Whole Chili Fish Tacos

On assignment, I have been privileged to spend some time with Zak Pelaccio, his wife Jori Emde, and their crew as they prepare to open Fish & Game, their new restaurant, in Hudson. As part of my diligent, thorough, and extremely professional research, just like a real journalist would I went ahead and obtained a copy of his recent cookbook from the publisher, because getting occasional review copies of cookbooks from publishers is one of the few perks in the fast-paced, glamorous world of food writing; they’re the in-flight reading as I flit and glide through the rarified atmosphere of culinary relevance like Dumbo one of those dinosaur things the Nazgûl rode a wounded TARDIS.

I like his book a lot; it’s personable, usable, and does a good job of communicating his unique and prodigious gifts for turning good ingredients into the kind of great food that makes a person want to have a lot of sex. If you read this blog, especially more than once, you should buy it.

There will of course be an actual article forthcoming on the subject, but meantime this is a dish I have made a couple of times since I began hanging out on the periphery of their kitchens (home and restaurant) while they worked on recipes and techniques and wrangled purveyors, farmers, and other sources. I read some interview with Zak in which he named whole chili fish as one of his desert island meals, something he could eat every day, and having read through the book I’m pretty sure there’s some whole fish treatment inside. But, being me, I make this my own stubborn way, refining and adapting to what’s on hand as I go. Sometimes the refinements and adaptations are in sync, and the finity of available ingredients enhances the result, and sometimes they conflict because I live in the sticks and there are only so many Asian ingredients of quality that I can find.

It’s doubtful, though, whether I would have begun making this if the book hadn’t come into my possession when it did. That’s the thing about good cookbooks: they inspire me to cook, even if I don’t end up using them for recipes. Hearing a distinctive voice and grokking on some level the way a talented chef approaches food can light a fire under me and make me venture forth into new territory, in big or small ways, but meaningfully pushing the envelope in either case.

The point is that this is a hell of a fish. And this particular iteration of it involved homemade corn tortillas so that the Malaysian-adjacent (as a realtor might say) flavors could be enjoyed with copious stir-fried vegetation in taco form. Fucking yeah.

(not edited for maximum effectiveness in the context of this post, but you get the idea).

Wait! Here’s the ticket:

Though it’s still cut a bit short at the end. Honestly, people, I don’t ask too much from completely random obsessive strangers on the Internet, do I?

After scaling and gutting the fish, a branzino, I cut three slashes in each side, hit it with a little salt, and then dusted it with flour. This helps form a nice crust and prevents any sticking issues, though my wok is well-seasoned. I fried it hard in a bit of oil—to which I added a couple of whole chiles—ladling said oil over head and tail to ensure even cooking, given the complex parabolic geometry of the fish in the wok, until it was perfect. Then I threw in a mixture of daikon, carrot, and celery to brown hard and get tender, and then fistfuls of arugula to wilt and mop all the tasty residue off the scorched steel sides of the wok. At the very end, just before pulling out the greens, I added some of the sauce: tomato paste, tamarind paste, stout vinegar, soy sauce, fish sauce, sambal oelek, copious grated ginger and garlic, sesame oil, and lemon juice.

Having reread that last bit, I should make clear that I removed the fish before cooking the roots, and then took those out before wilting the greens with sauce. I arranged the vegetables on my favorite homemade platter, put the fish on top, and garnished it with the rest of the sauce and a fat handful of chopped scallions. On the side, a plate of the tortillas: masa harina to which I added a pinch of salt and a shake each of 5-spice and Korean pepper powder for a subtle nudge towards the Pacific before pouring in boiling water and letting it sit for maybe twenty minutes before rolling out rough rounds. I trimmed a few of them for the picture, because this is a full service blog. Don’t you love their cheery orange color from the spices?

It is unanimous among the non-me members of the family that this is the new favorite, and should henceforth be a regular part of the rotation, specifically on Wednesdays, when the wife takes ballet class not far from a not-awful fish market. I love it too, though it tends to wreak fragrant havoc on the kitchen and requires extra ventilation because of the peppers in the oil, which can cause serious coughing if not allowed for.

Having said that, though, and given the aforementioned remoteness of our location, being able to tuck into a whole fried fish with persuasively seductive Asian sauce, even in admittedly bastard taco form, is a luxury of not insignificant value. And honestly the taco thing really worked; it added another hands-on element and the corny perfume worked every bit as elegantly as jasmine rice would have to complement the assertive sauce with a delicate aromatic starch. There’s a tactile and interactive engagement with a whole fish that requires a level of attentiveness to the act of eating, what with the bones and all, that makes it qualitatively more pleasurable than a carefully boned fillet can offer. There’s also the impressive presentation, and the family-style sharing of one central dish is its own reward.

If you’ ever have dire need for a compelling illustration of the advantages to be found in living in this age of post-genre mashups, whole chili fish tacos would not be the worst thing you could point to.

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I'm a painter who happens to also spend a lot of time growing, making, and writing about food. I'm particularly interested in the intersection of frugal peasant cooking techniques and haute improvisation. And I have a really great personality.

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