Watching my Mom and me in the kitchen back in the day must have been quite the contrast: there was Mom, freestyling seasonings with utter abandon; and then there was me, obsessively devoted to adding precisely ¼ teaspoon of cinnamon, and not a particle more, because that was what the recipe said.

Well, here I am today, grown and out of the house, in my own kitchen, making my own food, just as I like it. And now it’s my turn to frustrate starry-eyed recipe requests with my inability and unwillingness to precisely measure ingredients, and my general penchant for going off book when it comes to recipes. So, whenever folks ask how to make my fish tacos – which, as they are pretty tasty (no false modesty here), most people do ask – I always convey my apologies for the vagueness of the list I send them.

Said recipe was originally from some unremembered website, which I visited one college weekend when boredom and my love of fish tacos collided. It’s mutated a bit over the years, as the result of various twists of fate. (For example, the use of “ground annatto” is only because I accidentally grabbed the wrong red powder at HEB one time, kicked myself, then read that it was used in Latin American cuisine, particularly in the Yucatán Peninsula, figured, eh, waste not want not, and it’ll probably taste all right, and then it did, so now I just use it all the time.)

However, the basic outline is still much the same, and I still refer to the original draft I wrote on a #10 envelope, which I did for reasons that are unfathomable to my current self. I think the envelope is stained with water, but can’t be sure, because admittedly there is a cocktail recipe scrawled on the other side.

Basically, you’ll need:

  • Corn tortillas
  • Your choice of fish for putting on the corn tortillas; I use frozen tilapia because it’s the cheapest, and I have anti-fishy-flavor friends who I only got to try the tacos by assuring them tilapia was basically flavorless; not to worry, you’re adding so much spice you don’t really need a fishy-flavored fish anyway.
  • Coleslaw, for putting on top of the fish. Also, surprisingly, on top of white rice, if you feel the urge to make that too.

For the corn tortillas:

  • Buy cheapest available at your choice of grocery store; mine is Kroger

For the fish:

  • Lots of paprika
  • Lots of cumin
  • Some chili powder
  • Lots of garlic powder
  • A little cayenne pepper
  • Some salt
  • Some regular pepper
  • Some ground annatto
  • Olive oil

Shake appropriate proportions of spices onto both sides of fish, then cook until done in olive oil. I generally chop the fish in half lengthwise after cooking, thus getting two tacos for every one fish.

For the coleslaw:

  • ¼ cup green onions (or less, if you’re using chives; I vaguely remembered my mom saying something about using less of dried stuff, and I just looked it up and it’s true)
  • ¼ cup cilantro, or more (roughly one bunch, although really I’ve yet to find the limit to the amount of cilantro I can add)
  • 3 tbsp mayo
  • 3 tbsp sour cream
  • 1 tsp-ish-I-usually-end-up-adding-more lime juice
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • 1 garlic clove or equivalent jarred garlic

Mix all that together in a nice big bowl, then add one bag coleslaw cabbage ‘n’ carrot mix and combine. It doesn’t look like the mayo/sour cream mixture will be enough to coat it all, but trust me, it is. Speaking of mayo and sour cream, you may have to add a little more of each; it really shouldn’t taste predominantly like either; add more lime juice concurrently, until it tastes like it should. If you’ve had some version of fish tacos or are a general connoisseur of Tex-Mex, you probably know sort of what it should be like. If not, I cannot help you.

As mentioned, place this on top of the fish, which are on top of the corn tortillas, and then NOM NOM.

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