Sometimes I have good ideas. This is not one of them. It is a good idea — it’s a fantastically brilliant idea, really, but I can’t claim it. This recipe is a gift from the Google gods. I wanted to do something savory with rhubarb for a change, and a chef friend had recently mentioned how delicious rhubarb is with fish. But I’m a skeptic at heart, even when faced with overwhelming expertise, so I googled just to be sure. Judging by the sheer number of search results returned, rhubarb is indeed a proper companion to fish.
But the thing about Google is that it still takes a human to cut through all the crap. For there, amid multiple ho-hum recipes for fish with rhubarb sauce, was this delicious little gem of a recipe, which I promptly re-created in my own kitchen. “Rhubarb salsa?” Chris lamented, sporting his best yuck face. But rhubarb salsa is bright and tart and assertively zippy, and it’s difficult to maintain a dour demeanor in the face of such brazen freshness, particularly when that zippiness is paired with sweet, crispy cornmeal-coated strips of freshly-caught Lake Michigan whitefish. So difficult that I suspect we’ll be eating this at least once a week for as long as rhubarb is around.
For the salsa
1½ cups rhubarb, diced
¼ cup red onion, minced
2 tsp. lime juice
¼ cup finely minced scallions
1 jalapeño, seeded and minced
2 tsp. honey
1 Tbsp. cider vinegar
¼ tsp. kosher salt
1/8 tsp. cayenne
Fill a medium bowl with ice and water; set aside. Fill a medium saucepan with water and bring to a boil. Add the diced rhubarb, blanch for 10 seconds, then scoop out with a slotted spoon into the ice water. Place red onion in medium bowl and drizzle with lime juice. Remove rhubarb from water batch and blot with towel to dry, then transfer to clean medium bowl. Add rhubarb to red onion and toss with scallions and jalapeño. Whisk vinegar with honey until combined, add to salsa mixture and season with salt and cayenne. Refrigerate.
For the tacos
¼ cup yellow cornmeal
3 Tbsp. olive oil
2/3 pound whitefish, skin removed, cut into 2-inch strips
1 large sweet onion, sliced thin
6 5-inch corn tortillas
1 Tbsp. chopped cilantro leaves
Heat oven to 200°F. Place the cornmeal in shallow bowl and season with salt and cayenne. Dredge the fish strips in the seasoned cornmeal. Add 3 Tbsp. oil to a large skillet and sauté the fish over medium heat, turning, until golden and crispy, one to two minutes per side. Remove to a heatproof dish, and place in the oven. Heat the remaining oil in the skillet. Add the onions and cook over medium heat, stirring, until golden brown and slightly caramelized.
Warm the tortillas in a cast iron skillet about 30 seconds on each side; hold in warm oven if necessary. When ready to serve, place two or three pieces of fish in the center of the tortilla, top with some of the caramelized onion and finish with about 2 Tbsp. of the salsa and a sprinkle of cilantro. Serve any remaining salsa alongside.
One major drawback to living in a place like Northern Michigan is that there are no hushpuppies. Oh sure, a handful of restaurants in the area claim to serve hushpuppies but, as it turns out, those things are not hushpuppies. I’m not sure what they are, but trust me when I tell you that they’re not hushpuppies. Hushpuppies — so named for their power to quiet the barking dogs of hunters and fishermen gathered around their campfires or of Confederate soldiers hoping to prevent Union scouts from discovering their campfires or of fugitive slave hunters attempting to thwart runaway slaves’ passage along the Underground Railroad or, well, nobody really knows for sure — have long been a staple of Southern cuisine. They’re hot, delicious little morsels of fried cornmeal dough, golden-crisp on the outside and densely bready on the inside. In the South, they’re a standard accompaniment to just about everything from barbecue sandwiches to crabcakes; in the Midwest, if you want a hushpuppy you’ll have to make it yourself.