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By SAM SIFTON
Published: March 17, 2009
The restaurateur Lou Amdur was leaning over his bar the other day at Lou, in Hollywood, uncorking some biodynamic deliciousness made in a French garage and talking about a few of the experiments he had going in his home up in the hills. Some weirdly flavored vinegars. Absinthe. House-cured bacon in the kitchen of the wine bar, a few pots of pork rillettes. It all sounded complicated and fantastic — a portrait of a food artist at work. Amdur shook his head. “None of this is art,” he said. “It’s craft. And craft isn’t all that hard. You can learn to do it.”
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Recipes: Fish Tacos (March 22, 2009)
Zachary Zavislak for The New York Times. Plate and white bowl: Global Table.
He was being modest. Amdur is a talented cook, in addition to being a wine guy of the first order (and the husband of Manohla Dargis, a chief film critic of The Times). But he was not wrong. As he went on to say, art is to craft as brain surgery is to a butcher’s work. Art is genius, or magic. Craft is observation and research multiplied by practice. It’s learnable by anyone.
Put another way, in the context of this space: you can learn to cook fish at home, if you ask the right people how to do it.
Dave Pasternack is the right people. He is the chef and an owner of Esca, in the theater district of Manhattan. He has an affinity for cooking fish that approaches the surreal. You might give him a barnacle, a grouper liver and three grains of sea salt, only to have him return to your side with a plate of food good enough to make you laugh out loud. His skill is that of an alchemist, or a magician. But unlike such characters, Pasternack also knows how to teach technique. The success of his restaurant is dependent on that ability. If a piece of monkfish is ethereal when he makes it for the lunchtime rush, it better be when the young cook he hired makes it at dinner, too. That’s how restaurants work. Consistency matters. It’s the most important thing. And it can be taught.
Today’s sermon is a recipe for fish tacos, that great meal of the Baja Peninsula, a taste of summer in spring. It benefits from time spent at Pasternack’s elbow, from the tacos served at, among other places, El Siete Mares taco stand on the eastern end of Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles and from practice runs in a Brooklyn home kitchen. They are simple to make, no more complicated in fact than a hamburger or a mess of pancakes, and they are considerably more flavorful.
Really. Here is the Sunday exhortation: You’re going to make fish at home, it’s going to be easy and it’s not going to take up your day or destroy your kitchen. The recipe is going to work. Trust the process. That’s Pasternack Rule No. 1. You’ve got to get over the fear.
“The first thing you want to do,” he said in the kitchen after lunch, “is you want to find a thick fillet of fish. You want a nice, thick fillet so you can develop the color and the crust.” Pasternack speaks in a soft Long Island bark that turns any conversation into an intimacy, a prelude to something possibly criminal and certainly fun. “Ask for the large,” he continued. “They have large in the back. They always do.”
What kind of fish in particular? For tacos, something fresh and white and firm. Emphasis on the fresh. Out in the cold waters off Montauk, the cod bite is on and the flatties are coming soon: big doormat flounder caught on hooks and line. Montauk snowshoes, they call these monsters, and if you see them in the market, it’s time to make tacos. That’s Pasternack Rule No. 2: Buying the fish is half the battle.
Rule No 3: Crust is crucial. You want, at home, a fish taco that has the crunch and texture of the deep-fried version available at the beach in Ensenada, though with better flavor and less mess.
Let us return, then, to our thick fillet, now dredged in seasoned flour. Pasternack, as if talking to a dishwasher out of Puebla he has just promoted to a job in front of a stove: “You want to make sure the bottom of your pan is completely covered in fat. It’s on a medium flame. You add a pat of butter for flavor, and you put the fillet in the pan. You turn it to medium high, and you watch it cook until it turns a deep golden brown on the bottom. That’s like three, four minutes. Then you turn it. A minute later, you take it out, put it on paper towels, season it with a little salt.”
This works, and how. You could do it with cod or char, and kings would cross mountains to honor you. But with flounder the goals are more modest. Fried in strips and served onboard warm corn tortillas with a simple salsa, a pinch of fresh cabbage, plenty of lime and a cream sauce you might want to punch up with some chopped chipotle, these fish tacos can turn a cold March night into bluebird summer, transporting you from spring chill into deep humidity and bliss.