A Fish Meandering – Part I

by on February 14, 2008

Oh wow. If you thought the road to my Chicken, Apple & Raspberry Panini was long and circuitous you’re not gonna believe what it took to work out my fish sandwich recipe! I started out looking to pay tribute to my current hometown, San Diego, but somehow made my way thousands of miles east to the Caribbean. This is going to be a two-parter – on account of it took me a second kitchen session to arrive at the right combination. Keep with me, it ends well! Want to skip ahead? Click here for the final recipe.

Baja Fish Panini – Attempt #1

  • Bread: Sourdough
  • Condiment: Lime dressing
  • Meat: Tilapia
  • Cheese: Pepper jack
  • “Goodies”: Cabbage

THE INSPIRATION: San Diego isn’t exactly what one would call a “food town”, but there’s at least one menu item we can claim with pride: fish tacos. Actually originating in Baja California, Mexico, the typical fish taco consists of a corn tortilla with breaded white fish, cabbage and a creamy dressing. Ralph Rubio, the founder of the Rubio’s Mexican fast casual restaurant chain is often credited with popularizing the fish taco north of the border and it has become a local favorite. So I wanted to use the fish taco as inspiration for a panini recipe.

THE PREPARATION: “To bread or not to bread?” As I mentioned, the fish in fish tacos is usually breaded. Outside of chicken parms, I can’t recall too many occasions where I’ve had breaded items on a sandwich, so I thought I’d better test out whether breaded fish would work well or not. In Attempt #1, I went without the breading. I brushed a tilapia steak – I went with tilapia because it’s often serving-sized, readily available and relatively inexpensive – with olive oil, seasoned with salt and pepper, and squeezed a little lime juice on top.

Now, in my previous panini recipes I’ve always pre-cooked fillings on the stove or in the oven, but it occurred to me that with fish I could actually use the panini grill in the prep phase! So onto the grill went the tilapia at 350 degrees – it took about 2 minutes and 30 seconds to get cooked through and juicy. That’s about as fast as the microwave!! But a microwave won’t give you grill marks 🙂

Next, I worked on my condiment: the fish taco sauce. I did a little research and it seems the most typical recipe for fish taco sauce calls for equal parts of sour cream and mayonnaise and some lime juice.

THE CONSTRUCTION: I whisked together the sauce and spread some onto a slice of sourdough bread. Then came about 1/2 cup of coleslaw mix (no sense in shredding my own!), the grilled tilapia, a slice of pepper jack cheese (for a little heat as well as an adhesive) and another slice of sourdough bread. I brushed some olive oil on top to make it extra crispy and flavorful.

I cleaned off the panini press and put the sandwich on to grill for about 5 minutes until the top was crispy and golden and the pepper jack had melted.

THE RESULTS: Only okay. It was too wet – the downside to a juicy filling like tilapia, I learned, is that the moisture can make bread a little soggy. The pepper jack featured prominently…too prominently, I tasted it more than anything else. My husband commented, “I taste pepper”, which let me know that the freshly ground black pepper I’d seasoned the fish with was also nonharmonious. This sandwich had lots of issues – I could sense I was going to be a while longer in the kitchen!

Baja Fish Panini – Attempt #2

“To bread or not to bread?” I had to ask the question again. Perhaps the moisture of the tilapia could be “contained” within a breaded shell? I decided to give it a try, dipping another piece of tilapia first in a beaten egg and then in some Japanese panko bread crumbs. I like panko crumbs because they’re crunchier than the finer bread crumbs we more often use. The texture could be great in the sandwich.

With the breading, the tilapia took a little longer to grill – closer to 6 minutes. Still not bad!

I built the sandwich again in the same manner as in Attempt #1, substituting the breaded tilapia for the grilled fish.

THE RESULTS: Well, it wasn’t nearly as wet…but it still didn’t really taste that great. It needed some punch. The pepper jack definitely provided a kick, but it needed another complementary kick – a sweet kick perhaps? The cabbage also wasn’t really working for me. Raw cabbage may bring a nice fresh, crisp texture to a fish taco, but on a grilled sandwich the now-cooked cabbage was rather bland and soft. Not exactly what I was going for!

It was now time to feed the baby again and I was out of sourdough and ideas. I resolved to think on it overnight and continue testing ideas the next day. I will make this fish panini recipe work!

See how this “fish story” ends – check out Part II.

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