‘Beat Back The Blah’ Blackened Baja Fish Tacos

Summer is almost here, though you wouldn’t know it by watching Denverites hunkered down in jackets and rain gear this week as they scurry from one dry location to the next. Our normally warm, sunny May days have been replaced with gray skies and enough precipitation to raise worries of widespread flooding north and west of the city. I’ve heard whispers we might actually see the sun today, a rare and delicious rumor that will have me gladly squinting as I poke my face skyward.

In the meantime, I’ve been drowning my rainy sorrows in fish tacos. Rain or shine, fish tacos remind me of living close to the ocean or sea, soaking up the rays while plowing through a platter of fresh food and tipping back a few limeades. While I do like a nicely battered fish filet, I opted for white fish rubbed with blackened seasoning and pan-fried in my trusty Lodge cast iron until just cooked. Care for your cast-iron cookware, and it will deliver when it comes to nonstick cooking.

Below you’ll find a Cooking Light Baja fish taco recipe that I tweaked to amp up the flavor. (In this case, I just added more oil to the pan to get a thin crust on the edges of my fish.) I made the blackened seasoning from scratch since I had the spices on hand. However, if you want to save even more time for this quick dinner, you can easily use an already blackened seasoning. From start to finish, you’re looking at a twenty-minute investment in dinner. And believe me, once you make your way through one of these tacos, you’ll be glad you invested.

Blackened Baja Fish Tacos

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Blackened Baja Fish Tacos
(adapted from a Cooking Light recipe)
Serves 2 as main event

– 1/4 cup reduced-fat sour cream

– 2 TBS chopped fresh cilantro

– 2 TBS fresh lime juice

– 1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and chopped

– 1 cup thinly sliced white onion

– 1 1/2 tsp paprika

– 1 1/2 tsp brown sugar

– 1 tsp dried oregano

– 3/4 tsp garlic powder

– 1/2 tsp salt

– 1/2 tsp ground cumin

– 1/4 tsp ground red pepper

– 1 lb tilapia fillets (I used tilapia since it was on sale, but cod or halibut would also work well here.)

– 2 TBS canola or grapeseed oil

– 6 (6-in) corn tortillas

– 1 ripe peeled and pitted avocado, thinly sliced

– 4 lime wedges

1. Combine first 4 ingredients in a food processor; process until smooth. Combine jalapeño sauce and onion in a small bowl. Set aside.

2. Combine paprika and next 6 ingredients (through ground red pepper); sprinkle evenly over fish. Heat oil in a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Add fish to pan; cook 3 minutes on each side or until desired degree of doneness. (If you want to save even more time, you can simply buy a container of blackened/cajun seasoning.

3. Warm tortillas according to package directions. Divide fish, onion mixture, and avocado evenly among tortillas. Serve with lime wedges.

Vinegar Slaw with Cucumbers and Dill

With crab cakes and chocolate cake on the Mother’s Day menu last Sunday, I wanted to offer some semblance of a “healthy” vegetable to balance the meal. I also wanted a recipe that took minimal preparation since we were pulling together a more formal meal while also balancing weekend errands. Deb Perelman’s Smitten Kitchen Cookbook vinegar slaw met those requirements and tasted good to boot. Cole slaw is a common accompaniment to crab cakes, but the idea of more mayo in my meal turned my stomach. This recipe is mayo-free. In fact, it’s so light and tangy that it cuts right through any other rich dishes on your plate. Eat some of this slaw, and that chocolate cake finish will hit the spot.

The original recipe makes more slaw than four people can consume in a day, so I halved the recipe. Even so, I’d recommend making this one when you’re attending a dinner party, picnic, or summer BBQ with more than four people in attendance. We made a dent in the bowl of slaw, but leftovers still abound in the fridge.

Vinegar Slaw with Cucumbers and Dill

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Vinegar Slaw with Cucumbers and Dill
(adapted from a Smitten Kitchen Cookbook recipe)
Makes 6 servings

– 1/2 medium head cabbage (about 1 lb) cored and thinly sliced/shredded

– 1 large English cucumber (about 1 lb) thinly sliced

– 2 TBS fresh dill, finely chopped

– 1/3 cup white wine vinegar

– 1 TBS salt

– 2 TBS sugar

– 1/4 cup cold water

Whisk together the dressing ingredients and stir in the 1/4 cup water. Toss with the cabbage and cucumber, then let sit in refrigerator for an hour or two before serving so that the vegetables will wilt and absorb more flavor.

Mom-approved Baltimore Crab Cakes

My mother was unable to be with us this Mother’s Day, so when Cameron and I were devising a Mother’s Day dinner for his mother, we settled on centering the meal with my mother’s favorite entrée, crab cakes. (His mother is a big fan of crab cakes, too.) My mother was born and raised outside of Baltimore, and the only dish she praised more than soft shell crab sandwiches was her mother’s crab cakes. She’s never shared the recipe with me, so I was relegated to ye olde Internet to root out a Maryland classic. Fortunately, crab cakes are a favorite among many so I had no problem nabbing a simple and delicious recipe after a cursory search.

The key to perfect crab cakes is to buy decent lump crab meat and to not over mix the ingredients. We were not entirely successful this go around since there weren’t many chunks of crab in this batch, but they were still so flavorful that we’ll be trying this recipe again later in the month. We ate these cakes alongside Balsamic Roasted Potatoes and Vinegar Slaw with Cucumber and Dill, both of which balanced the meal with a nice dose of tanginess. I’m not going to give you the health spin on this recipe–its first ingredient is mayo, after all–but the upside is that the recipe only makes 8 cakes, so unless you’re angling for a platter just for yourself, you can regulate this savory indulgence by sharing.

Baltimore-style Crab Cake recipe

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Baltimore-style Crab Cakes
(an Andrew Zimmern recipe)
Makes 8 cakes

– 1/2 cup mayonnaise

– 1 large egg, beaten

– 1 TBS Dijon mustard

– 1 TBS Worcestershire sauce

– 1/2 tsp hot sauce

– 1 lb jumbo lump crab meat, picked over

– 20 saltine crackers, finely crushed

– 1/4 cup canola oil

– Lemon wedges, for serving

1. In a small bowl, whisk the mayonnaise with the egg, mustard, Worcestershire sauce and hot sauce until smooth.

2. In a medium bowl, lightly toss the crabmeat with the cracker crumbs. Gently fold in the mayonnaise mixture. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.

3. Scoop the crab mixture into eight 1/3-cup mounds; lightly pack into 8 patties, about 1 1/2 inches thick. In a large skillet, heat the oil until shimmering. Add the crab cakes and cook over moderately high heat until deeply golden and heated through, about 3 minutes per side. Transfer the crab cakes to plates and serve with lemon wedges. We also made a simple aioli sauce for dipping. Here’s the recipe.

Hale and Hearty Corn Muffins

Last Wednesday marked the end of Colorado’s legislative session for the year, with late nights and fast-paced amendment wrangling on the part of legislators and their constituents. To help power my drafting and editing team to the finish line, I brought in a batch of these corn muffins to pass around. They were gone by noon, and the stick of butter I’d brought had been reduced to a nub. Lest you think desperate times call for desperate carb loading irrespective of flavor, know that my husband Cameron leisurely enjoyed a muffin or two during our Sunday night dinner of BBQ Tofu and Collards.

I’d intended to share the recipe last week, but after hours in front of a computer and racing around the capitol with stacks of important-sounding paperwork, the last thing I felt like doing when I finally made it home was to sit in front of my computer checking for formatting issues in a blog post. So today, might I interest you in a corn muffin?

Below you’ll find the recipe I gleaned from Smitten Kitchen’s website. It’s actually a tweaked version of a Cooks Illustrated recipe, and while I haven’t tried the CI recipe, Smitten Kitchen’s version is stellar. Depending on the size of your eating crowd, you may have leftovers. If that’s the case, then stow additional muffins in an airtight container until ready to eat, keeping in mind that they will taste less fresh after two days. When you’re ready to chow down, warm the muffin/s in the microwave for 15 seconds, add a pat of butter, and enjoy.

Hearty Corn Muffins

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Hearty Corn Muffins
(a Smitten Kitchen goes Cooks Illustrated recipe)
Makes 12 standard-sized muffins

– 2 cups yellow cornmeal, to be divided (I used medium ground cornmeal, but if that’s too crunchy for you, then use a mix of medium- and fine-ground cornmeal.)

– 1 cup all-purpose flour

– 1 1/2 tsp baking powder

– 1 tsp baking soda

– 1 1/4 tsp fine sea or table salt

– 1 1/4 cups whole milk

– 1 cup sour cream or full-fat plain yogurt (I used sour cream.)

– 8 TBS unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly

– 3 to 5 TBS sugar (I used 4 TBS.)

– 2 large eggs

1. Heat oven to 425 degrees F. Either grease or line a 12-cup standard muffin tin with disposable liners. (I made liners out of squares of parchment paper.)

2. Whisk 1 1/2 cups cornmeal, flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt together in a medium bowl. In a large bowl (if you have a microwave) or a medium saucepan (if you do not), combine milk and remaining 1/2 cup cornmeal. In a microwave, cook cornmeal–milk mixture for 1 1/2 minutes, then whisk thoroughly, and continue to microwave in 30-second increments, mixing between them, until it’s thickened to a batter-like consistency, i.e. the whisk will leave a clear line across the bottom of the bowl that slowly fills in. This will take 1 to 3 minutes longer. On the stove, cook cornmeal mixture over medium heat, whisking constantly, until it thickens as described above, then transfer to a large bowl.

3. Whisk butter, then sugar, and then sour cream into cooked cornmeal until combined. At this point, the wet mixture should be cool enough that adding the eggs will not scramble them, but if it still seems too hot, let it cool for 5 minutes longer. Whisk in eggs until combined. Fold in flour mixture until thoroughly combined and the batter is very thick. Divide batter evenly among prepared muffin cups; it will mound slightly above the rim.

4. Bake until tops are golden brown and toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, 13 to 17 minutes, rotating muffin tin halfway through baking to ensure even cooking. Let muffins cool in muffin tin on wire rack for 5 minutes, then remove muffins from tin and let cool 5 minutes longer. Serve warm.

May Snow is the WORST, but at Least There’s Chocolate Cake with Chocolate Frosting

Late spring in Colorado, that time of year when the sunshine lingers over lawns and gangly poppies sprout high above their garden beds, papery petals fluttering in the warm breeze. That’s the image I clung to as the rainy weather that had sidled up from lower elevations walloped the area with a winter storm Saturday night, blanketing every flower and seedling I planted with wet, slushy snow and leaving recently leafed trees with drooping branches.

It's May, and this just feels wrong. Image by author.

It’s May, and this just feels wrong. Image by author.

So, while my Gulf Coast friends shared photos on Facebook of their days on the beach yesterday, their sun-kissed skin slathered with sunblock as they frolicked in the waves, I glowered into my coffee cup and worked on a chapter revision for my novel. Fortunately, Cameron’s parents were coming for an early dinner to celebrate Mother’s Day, so after I went cross-eyed from deleting more lines and paragraphs of what seemed incapable of being further condensed, I set to work on food preparation with an eye to what Cameron’s mother might like best. She’s one of my biggest cooking fans, so I decided that the best way to thank her for all her support since Cameron and I moved to Colorado would be with a cake that’s chocolate through and through.

Sarah Copeland’s Better-than-boxed Chocolate Cake recipe came to the rescue. I’ve owned a copy of The Newlywed Cookbook for a few years and have praised it (and her excellent follow-up on all recipes vegetarian in Feast), but I’ve been hesitant to try this particular recipe because I’m sensitive to caffeine. (This recipe calls for a lot of cocoa powder.) I’m glad I set aside my reservations and set to assembling this cake, though. Paired with a big glass of milk or a cup of mint or black tea, this cake gets down to serious dessert business.

I’ve made minor adjustments to work with my kitchen supplies and oven and have noted those in the directions, but otherwise, I’ve maintained the integrity of the recipe. The next time you have a party or family gathering that needs a classic dessert, grab this recipe and get busy. Based on the satisfied faces around the table yesterday, I predict your cake baking will be much appreciated.

The slice.

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Better-than-boxed Chocolate Cake
(a Sarah Copeland’s Newlywed Cookbook Masterpiece)
Makes 1 two-layer 9-inch cake


– 3 cups all-purpose flour

– 2 2/3 cups granulated sugar

– 1 cup cocoa powder, plus more for dusting

– 1 1/2 tsp baking soda

– 3/4 tsp baking powder

– 1/2 tsp fine sea salt

– 1 3/4 cups warm water

– 1 cup vegetable oil (be sure to choose one that isn’t flavorful. this isn’t the time to break out the olive oil.)

– 4 TBS melted butter, plus more for the pans

– 5 large eggs

– 1 tsp pure vanilla extract

Chocolate Frosting
– 1 1/2 cups unsalted butter, at room temperature

– 3 TBS agave nectar or honey (I used honey since this recipe is about as not vegan as it gets.)

– 1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar

– 1 1/4 cup cocoa powder

– 1/4 cup warm water

– 1/4 cup cold heavy cream

To make the cake:
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly butter two 9-inch round cake pans.

(A word of advice. Cake pans aren’t standard in depth, and my 9-inch pans are shallower than I’d thought. I wound up having enough batter for 3 cake layers. Since there was only enough frosting for a 2-layer cake, I wrapped up the extra cake layer and froze it, so that next week when this cake is but a decadent memory, I can break out that frozen one and make a one-layer cake for old time’s sake. If you’re not sure if your cake pans are on the shallow or deep end, a good rule of thumb is to fill each pan about 2/3 full to give room for rising.)

Line with parchment/baking paper. Butter the parchment. Dust the inside of both pans with cocoa powder and knock against the side of the counter to settle a thin dusting of cocoa inside the pans; discard any extra cocoa.

2 Whisk together the flour, sugar, cocoa, baking soda/bicarbonate of soda, baking powder, and salt together in the bowl of a stand mixer.

3 Add 1 cup of the warm water, the oil, and melted butter, and mix on medium speed until combined. Stop the mixer to scrape down the sides of the bowl and make sure all the ingredients are fully incorporated. Add eggs, one at a time, mixing well between additions to incorporate and aerate the batter, which gives the cake a more even crumb. Add the remaining 3/4 cup warm water and vanilla and beat until smooth and aerated, about 2 minutes. The batter will look loose and watery, about the consistency of heavy cream or hot fudge.

4 Divide evenly between the prepared pans and tap lightly on the counter to smooth the top. Bake until the cakes are evenly domed and spring back lightly when touched, about 40 minutes. (Because I’d split the batter among 3 pans, my cakes were done within 35 minutes. To be on the safe side, by the 30 minute mark, start testing the cakes at 5-minute intervals to prevent over-baking.) Test the cakes with a toothpick inserted into the centers; if it comes out clean your cakes are done.

5 Remove the cakes from the oven, and cool on a wire rack until just warm to the touch, about 15 minutes. The cakes will pull away from the sides of the pans slightly as they cool. (If this doesn’t happen, use a very thin knife to gently separate cake from pan.) Flip the pans to unmold the cakes onto a rack to cool completely, about 1 hour.

To make the frosting:
6. Before you begin, check to make sure the butter is room temperature, just soft enough to press easily with your finger. Beat together the butter, agave, confectioners’/icing sugar, cocoa powder, and warm water with a stand mixer until light and creamy and evenly combined, about 2 minutes. Stop to scrape down the sides of the bowl and make sure all the butter is fully combined. Add the cool cream and beat on medium-high until fluffy and creamy.

7. When the cakes are completely cooled, slice off the dome from one of the layers with a serrated knife so that you can stack the layers easily. Lay the trimmed cake layer on a cake stand or serving platter, trimmed-side up. Tear 4 sheets of parchment or wax paper into long strips and tuck under the edges of the cake around all the sides. (Think of this step as the drop cloth before painting process. You’ll be glad you did it once the work is done.)

 Prepping Cake for Frosting.

Image by author.

8. Scoop about 1/3 of the frosting onto the top of the cake. Using an offset spatula or the back of a spoon, spread the frosting evenly over the top of the cake and around the sides. Cover with the second cake layer, domed-side up, and press down slightly to flatten. Look down at the cake and slide the top cake layer until it lines up perfectly with the bottom layer. Add another 1/3 of the frosting to the top and spread evenly over the top. Spread the remaining 1/3 of the icing around the sides of the cake to create a smooth, even layer.

Chocolate Cake Frosted.

Image by author.

9. Make swirls of icing all over the top of the cake using the back of a large spoon. Serve immediately, or store in a cool place until ready to serve.

I placed my finished cake in the fridge for an hour to firm up the frosting before serving it after an early Sunday dinner. While I didn’t have a problem with water beading on its surface, this could happen depending on the humidity where you leave. Apparently if you set the cake back on the counter for a while, the water will go away. Magic!

Cake and its slice.

Image by author.


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