Recipe by Dean Thomas, executive chef, Barona Valley Ranch Resort & Casino.
I started out as a dishwasher for an Italian chef. One day, his cook didn’t show up and he said, “Come on over here.” I haven’t left the kitchen since. That happened even before high school (I kind of lied about my age to get that job). I don’t even think I was 15.
Thirty years ago, when I started cooking, no one cared who was in the kitchen. But everyone’s into cooking now. The Food Network has had a lot to do with that. Chefs have become superstars in the public’s eye. One of the reasons is the chef competitions, which I love to compete in. Some chefs look at competitions as a way to beat the other guy, but to me, it’s a way to self-motivate and challenge myself. And I love helping others do that. A chef has to think fast. We have to come up with solutions quickly because we are in an immediate-satisfaction business. You serve somebody something and they either like it on the first bite or they don’t.
At Barona, I oversee 12 different restaurants. At any given time, I can be a plumber, babysitter, chef, leader, or menu writer. At home we cook everything and anything too. My wife is also a chef, so we kind of fight over who gets to cook. We like mostly simple food and eat to the season. We love braised items in the winter. To me, that is the most passionate form of cooking. And when apples or citrus are in or figs are growing in our backyard, that’s what we’re eating.
Fish tacos are great any time of year in Southern California. I use a locally brewed ale, organic cilantro, microgreens, and sustainable local-caught halibut. The “street fruit” served with the fish taco is a great representation of the cultural diversity in our state. The bottom line is that you can taste good food that is prepared with love. There’s a difference.
Karl Strauss Beer Batter
2-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup cornstarch
8 oz. Karl Strauss Red Trolley Ale
10 oz. soda water
1/2-tsp pico de gallo spice (available in most grocery stores)
1 lb halibut fillet, skinless and cut into eight 2 oz. strips
1 bunch chives
1/2 jicama, peeled and cut into batonette (2 inches x 1/4 inch x 1/4 inch); makes about 8 pieces
1/2 cucumber, peeled and cut into batonette (8 pieces)
1 slice watermelon, peeled and cut into batonette (8 pieces)
1/2 papaya, peeled and cut into batonette (8 pieces)
1/2 mango, peeled and cut into batonette (8 pieces)
pico de gallo spice (to taste)
3 limes (juice and zest)
2 tsp granulated sugar
3 oz. queso fresco, crumbled
1/2-pint container Connelly Gardens cilantro microgreens (or substitute 1 cup minced cilantro)
8 five-inch corn tortillas, griddled to warm
3 oz. crème fraîche (preferably Bellwether Farms)
HOW TO DO IT
Begin by preparing the beer batter. In a small bowl, mix the flour and cornstarch together. Using a whip or eggbeater, blend in the ale and soda water until smooth. Season with pico de gallo spice and salt to taste. Reserve batter. Slice fish and reserve in refrigerator.
Then make the “street fruit.” Plunge the chives into boiling water for two seconds and remove. Submerge immediately in ice water. Peel and cut all the vegetables and fruits (from jicama to mango) into batonette pieces, two inches long and 1/2 inch wide. Squeeze the juice of two limes over the fruit and dash with the pico de gallo spice. Toss lightly. Create eight bundles by including one piece of each fruit and vegetable in each bundle. Tie the bundles with the blanched chive strings.
In a large frying pan, heat about 2 inches of oil to 350 degrees. Dip the fillets into the beer batter; shake off excess and deep fry in the oil. When golden, place onto paper towels to drain.
In a small bowl, mix the juice and zest of three limes, sugar, and queso fresco together. Toss with the cilantro microgreens right before serving.
Fill each freshly cooked corn tortilla with a piece of batter-fried halibut; top with crème fraîche and the tossed, flavored micro greens and queso fresco. Serve each taco with a bundle of fruit.
Hear Chef Thomas discuss this column on Reader Radio!