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korean fish tacos

Korean Tacos

I got to talking with my mom the other night about cooking, and the process of learning how to cook. We both agree that it’s too bad that people get too wedded to recipes, as they can get in the way of real, practical cooking. She knows this all too well – at her job managing the kitchen at House of Charities, almost all of their food comes from donations. Here’s a recent article in the Spokesman-Review about her work — the short version is, you don’t always know what you’re going to get, and you have to be flexible:

One perennial challenge is providing protein. But it can be done, Rossi said. The crew started last Monday with three hams. Rossi wanted to use them in scalloped potatoes, but she didn’t have enough cheese. So they used what they did have, whisking together a béchamel – a rich white sauce – and combining it with ranch dressing. They layered in steamed potatoes, diced onions and green peppers.

The three hams became a rich dish for 300 people that day, with at least a little protein for each. The kitchen served the potatoes with steamed broccoli, green salad and dinner rolls. For dessert, [kitchen assistant Ellerie Easterwood] made sweet potato bread pudding.

So while I love my Cook’s Illustrated books, and my ridiculously complicated restaurant cookbooks, and (sometimes) my Bon Appetit subscriptions, it is important to not get too bogged down by recipes. Think instead about food that you like to eat, and (more importantly?) food that you have in your pantry!

Which brings us to dinner tonight. We have an extra chunk of salmon in the fridge that needs to get eaten in the next day or so. We have an enormous bag of scallions from my recent trip to the restaurant supply store. We have a bag of coleslaw shreds from Sunday’s black bean tacos (I occasionally use pre-chopped vegetables like this – they’re a great convenience food, and they’re often on sale. This bag was $1 for about a pound of shredded cabbage, which is a good deal). I have some Momofuku ginger-scallion sauce and red dragon sauce from dinner this weekend. As usual, I have several rows of Asian condiments in the fridge. And I always (ALWAYS) have corn tortillas.

So, I decided to improvise a korean salmon taco, in the spirit of the wildly popular Kogi in LA (and the countless other Asian fusion food trucks that have popped up, including Marination Mobile in Seattle). The fish got quickly marinated in a mixture of rice wine vinger, honey, and Korean chile paste (you can use Sriracha or even Tabasco), quickly broiled, and then stuffed into tortillas with some chile-lime mayonnaise and cabbage shreds. I passed it with “S Dragon Sauce”, which is Sarah’s combination of the Momofuku Red Dragon Sauce and Ginger-Scallion sauce. I’m including the sauce recipe below, but really, this would be great with Sriracha, or maybe some bottled Thai-style sweet chili sauce. Or, hell, pico de gallo.

I used two different Korean chili pastes in this recipe: gochujang and ssamjang. Gochujang is a fermented pepper paste (made from chilies, soybeans, and other things). It is quite spicy, but the spiciness is balanced out by a pleasing funkiness and sweetness. Ssamjang is a paste that includes gochujang as well as some other stuff — aromatics, sesame oil, more bean paste, etc. If you can only find one or the other (or if you don’t want to spend $8 on condiments), get the more complex ssamjang, and use Sriracha, chili-garlic sauce, or another hot sauce if you want more heat.

As always, sourcing some of these ingredients may require a trip to your local international district, if you’d like to use the Korean chili pastes. I have found both gochujang and ssamjang at Uwajimaya and HT Mart in Seattle, and I’m sure they’d be even easier to find at a real Korean grocery. You want to look with the other Korean sauces, and you’re looking for a cute square plastic container, like so:

gochujang and ssamjang (L to R)

gochujang and ssamchang

So, spend some time getting to know your local Asian market, pick up some fish and tortillas, and make yourself some weird fish tacos!

Korean Salmon Tacos

serves 4
red dragon sauce and ginger-scallion sauce adapted from the Momofuku cookbook by David Chang

Ingredients

Salmon

  • 2 tablespoons plus 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • 3 tablespoons honey
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil, plus more for brushing the salmon
  • 2 tablespoons gochujang, or 1 tablespoon Sriracha
  • 2 tablespoons ssamjang, or some extra Sriracha and honey
  • 2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar, or more to taste
  • 1 lb. fillet of salmon with skin, preferably a center-cut piece (so everything is the same thickness)
  • a bunch of corn tortillas (figure 3 tacos per person, so 12 tortillas — but you’ll want more if you like to double-stack your tortillas, like I do)
  • 2 cups thinly shredded cabbage (or buy a bag of coleslaw shreds)
  • spicy mayonnaise (recipe below)
  • S Dragon Sauce (recipe below)
  • 1/2 cup thinly sliced scallions
  • 2 tablespoons white sesame seeds, optional
  • lime wedges for serving

Mix 2 tablespoons soy sauce and 1 tablespoon of honey and set aside for later. Mix the rest of the soy sauce and honey, vegetable oil, gochujang, ssamjang, and rice wine vinegar in a small bowl. Taste for seasoning: it should be pretty salty, but well-balanced with sweet, spicy, acidic, and pungent flavors. Feel free to adjust for your your tastes. Set aside.

30 minutes before you want to eat, marinate the salmon in the mixture you made earlier (I like to do this in a ziploc). Don’t let it sit any longer as it will get too salty and mushy. Preheat your broiler to high and set a rack in the highest or second-highest position. You want the salmon to be about 4-5 inches from the broiler.

Drain the salmon and pat it well with paper towels. Line a small baking sheet with aluminum foil and place the salmon on the foil, skin-side down. Rub the top with a bit of vegetable oil and broil for about 4 minutes, or until the fish is stating to brown a bit and it is almost tender when poked with a thin, sharp knife. Take it out and brush the fish with the soy-honey mixture that you set aside at the very beginning. Broil a few more minutes until the fish is done and has a nice glaze. If you have a crappy oven like me and can’t seem to get the fish to actually brown, don’t worry!

Tent the fish with foil. Warm your tortillas and keep them in a clean kitchen towel while you get everything else ready. Line up your chili mayonnaise, sliced scallions, sesame seeds, and S dragon sauce (if using). Make tacos by spreading a tortilla with a thin layer of mayo, then adding a chunk of flaked fish, a handful of cabbage, a sprinkling of scallions and sesame seeds, and a dab of S dragon sauce. Serve with limes and lots of ice-cold cheap beer (and if one of those limes sneaks into the beer, I don’t think anyone would really mind, would they?).

S Dragon Sauce

  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup ssamjang
  • about 3-4 big scallions (white and green parts), minced (you should have a few tablespoons)
  • 1-inch knob of ginger, peeled and minced
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • splash rice wine vinegar

Mix the water and sugar in a small saucepan and heat over high until the sugar is dissolved (you can also do this in the microwave). Remove from the heat and add the rest of the ingredients. Stir to combine and cool. Taste for seasoning – you may need to add a bit more soy sauce or rice wine vinegar. Set aside for later – this keeps in the fridge for a few days and is great with almost any meat, fish, or noodles!

Spicy Mayonnaise

  • 1/2 cup mayonnaise (preferably a good-quality mayo)
  • 1 teaspoon rice wine vinegar, or more to taste
  • 1 tablespoons gochujang, or 1 teaspoon Sriracha (or more to taste)
  • 2-3 teaspoons soy sauce

Combine all ingredients and taste for seasoning – it should be pretty spicy and have a bit of a vinegary kick. Store in the fridge until you need it.

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