that took hold of me when I was very young—it chose me as much as I chose it.
What inspired you to become part of this contest?
Mary Sue: This contest is perfect because it speaks to the younger generation. They are into cooking, and are educated about the planet and sustainability, and are taking into account so many different things when deciding what to cook. I think we’ll have entries from all over the country, from Hawaiian style to Southern California style. I’m really curious to see what people can come up with and what their creative juices will produce.
For more details, or to enter, visit www.alaskafishtaco.com. The recipe contest ends January 31, 2011. Following that, there will be a People’s Choice contest, beginning February 15, with the winning recipe creator receiving an Apple iPad.
Who: Any non-professional cook may enter!
What: “1st Ever Wild Alaska Fish Taco Recipe Contest”
When: Entry period through January 31, 2011
Where: National contest, any U.S. resident may apply
Why: Sponsored by Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute
How: Enter online at http://www.alaskafishtaco.com
Food photography: Border Grill
For some recipes from top chefs to inspire your own fish taco creation, see the links below.