I discovered Rick Bayless about a year or so after I bought my first Diana Kennedy cookbook on Mexican cooking when I bought his first work, Authentic Mexican. I had been cooking successfully from Ms. Kennedy's Cuisine's of Mexico and was even more taken with her descriptions and stories about her expedition into the Mexican kitchen than I was with some of the recipes. As I read through Authentic Mexican I had to admit his writing style was just as engaging as Diana Kennedy's and his recipes really did seem to be "authentic", which I could define better 20 years ago than I could today. But still, I had a hard time accepting that this American interloper could possibly know as much about Mexican cookery than my revered British authority. I can look back now and realize the irony that neither of my authorities were Mexican. Time and countless recipes later, I now know that I can count on recipes from either Rick Bayless or Diana Kennedy whenever I want to satisfy a craving for Mexican food.
In 2003 I had the good fortune to spend a fantastic week in Oaxaca cooking with Rick Bayless (sponsored by the CIA/Greystone). He's probably one of the best teachers - in ANY subject - that I've had, not just because his passion for his subject is so evident, but because he has the ability to make a student really understand the subject matter at hand as well as the many nuances hidden within. And, by the way, he is much more low key in person, and not quite so enthusiastically over the top as he is on his PBS show Mexico, One Plate at a Time. I was quite delighted, then, when the companion book to the PBS show was selected for the month long cookbook cooking project on CHOWHOUND for November 2006. The objective of the project is for as many people as are interested to cook whatever they like from the cookbook of the month and then report on their results. With a large number of people all cooking from the same cookbook the odds are pretty good that most, if not all, the recipes are going to get sampled and the feedback will help others decide what to make, or even if they'd like to purchase the book if they don't already own it.
I'd owned the book Mexico, One Plate at a Time since it came out in 2000. In fact, when I hauled it out to make my own recipe selections I discovered my copy had been inscribed and autographed. I had totally forgotten I'd attended a book signing that Rick Bayless had done at a local Border's Books when I lived in San Rafael, CA. But I digress..........back to the recipes. Since I'd already cooked a number of items from this book I wanted to try something new, so I decided on Pescado Veracruzana.
Veracruz is a seaport on the East Coast of Mexico and was the starting point for most Spanish conquests - military or religious - into Mexico. The cooking of this region still clearly shows it's Spanish and even Moorish roots. And this is certainly true of one it's most famous dishes. Capers and olives are 2 ingredients that are going to be found more frequently in Spanish food than in Mexican. Pescado Veracruzana uses both to add flavor and punch. It isn't a difficult dish to make, it's actually rather easy. The worst part is the advanced prep and chopping, lots of chopping. I started with 3 pounds of red, ripe tomatoes
The recipe gives the option to leave the skin on the tomatoes, if desired. I didn't desire. Since they tend to come off when the tomato gets cooked anyway, and skinning tomatoes doesn't take a very long time, I went ahead and skin them. Into the bottom of each tomato I cut an "X" to facilitate loosening the skin
And dropped them, a few at a time, into vigorously boiling, unseasoned, water.
After about a minute or so, the skin around the "X" begins to split and shrink away from the meat of the tomato. Scoop them out and plunge them into a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking.
Then simply pull the skin off the tomato
Once skinned, the tomatoes are cut into 1/2" cubes
Followed by thinly slicing on medium white onion. White onions have a little more bite and are a little less sweet than regular yellow or Spanish onions and are the most commonly used onion in Mexican cooking.
Because almost all the sauce components go into the pot at once, it's easiest and most practical to get everything ready to go before starting to make the sauce. So, after slicing the onions, I minced 4 cloves of garlic, measured out 1 1/2 teaspoons of Mexican oregano, crushing it against the palm of my hand to release the volatile oils and aroma, fished 4 bay leaves out of the cupboard and minced up a bunch of flat leaf parsley.
Then I drained and rinsed 1/4 cup of capers, sliced 3 jalapeño peppers, and roughly chopped 1 cup of pitted green olives.
Now I was ready to cook and began by sauteing the onions in 1/4 cup olive oil for about 5 minutes, or until they began to soften.
Next came the chopped tomatoes
Followed by the rest of the ingredients
This mixture cooked for a couple of minutes. Then a cup of water went in and it was ready to simmer.
Fifteen minutes later and a1 teaspoon of salt, the sauce was good to go.
The recipe calls for using a 4 pound whole red snapper (huachinango), making several slashes on each side and marinating for up to 4 hours in the juice of 2 limes and some salt. I was cooking this meal for my mother who is squeamish about whole fish, so I opted for two beautiful red snapper filets instead. I lightly sprinkled them with espuma de mar salt from Colima then squeezed on a lime, wrapped them up to marinate for about 20 minutes, and flipped the oven on to 350*.
To go with the fish I made Arroz Blanco (White Rice) by finely dicing some onion and sauteing it with the rice until opaque, tossing in some minced garlic and using chicken stock as the cooking liquid along with a good squeeze of lime juice. Once the lid went on the rice, the fish came out of the fridge and into a baking dish. Several cups of the sauce was poured over the fish and it went into the oven, uncovered, for 15 minutes.
I knew when I was making the rice that I'd let some of the grains of rice get a little to roasty toasty (to use one of Mr. Baylesses favorite terms) so my rice wasn't exactly blanco. Ecru is probably a more accurate descriptor. But it was light and fluffy; each grain swollen yet separate. The flavor was a little nutty with some nice undertones from the lime.
I almost made if from the baking dish to the plate without having the snapper filets break apart. Almost, but not quite. The fish was extremely tender and moist and flaked easily and just as I was getting to the plate, each filete broke into 2 pieces. Not a problem, since breakage can be easily hidden by the sauce.
It's hard to see the fish under the sauce and goodies, but it was there and it was marvelous. I've made many versions of Pescado Veracruzana over the years; it's one of my favorite dishes. This version is easy and flavorful, and with a whole fish would make an impressive party dish. The sauce was well balanced with just enough zip from the jalapeños, acidity from the capers and sweetness from the tomatoes and cooked onions. The only thing I might do differently next time is to cook the sauce a little longer than 15 minutes. There was quite a bit of liquid left in the bottom of the baking pan that had cooked out of the tomatoes while in the oven. Some of the excess liquid probably would have evaporated out had the sauce been cooked about 10-15 minutes longer. How much liquid the tomatoes give up will depend upon how juicy they were to start, and I did have pretty juicy tomatoes.
Served with a nice glass of assertive red wine, Pescado Veracruzana con Arroz Blanco made a fine meal.