Grilled Tuna Tacos & Salsa Verde

Tacos are fun. They’re eat-while-standing-up food. They’re perfect-with-alcohol food…they’re party food.

I’ve always loved tacos—tacos (or spareribs) were my favorite dinner as a child, and they remain so to this day. I don’t, however, make tacos often. I’m not sure why, since they are easy as pie (much easier actually). I think it may be some deep-seated masochistic self-hatred—or maybe I just like to keep my favorite things special. Whatever the reason, it needs to stop.

Tacos should be eaten regularly. There’s so many different approaches to a taco that you could eat tacos everyday for months without getting bored (though you may put on a few pounds!). You have your pork, beef, or chicken tacos, your fish tacos, bean tacos—I’ve even heard of chocolate tacos. The possibilities of different cheeses, sauces, vegetables, and even fruit that can go into your tacos is endless. Then you can pick from soft tacos, or puffy tacos, or hard, crackly ones. There’s no reason that one shouldn’t have tons of tacos. The more tacos, the better, and the more people that you share them with, the merrier. Tacos are perfect party food—everyone loves them, and they leave the hostess free to party it up with her friends. There’s something wonderfully fun and inviting about setting out a bunch of bowls and accouterments for your guests and letting them put their plates together. It makes dinner a bit of a game.

But, I feel like I’ve become a bit of a Taco PR-girl, so I’ll end this post shortly—after recommending, of course, these tacos. They may be a bit more difficult than pie—since you make the salsa verde and the cabbage slaw from scratch—but they are absolutely worth the effort, making themselves my favorite tacos ever (and that’s an accomplishment!).

The salsa verde is bright, tangy and able to cut right through the creamy lime mayonnaise slaw. The onions, which I used to marinate the (very fresh) tuna and then used to top the grilled tuna tacos, are softened through the marinating—they retain a bit of onion-bite but aren’t offensive. If you’re unsure about eating onions that touched raw fish, reserve some of them for serving before you add to the raw tuna.

I suggest you taste the salsa verde before adding the sugar and the chicken broth—I found I didn’t need much sugar (I used 1/4 tsp) because my tomatillos were sweet, and I didn’t use as much chicken broth as the recipe called for (I used 1/2 cup) because I didn’t want to dilute the bold, punchy flavor.

Finally, I urge you to fry your tortillas. It’s a celebration, right? Screw your diet!

Grilled Fish Tacos

serves 4//from Bon Appetit May 08

  • 2 cups chopped white onion, divided
  • 3/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro, divided
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 5 tablespoons fresh lime juice, divided
  • 3 tablespoons fresh orange juice
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano (preferably Mexican)
  • 1 pound tilapia, striped bass, or sturgeon fillets*
  • Coarse kosher salt
  • 1 cup mayonnaise
  • 1 tablespoon milk
  • Corn tortillas
  • 2 avocados, peeled, pitted, sliced
  • 1/2 small head of cabbage, cored, thinly slice
  • Salsa Verde
  • Lime wedges

Stir 1 cup onion, 1/4 cup cilantro, oil, 3 tablespoons lime juice, orange juice, garlic, and oregano in medium bowl**. Sprinkle fish with coarse salt and pepper. Spread half of onion mixture over bottom of 11x7x2-inch glass baking dish. Arrange fish atop onion mixture. Spoon remaining onion mixture over fish. Cover and chill 30 minutes. Turn fish; cover and chill 30 minutes longer. Whisk mayonnaise, milk, and remaining 2 tablespoons lime juice in small bowl.***

Brush grill grate with oil; prepare barbecue (medium-high heat). Grill fish with some marinade still clinging until just opaque in center, 3 to 5 minutes per side. Grill tortillas until slightly charred, about 10 seconds per side.

Coarsely chop fish; place on platter. Serve with lime mayonnaise, tortillas, remaining 1 cup chopped onion, remaining 1/2 cup cilantro, avocados, cabbage, Salsa Verde, and lime wedges.

*I used tuna steaks.

**I used all the onions, then marinated the fish and used the marinade for a topping afterwards. Come on, you eat sushi, right?

***Instead of serving the cabbage and lime mayonnaise separately, I combined them and served as a slaw.

Salsa Verde

3 unpeeled garlic cloves
1 pound fresh tomatillos, husked, rinsed
1 small onion, quartered through root end
3 to 6 serrano chiles or 2 to 4 jalapeño chiles
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1/2 teaspoon (or more) sugar*
Coarse kosher salt
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup low-salt chicken broth**
2 tablespoons (or more) fresh lime juice
Prepare barbecue (medium-high heat).*** Thread garlic onto skewer. Grill garlic, tomatillos, onion quarters, and chiles until dark brown spots form on all sides, about 9 minutes for onion, 6 minutes for tomatillos and chiles, and 4 minutes for garlic. Cool. Peel garlic. Trim core from onion. Scrape some of burnt skin off chiles; stem. Seed chiles for milder salsa, if desired. Coarsely chop onion, chiles, and garlic. Transfer tomatillos and all vegetables to blender. Add cilantro and 1/2 teaspoon sugar; puree until smooth. Season to taste with coarse salt.

Heat oil in heavy large saucepan over high heat. Carefully add tomatillo mixture (juices may splatter). Stir until slightly thickened, stirring often, about 2 minutes. Add broth and 2 tablespoons lime juice. Bring to boil; reduce heat to medium and simmer until mixture measures 2 1/2 cups, about 10 minutes. Season to taste with salt and more sugar and lime juice, if desired. DO AHEAD: Can be made 1 day ahead. Cool slightly, then cover and chill.

*I used 1/4 tsp.

**I used 1/2 cup.

***I made everything (successfully I should think) on a cast-iron grill pan.

Lame Baker

I’m usually a good Daring Baker. I may wait until the very last minute to do a challenge but I’ll get it done and, more importantly, get it done right—which means no cheating on the recipe rules.

But not this time. See, this go-round I got lazy and by Saturday night when we got back from food shopping and I realized I forgot to get lollipop sticks, I threw caution to the wind and decided to make “Cheesecake Balls” not “Cheesecake Pops.”

Maybe I should have planned better. Maybe I should’ve went to the craft store earlier in the day and bought the sticks. But life, as it tends to do, got in the way.

Our Saturday was spent at Shadfest, the annual festival in Lambertville, NJ honoring the shad that swims through the Delaware come springtime. Jim, Champ, and I lazily traipsed around the festival—not thinking about Daring Bakers for one moment—eating shad wraps and taking photos. By the time we got home, tired and happy, I almost threw the whole notion of cheesecake anythings in the trash.

But then I got a second wind and decided to make the balls. The cheesecake was surprisingly easy. I divided the recipe into fifths, because one can only take so much cheesecake. Everything was whipped up in cute little bowls since the ingredients were so fractioned off (.04 cup of flour can’t really mess up your kitchen). However, once the cheesecake came out of the oven, I was already tired, and didn’t want to bake anymore (but, of course, wanted dessert for the night). I rolled the balls up too soon—they were bumpy and quite ugly—and then froze them solid while I continued to finish dinner and get a bit zonked on some good wine. A little bit later, I tipsily dipped the balls in chocolate, threw on some sprinkles, and devoured some immediately, watching an episode of Entourage. I didn’t, silly me, even take a picture.

Luckily, there were some left over (still on the plate, which I threw in the fridge before bed, you know, for food safety) and I took some snaps this morning, trying not to get chocolate on my new MacBook.

The recipe for the real cheesecake pops is here and here, at the lovely sites of this month’s Daring hosts, Deborah from Taste and Tell, and Elle from Feeding My Enthusiasms. And of course, you can find all the links to the other (better) Daring Bakers here.

Stir-Fried Okra to Mix Things Up a Bit

No one should be bored by what they eat. If the contents of your kitchen aren’t proof of that, then the internet is—we live in an age of information, where on the web you can find a recipe for practically anything and where the intricacies of food cultures are available to everyone, in books, on TV, and of course through bloggers. We all know now what tapas are, how to crack a coconut, and that sushi isn’t just a California roll. We ain’t in the 50’s anymore, and there’s no excuse to be bored by dinner.

It’s good to set goals. Try and eat something new once a week, or have something that you’d never before imagined cooking—or eating—once a month. Learn about all those weird seasonal vegetables that spring up now and then and figure out what to do with them. Or, you could take a dish you’ve had before and cook it in the tradition of another culture.

I’ve had okra before, but mainly in Creole gumbos (a delicious one of which I had this past weekend, made by Jim’s wonderful aunt Maria) or Cajun stews. Okra acts as a thickening agent in these dishes because of that sticky, gunky, oozing stuff inside of it (I looked for the technical term in the Oxford Food Dictionary, but they just called it a “sticky substance”) but since okra is one of my favorite components of these dishes, I wondered if it would be good on it’s own. Searching through my recipe books and on the internet, I learned that okra is a traditional Indian side dish—stir-fried in a wok with onions, chilies, and Indian spices. Since Jim and I make red-lentil dal at least once a week (using the leftovers as lunches), this technique sounded perfect.

The resulting okra was indeed sticky (or gummy or slimy–we couldn’t agree on a adjective), but coupled with the caramelized onions and chilies, and the earthy tones of the coriander and cumin, it was beautiful—complex and tasty. Not totally sold on the stickiness, we mixed the okra into our dal and were impressed by the depth that it contributed. I’m sure it would go wonderfully with black beans, though I urge you to make the okra separately, using this simple recipe, and then to mix it into your beans, or dal, or whatever at the table, because the caramelization of the dish is not to be missed. Maybe it will even transport you to new worlds!

(Though if it doesn’t, you could at least click on this video link for a laugh!)

Stir-Fried Okra

serves 3-4//adapted from Curried Flavors, Maya Kaimal MacMillian3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 cup chopped onion
1 green chili (serrano, Thai, jalapeno), split lengthwise and chopped (leave in seeds if you want added heat)

1 pound fresh okra, trimmed and cut into 1/8-inch slices

Spice mixture:
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/8 teaspoon red pepper (cayenne or dried red pepper flakes)

1 teaspoon salt

Over medium-high heat, fry oil with onion and chili until soft.

Turn up heat to high. Add okra and fry, stirring, for two minutes. Add spice mixture and continue stir-frying until okra browns around the edges (15-20 minutes.) When browned, add salt.

Vegetable Soup? It’s freakin’ 80 degrees out there!

It’s getting hot in here. Well, not in here—this series of tubes that we call “the internets”—but out there, on the other side of my window, where tulips and blossoms are beginning to bud under the warm New Jersey sun.

Tomorrow’s temperature may reach 80, there’s a warm breeze blowing through the blossoming trees, and the kids at my school have a terrible case of Spring Fever. There’s no denying it—Spring has sprung.

So, why in the world would I give you a hearty, warm, comforting vegetable soup? I could make up excuses that I’m trying to reach out to those poor saps in Canada or wherever it is that snow is still on the ground. Or I could tell you I’m sick and that’s why I made it. That, thankfully, is not true (I’m feeling quite great, actually, and so is Jim.) I could tell you that the vegetables that went into the soup were so good, so irresistible, that I just had to post the soup. That, also, would be a lie.

In truth, the vegetables in this soup had been hanging around the bottom drawer of my fridge for quite a while. I bought them, used some, and left the rest to twiddle their thumbs in the frigid air. I had good intentions, mind you, of lots of vegetable spring dishes. And then I got lazy this week, falling back to our old standards—red lentil dal, risotto, dishes that have me going to the pantry more than the vegetable drawer. I almost forgot about all those sad, bored veggies, and I would have let them wither and die had I not decided, with spring-cleaning motivation, that I would clean out the fridge.

We’re going away for the weekend, to attend Jim’s uncle’s photography show’s opening in East Hampton. I’ll plan it out so that we do next week’s shopping on the drive home on Sunday and making room in the fridge is the last thing I’ll want to do when we finally get back to the apartment.

The best way to use up all your idle veggies is a pot of vegetable soup. The more, the better—I used leeks, onions, parsnips, turnips, carrots, and potatoes. You don’t even need a recipe, just chop everything up, render some bacon in a big pot (or simply use olive oil), add your vegetables, saute them until fragrant and golden, and then add enough water to cover. The vegetables will flavor the water to make a rich, delicious stock. If you are using potatoes, add them in about 10-15 minutes after adding the water. Simmer until all the vegetables are done. Ladel into bowls and top with a bit of salted butter. Pretend it’s cold outside and enjoy with a good French baguette.

We are cursed.

Jim and I are cursed. I’m absolutely sure of it. The very same day that my back began to feel better than before I got my steroid shot (exactly seven days after I got the shot), Jim hurt his back.

When I heard his voice over the phone at work, I assumed that he was calling to see if I was feeling better, and I happily exclaimed that I wasn’t feeling any back pain so far that morning. I was puzzled that he didn’t sound happy on the other line and when I asked what was wrong, he grimaced well, honey, I couldn’t say the same for myself. He had fallen while doing his Russian kettle-bell workout (which, now, seems like the most ridiculously dangerous way to work out) and he felt like his entire midsection was in a knot. We called the doctor who’s been treating me and a few hours later we were sitting in the office, with every employee coming in to say now who’s takin’ care of who and laugh at our cursed misfortunes (we laughed with them, of course.)

It turns out he may have a herniated disc, though we can’t be sure since Jim has no insurance and can’t get an MRI. The doctor prescribed some painkillers (we’re becoming quite a drug factory here), a week of rest, and we all agreed that if anything got worse we’d go to the hospital and pray that the bill wouldn’t be a bah-zillion dollars. Luckily, he’s feeling better today, and isn’t even taking the painkillers (like a good ex-addict). But I still think we’re cursed.

And really, what do you do when you are cursed? I imagine that cooking a good, healthy, nutrient-rich dinner would be one way to help alleviate things. I spied Barley Risotto in Gourmet a few days ago, marking it as a good weeknight dinner—when regular risotto feels a tad to decadent. Being that decadent was about the furthest thing from what Jim and I were feeling, it seemed like the perfect dinner. It’s comfy yet healthy. It’s springy but warming. It’s just what you feed someone who’s injured.

Since you are blending a portion, use as much of the asparagus as you can—only cutting off the base and not doing the normal bend-and-break thing that you do to prepare asparagus for pan-frying. The “sauce” that you make by blending the asparagus stalks and garlic is mouth-watering, but potent; make sure to use only the given amount of garlic and no more—unless you are trying to ward off vampires (or kisses).

Barley Risotto with Asparagus

adapted slightly from Gourmet: April 2007//serves 4

1 bunch medium asparagus, trimmed
5 1/2 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/4 cups pearl barley
1/2 cup vermouth
1 garlic clove
1 1/4 teaspoons finely grated fresh lemon zest
3/4 cup Parmiggiano-Reggiano, grated
1/2 cup pecans, toasted and coarsely chopped

Cut top third of each asparagus stalk diagonally into 1/2-inch-thick slices, reserving tips and slices together, then coarsely chop remainder. Bring water (5 1/2 cups) and 1/2 teaspoon salt to a boil in a 3- to 4-quart saucepan, then add chopped asparagus and cook, uncovered, until very tender, 6 to 7 minutes. Transfer with a slotted spoon to a food processor (not a blender, which would require adding liquid).

Add reserved asparagus tips and slices to boiling water and cook, uncovered, until crisp-tender, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer with slotted spoon to a sieve, reserving cooking liquid in pan, and rinse under cold water to stop cooking. Drain well and reserve in another bowl.

Measure cooking liquid and, if necessary, add enough water to bring total to 4 cups, then reserve.

Cook onion with pepper and 1/4 teaspoon salt in oil in a 4- to 5-quart heavy pot over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until softened, 5 to 7 minutes. Add barley and cook, stirring, 1 minute.

Add vermouth and boil, stirring, until liquid is absorbed, about 1 minute.

Add 4 cups reserved asparagus-cooking liquid and bring to a boil, covered, then reduce heat and simmer, covered, until barley is tender (it should be chewy) and mixture is thickened to a stew-like consistency, 35 to 40 minutes.

Meanwhile, mince garlic and mash to a paste with remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt using side of a large heavy knife, then add to asparagus in food processor along with zest and purée until smooth.

When barley is cooked, stir in asparagus purée, asparagus-tip mixture, and enough additional water to thin to desired consistency and cook over moderate heat, stirring, until hot, about 1 minute. Stir in cheese, then season with salt and pepper. Serve with pecans and additional cheese on the side.

Blackness.

I’m sorry but this post is pretty dark. I’m about to go on a cranky ramble and I just can’t help myself. I’m even going to give you beans, beans as black as my outlook on life today. Luckily for you, they taste great.

So what’s my puss all about, you ask. Well, I got a steriod injection in my SI joint yesterday. Two weeks after my doctor put in for the shot’s approval by my insurance company. Those two weeks were so crucial because, during the time, I was actually starting to feel significantly better. Not that I could work out, or go for a run, or stand or sit for too long, or really do much of anything other than go to work, cook dinner, lie around and sleep—but at least during work, dinner, laying, and sleeping I wasn’t in pain. This gave me serious happiness after over two months of consistent pain, no matter what I was doing. However, the no-working out or doing anything that could potentially burn a calorie or two was starting to bother me (and my waistline). I still couldn’t move my leg in any way other than a straight-forward-stepping movement without it hurting, and if I made the thoughtless mistake of doing something outrageous—like walking my dog—I could be laid out for a day or more. So my doctor suggested I have an injection, to bring the swelling down, alleviate some pain, and put me on the path to total healing. I agreed to it, jumping for joy (not literally, of course.)

And then the bane of my existence, Traveler’s Auto Insurance Company of New Jersey, told me they needed to “confer” with “their doctors” before approving the shot. These “doctors”, who have never examined me and who I seriously doubt even exist, are allowed, by law, 72 hours before they approve anything. Traveler’s, by sluggishly bad work ethics, make sure to use every minute of this 72 hour period—or, as I was soon to find out, they disregard all sense of the law and humanity and won’t do anything in the way of approving medical treatment for two weeks. And then, two weeks later, when you finally get the haughty woman of an insurance agent on the phone and she puts you on hold to go ask “the doctors” if they’ve approved anything and then comes back and cheerily says “looks like we’re going to let you get that shot” and you, through gritted teeth, ask her why Traveler’s feels that they need not adhere to the rights of people to get the health care they need within the legal limit of 72 hours and she replies, still goddamn cheerily, that “she doesn’t know,” your outlook on life becomes rather bleak.

But I did a little meditation after I hung up the phone, repeating to myself over and over that I am on the path to total healing. I went to the doctor’s and he tells me if I’m feeling better I could decide to hold off on the shot for another week to see if I improve even more on my own but by that time I feel like I had to wage war for the damn thing and I tell him, in a crazed, crackling voice, that it’s mine and he better give it to me. He forgets to mention that it will hurt like all hell. And he also forgets to mention, until after the shot when I’m lying bare-assed on his table crying and woozy from pain, that the initial pain of my accident may come back in full force for a day or two, adding (cheerily, of course) that the pain is a good thing because it shows us that we put the shot in the right place (your SI joint is too small for any significant injury to show up on an MRI). I look at him with all the contempt I can muster against a man who had been tirelessly trying to help me for the past few months but who nevertheless just stuck a huge needle into my bones. I go home, hoping for the best.

And of course, by today, the best is out to lunch, and the worst has certainly set in. I’m aching from above my hips to my ankles. I can’t move. I’m stoned on painkillers that make me feel nauseuous. I’m cranky, depressed, and, oddly, very hungry. Thankfully, instead of running for the hills to get away from me, Jim made me some black beans. He did the brunt of the work on these hardy, savory beans, and even helped me limp to the stove when I insisted on putting in the flavoring—balsamic vinegar, soy sauce, chinese chili paste—by myself.

These beans are perfect in their simplicity. They’re neither spicy nor mild, not sweet or salty. The best way to describe them is “beany”—pure black bean flavor that’s not mucked up by anything and only enhanced by the drops and pinches added in towards the end of cooking. While they are perfectly delectable alone as a side, a green garnish—I used pea leaves for their snappy bite and photogenicness—and a big dollop of sour cream make them a meal. Though they may look (and I may feel) abysmal, they taste bright, sharp, and delicious!

Simple Black Beans

adapted from: http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/238086

  • 1 lb dried black beans (about 2 1/3 cups), picked over and rinsed (but not soaked)
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 8 cups water
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 tablespoons dry Sherry (or more to taste)
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce (or more to taste)
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar (or more to taste)
  • 1/2 teaspoon hot Chinese chili paste (or more to taste)

Bring black beans, onion, garlic, oil, water (8 cups), and 1/2 teaspoon salt to a boil in a 6- to 8-quart heavy pot, then reduce heat and simmer, covered, until beans are tender, 1 1/2 to 2 hours (depending on age of beans). Thin to desired consistency with additional water or thicken by simmering uncovered. Stir in Sherry and remaining teaspoon salt, then soy sauce, vinegar, and chili paste to taste. Simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, 10 minutes.

A little spring in my kitchen.

Spring is being a bit cagey this year. She doesn’t know if she really likes the sun, warm breezes, outside picnics. I mean, winter can be attractive—he’s blustery, he’s frigidly cold but then again he’s inviting, enticing people to go inside and cuddle up by the fireplace with him and a cup of steaming hot chocolate, or maybe even a warm stew. He reminds people how good home is, since every time anyone steps outside he wallops them on the head with cold air. And he encourages everyone to eat and eat, foods with lots of butter and substance, without ever asking them to put on a bathing suit.

So, she doesn’t want to let him go. She thinks they make a great pair and we’re left with this unappetizing weather that’s a mix of winter and spring—damp, too-chilly, and grey. Until Spring realizes that she’s better off without him—that we’re sick of eating root vegetables, that our lips have been chapped for one too many days, that we want to sit outside and see the sun for flup’s sake—we’ll just have to make do with a little spring in our kitchens.

This green bean salad takes advantage of all the great things Spring has to offer—even if she refuses to admit it. It’s colorful, tangy, and crisp-tasting. All you need to do is say “sunflower seeds” and you feel warmer. The green beans hold their own amidst bold vinegar and citrus flavors and I even humor Spring and mix in a bit of the best Winter has to offer us culinarily—blood oranges.

It takes some patience and a little knife skills to cut the orange into pith-and skin-free segments, though you can find a good tutorial on how to do it here (I wish I saw this post before I made the salad!) If you’re in a hurry, just peel, take as much pith off as you can manage, and use the whole segments—the salad will still taste great. Also, this salad gets better by the next day, which made me quite chipper since I usually hate day old dressed salads.

Here’s hoping that the weather soon gets as sunny as our food!

Citrus Sunflower Green Bean Salad

serves 6-8//adapated from Techniques of Healthy Cooking

For the salad:

  • 1 1/2 pounds green beans, washed and trimmed
  • 3 blood oranges, cut into segments *You need 4 oranges total in this recipe
  • 1 sweet white onion, halved and thinly sliced
  • 4 ounces salted and roasted sunflower seeds
  • salt and pepper

For the vinaigrette:

  • 1 teaspoon cornstarch
  • 1/2 cup vegetable stock
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 tbsp sherry vinegar
  • *1 blood orange, juiced
  • 1 tbsp dijon mustard
  • 2 shallot cloves, minced
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • salt and pepper

Cook beans in boiling water for a few minutes, until barely tender. Drain and run under cold water to cool.

Combine beans, blood orange segments, onions, sunflower seeds in a large bowl. Season a little with salt and pepper.

To make the vinaigrette, combine cornstarch with 1 teaspoon water and mix to make a “slurry.” Set aside. Bring stock to a boil in a small saucepan. Add the slurry and stir until the stock thickens, about 2 minutes. Cool to room temperature. Combine with the remaining ingredients and whisk well.

Pour vinaigrette over the bean mixture. Toss and serve. Can be made a day ahead of time. The leftover salad will last in the fridge for a few days.

Hatteras Village Vacation

So. My vacation. As you can tell from my lack of posting this week, I’m still pretending to be on it. I’m a firm believer that no vacation should last for less than 2 weeks and if I can’t still be on vacation in reality, I’m on the beach in spirit.

The vacation was wonderful. We rented a little cabana with bright yellow walls and starfish decorations. The whole area was practically to ourselves as not many people are vacationing in North Carolina in March (it’s still pretty cold there.) The first few days were tumultuously windy. With vacationy-good-cheer, we made the best of it and took long walks on the beach anyway. The weather cleared within a few days. We took nature-walks through lush sea-side forests. Champ was unwillingly washed. And we ate a ton of tuna.

On the super-windy days, we checked out the local restaurants. I won’t say our eating over vacation was overall-tasty, or on-average-satisfying because, really, it was some of the best, and some of the worst, food that I’ve had in a long time. About the worst I won’t say much—just that when we first arrived at “our little fishing village on the tip of the Outer Banks,” I was surprised to see a lot of people very overweight and otherwise un-healthy-looking. Not that I have anything against portliness, not in the least, it’s just that this kind of portliness—it’s the McDonald’s variety, not the foie gras and creme brulee type—is unnerving. The latter is no less health-hazardous but I find it less sad. The more I learn about the dreaded farm bill, and corn subsidies, and evil corporation’s PR campaigns, the more disheartening it is to see obese people, many of whom work what I assume to be (and I know because I’ve worked many of these) underpaid jobs.

I’ve got to admit at first I was amazed. In an area where you could get the freshest fish I’ve ever tasted for cheaper than usual prices, how can the people living there be overweight? I had imagined they were all slinky gods and goddess, with sheeny hair and perfect skin. And then I ate at the restaurants. A lot of them were teeming with fast-food type fare, sometimes without the fast food prices! I realized how good I’ve been eating over the past year (how bad some people in this country have been)—and how little I’ve spent to eat my way.

Jim and I always complain about how much we spend on our fancy cheese and organic fruit at Whole Foods, but we spent about triple the amount of money on a week’s worth of food on vacation—and didn’t even eat out the whole time! And jesus, money aside, most of the food sucked. See, I’m all for spending 100 bucks on a dinner that I can savor and enjoy, but spending 50 on something that belongs in a school cafeteria (and if I had it my way, it wouldn’t even belong there) is a damn shame. I wanted to do something. I wanted to scream that it’s not that hard to cook! And a bag of beans and rice is so much cheaper than a Mikkey-Dee’s! And it will even fill you up better—not the filled up I feel sick feeling that results from eating twice your daily caloric intake in one meal!

Did I say I wouldn’t say much about the worst? Whoops. Well, at least I won’t name any bad-restaurant names publicly (if you really want to know, email me) and I’ll stop ranting now and move onto the good stuff.

I had a few firsts down in North Carolina—my first crawfish, my first (enjoyed) oyster, my first taste of alligator(!) We ate the alligator solely for the novelty of it. The pieces of alligator tail were tender but also a little rubbery—somewhere between the texture of fish and pork, oddly enough. The restaurant owner who offered the alligator gave a nice lesson of how alligators are farm-raised in Louisiana—in big indoor swamps, kept dark at all times, with the doors only opened when the (assumedly-scared-shitless) farmer needs to feed his stock. Can’t say I’m hankering to eat alligator again but the dish was indeed fun.

I tried crawfish and enjoyed its lobster-like flavor and meatiness—after, that is, I shamefully admitted to the bar girl that I had no idea what to do with the things, presenting her with the two specimens I thoroughly mangled before giving up. She graciously obliged, showing me how to start by pulling off the tail (mentioning that I could suck out the head if I wanted to be “authentic”) and then how to “shimmy” the meat out. After I finished 1/2 a pound—my hands stained red from the Old Bay and drawn butter glistening my lip—I proudly announced to her that I’d mastered the art of crawfish eating.

At this same friendly, delicious bar, I fell in love with oysters. I ate them the way, I realize now, they should always be eaten—unpretentiously, ordered at the bar by the dozen and served on a styrofoam plate with a few wedge of lemon and a bit of cocktail sauce. Little plump pillows, the oysters were transcendent. Briny, tasting of the shells they slept in. I’ve had oysters before, at fancy NYC restaurants paying an outrageous price per pop, but I enjoyed them ten-fold more in this small, dank North Carolina bar.

Finally, the tuna. Once the weather brightened, Jim and I didn’t want to do anything but be outside, and decided to start buying all our dinners at the local seafood market. We would show up at 5PM, as the boats were getting in, and spend some time on the docks watching the fishermen slice up their bounty, the pelicans chomping at the bit. Once inside, where though it was a small room full of fish, the only smell in our nostrils was that of the fresh, crisp, ocean. Nothing was fishy smelly. It was unlike any fish I’ve ever encountered and I knew we’d have to have tuna tartare.

It was fantastic. No, that’s not the right word. It was awe-some. It was hilariously, ridiculously good—we laughed the whole time we ate, unable to believe our plates. The only bad part was realizing that tuna tartare, my favorite dish to order at restaurants, would henceforth pale in comparison to the fresh, sea-scented tuna we had in the Outer Banks.

A Tuna Tartare Un-Recipe

This is an un-recipe because it’s really just a basic idea—something that you can go off of if you have no idea how to start upon tuna tartare. But really, it’s just a bouncing-off point, and you need to experiment and find the perfect taste for you.

  • 1 1/2 pound sashimi-grade tuna
  • 1 or 2 avocados, diced
  • 1 bunch scallions, sliced white parts only
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1/2 cup soy sauce
  • 1-2 tablespoons sesame oil
  • 1-2 tablespoons sesame seeds
  • 1-2 teaspoons fresh ginger
  • 1-2 teaspoons wasabi paste
  • pinch of sugar
  • juice of a lime

Slice tuna into strips against the grain and cut into dices. Combine tuna with avocado and scallions. In a separate bowl, combine rest of ingredients, mixing well. Taste and adjust. Taste with a piece of the tuna and if it’s to your liking, pour over tuna. Mix and serve with sesame crackers.