Sailor & Galley: Tacos Any Day, Any Way

Soft tortillas are blank canvases one can fill with whatever ingredients are on board.
Karson gives the Hawaiian greeting a shaka sign
Karson dives in to check the mooring in a clear blue anchorage. She’s living the halycon days, eating tacos and sailing the world. Courtesy Karson Winslow

On Halcyon, our Valiant 40, my partner, Justin, and I eat tacos at least twice a week, sometimes more. Before the two of us met in Hawaii, I’d spent years sailing the world as cook and first mate aboard boats of all sizes, power and sail. I’d also sailed in the World ARC Rally, and earned my RYA Master and 100-ton US Coast Guard licenses. Justin, a fellow captain, shares my love of Mexican cuisine. We soon we discovered that we also shared a dream: sailing the world in our own boat. 

We found the Valiant 40 for sale in Tahiti. It needed work, but we knew how to do it, and the price for this Bob Perry-designed bluewater cruiser was low. In Tahiti, we spent time on the hard doing repairs and learning the boat’s systems. The boat’s name was Halcyon. Perfect. Our plan was to live those halcyon days right now.

Those days included tacos. During my years as paid cook, making meals for people with varying food preferences, I realized that tacos, in addition to being inexpensive and easy, have another plus. Made with soft tortillas, either flour or corn, rather than hard-shell tacos, they’re versatile—a blank canvas each cook can fill with whatever’s preferred (or on hand). You can build tacos from beef, chicken or fish, or make them vegetarian. For a crowd, you can create a fill-your-own-taco bar. No matter the circumstance or the filling, tacos are always a huge hit. 

Recipes are more than lists of ingredients. They evoke memories: that beautiful anchorage where you savored the meal and the moment with friends, or the storm you weathered before eating a one-pot stew that was the best you ever tasted. 

My fish tacos, born during the ARC Rally, always resurrect a memory. In Samoa, we’d taken aboard two fellow ARC sailors after their catamaran sustained damage in a violent squall. While their boat was hauled out in American Samoa for repair, they’d decided to sail with us as far as Tonga and Fiji before heading home to Australia to regroup. One of them, unaccustomed to the sea motion of a monohull, suffered from seasickness. A behind-the-ear patch seemed to do the trick.

Near the end of our passage to Fiji, we snagged a beautiful mahi-mahi. I had fresh ingredients for salsa, and some soft tacos in the freezer. That day’s catch became that night’s fish-taco feast. But after landfall in Fiji the next day, we were celebrating our arrival with a cold bottle of wine when our ailing guest piped up: “Are we eating the mahi-mahi for dinner tonight?”

Recipes evoke memories: that beautiful anchorage where you savored the meal, or the storm you weathered before eating a warm one-pot stew.

We exchanged puzzled glances. That’s when I noticed her ear patch: There were two of them. She had cut the patch in two and placed half behind each ear, which is not recommended, as it can lead to faulty dosing and possible side effects, including confusion. 

“Do you remember eating the fish tacos last night?” I asked. (She didn’t.) The patch halves were promptly dispatched to the waste bin. 

For the rest of that voyage, the crew jokingly called that meal “forgettable fish tacos.” But, like them, I still remember that passage and that sea tale every time I eat them. Definitely not forgettable.

Blackened Fish Tacos With Pico de Gallo Salsa (makes 8 tacos)

fish tacos on plate
Blackened fish tacos with pico de gallo salsa. Lynda Morris Childress

For the salsa

  • 3 Roma tomatoes or small local
    tomatoes, diced 
  • 1 Tbsp. jalapeño, diced (fresh or canned)
  • ½ cup onion, diced
  • Juice of one lime
  • 2 tsp. sea salt
  • ½ cup fresh cilantro, chopped

Seed tomatoes before dicing; if using fresh jalapeno, remove seeds. Combine all ingredients well, and let sit for 20 minutes to let flavors develop.

For the tacos

  • 2 tsp. paprika
  • 1 tsp. each: onion powder, garlic powder, thyme, cayenne pepper, black pepper, salt
  • (or simply substitute your favorite pre-made blackening spice mix)
  • 1 pound mahimahi or other firm white fish
  • Cooking oil, for frying
  • 2 cups purple cabbage 
  • ¼ cup unsalted pumpkin seeds 
  • 1 tsp. sea salt
  • 8  small soft flour or corn tortillas 

Combine spices in a small bowl. Set aside. Cut fish into 1-by-4-inch strips. Blot with paper towel to remove excess moisture. Sprinkle spice mix onto both sides of strips. 

Heat an oiled skillet to medium. Cook fish strips for approximately 2 minutes on each side. Set aside and let rest for 5 minutes. (If you have a food thermometer, the internal temperature should read 145 degrees Fahrenheit.)

While the fish rests, cut the cabbage into thin strips. Set aside. 

Heat a small, dry skillet to medium. Add pumpkin seeds and heat briefly. Add sea salt to the skillet. Gently move the seeds back and forth in the skillet until they’re tinged light brown. 

Warm the tortillas briefly in a pan or microwave. Place a few fish strips on each tortilla. Top with salsa. Finish with a pinch of chopped purple cabbage and a sprinkle of roasted pumpkin seeds. Serve with extra lime wedges, salsa, and shredded cabbage on the side..

Prep time: 45 minutes
Difficulty: easy
Can be made: underway or at anchor

Cook’s Notes: For vegetarian tacos, boil 1 cup dried lentils in 2½ cups water for 5 minutes, or until liquid is absorbed. Season with 1 Tbsp. each: cumin, chili powder, oregano and garlic powder, and 2 tsp. apple cider vinegar. Add ½ cup canned sweet corn, ½ cup canned black or white beans, salt, and pepper. Stir. Fill tortillas and top with diced tomato, avocado, a squeeze of lime juice, and shredded cheese.

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