Growing up in California, I was lucky to have plenty of options for excellent Mexican food. As I started getting into cooking, I found that Mexican cuisine is one of the less intimidating ones to learn–it’s full of fresh, simple ingredients and wonderful flavors. The ones I’m sharing below have a decidedly California twist to them (in other words, I’m not sure how authentic these foods are, but I can tell you they’re quite common here in Cal-Mex restaurants, so I’m guessing there’s a large California influence on them :)).
So without further ado (or is it adieu? I’ve never been able to figure that one out…), here are two of my favorite Cal-Mex inspired dishes: fish tacos and slow-cooker carnitas.
Fish Tacos with heirloom tomato salsa (serves 1)
- 3 oz boneless tilapia fillet (you can also use mahi mahi or rock cod, or any other flaky white fish, but tilapia is my favorite, since I grew up eating it in the Philippines)
- 1 large heirloom tomato, chopped (Trader Joe’s has mini heirloom tomatoes that are the size of cherry tomatoes–they’re adorable and versatile enough to be used in salads, too–these are the ones I tend to buy, rather than the larger ones)
- 2 tbsp red onions, chopped
- 2 tbsp cilantro, chopped (use more or less, according to your preference; I love me some cilantro, so I go for LOTS of it)
- 1 jalapeno pepper, diced (in a pinch, you can also substitute a few dashes of tabasco for the heat; both or either are entirely optional if you prefer a milder salsa)
- juice of half a lime (I prefer the flavor of lemon, so I use lemon instead)
- 1/2 medium avocado
- 1-2 small (6 inch) corn tortillas
- Salt and pepper to taste
Spray a grill pan with a little oil (I use olive oil), then heat over medium-high heat. Season your fish with salt and pepper, then when the pan is ready, grill the fish, about 2-3 minutes per side. You’ll have to watch carefully to see whether more or less time is needed; it’ll depend on the thickness of your fillet. You want to cook the fish thoroughly, but you won’t want to overcook it, since it gets tough and rubbery. No bueno.
While the fish is cooking, toss together the chopped tomato, onion, cilantro, and jalapeno, then sprinkle with salt, pepper, and lime juice to taste. Now wrap your tortilla(s) in a wet paper towel and microwave for 30-40 seconds to get it nice and warm.
By now your fish should be ready. Spread the avocado on your tortilla(s), and lay the fish onto the tortilla(s), either keeping it whole, or breaking it up into chunks. It’s all up to you and your preference :). Top with the salsa, and eat up!
Slow-cooker carnitas (serves 6-8)
- 3.5-4 lb pork butt/shoulder roast, visible fat trimmed (there’s no getting around the fact that this is a fatty cut of meat–and you’ll need that fat to make a really tender carnitas, but you can trim as much as you can and still have enough fat to leave it moist and tender)
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp pepper
- 1 tsp garlic powder
- 1 tsp cumin
- 1 tsp oregano
- 1 tsp cayenne pepper
- 2 cups low sodium chicken broth
- 1/2 tbsp olive oil
Make a rub of the salt and spices, then rub the mix all over the pork, making sure to cover all sides. Place it in the slow cooker, then pour the chicken broth in, careful not to disturb the rub as much as possible. Cook on low for 8-9 hours.
Once it’s cooked, heat the oil in a cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat, then take the carnitas out and brown all sides of the pork. Cooking it in the slow cooker will ensure a fork-tender texture, but part of what makes carnitas so yummy is the crispy exterior (which is traditionally achieved by deep frying it; obviously that’s not too healthy :)), so this is the way to “cheat” and get that crispiness, without making it a huge saturated fat bomb.
Once it’s seared, you can either shred the pork now, or leave it intact and shred it just before you’re going to eat it (or leave it in chucks, as I prefer). These are fantastic in a taco, similar to the fish tacos above (except substituting the fish for the carnitas, obviously :)), or with Mexican rice, or, well, any way you prefer, really! Get creative :).