Special to The Bee
PUBLISHED WEDNESDAY, MAY. 13, 2009
As well as surf, sand and sun, another thing you can count on when you spend much of winter at the southern reaches of the Baja peninsula is an endless supply of fish tacos.
Casting for yellowtail, dorado, sierra and other varieties that provide the meat of a fish taco, after all, long has been the principal lure of Los Cabos, the sunny fishing settlements of San Jose del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas at the tip of Baja California Sur, where the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific Ocean mesh.
I couldn’t wait. On the drive from Sacramento, I began to eat fish tacos south of Coalinga and continued through San Diego, Ensenada, San Quintin, Guerrero Negro and other coastal cities recognized for their seafood.
No question, fish tacos constitute a quick and convenient meal, customarily consisting of a few pieces of battered and fried fish tucked inside a corn tortilla. The dressings generally include shredded cabbage and a mayonnaise-based sauce. Assorted optional additions are wedges of lime, slices of cucumber, pico de gallo and a wide range of hot sauces.
“There may be no experience on Earth that quite matches the pleasure of an afternoon spent wandering around the Ensenada fish market, sluicing fish tacos down with oceans of slush-cold Tecate beer and watching locals haggle over yellowtail tuna and horse mackerel,” wrote Pulitzer Prize-winning restaurant critic Jonathan Gold.
I now suspect, however, that Gold was smitten more with the scene, the sunshine and the cerveza than the fish tacos.
By the time I got to Los Cabos, I not only had my fill of fish tacos, I was convinced they’re the most boring item of the Mexican diet.
Just when, where and by whom the fish taco was hatched is a matter of debate in culinary circles, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the inventor was an enterprising street vendor responding to touring gringos who prefer their food readily identifiable, convenient, pale, bland, fried and cheap, requisites met quite neatly by the standard fish taco.
Sure, over the ensuing months, we again ate fish tacos, especially at two landmark Baja taquerias celebrated for their fish, shrimp and scallop tacos: Taqueria Rossy and Cabo Mama Surf Tacos. Both were within walking distance of our casa in San Jose del Cabo.
But our diet branched out as we explored other aspects of Mexican cuisine, both ancient and modern.
“Don’t eat the street food,” warned an ex-pat American schoolteacher I ran into on a morning walk soon after we arrived. It was advice not difficult to heed when it came to neon-colored clouds of cotton candy, but easy to forget when the choice was succulent and spicy tacos al pastor – slices of marinated pork stacked on a spit, fired by a gas-fueled flame and quickly cut into thin strips that fly deftly into a palmed tortilla, often topped with a chunk of pineapple flicked from atop the cone of meat.
Mexican cuisine as frequently interpreted in California is pedestrian and heavy – tacos of oily ground beef, tamales with more masa than filling, burritos big enough to double as pontoons on a fishing boat. Granted, some California chefs appreciate that cooking in Mexico is largely regional, and frequently fresher, lighter and more varied than versions we see routinely in the United States.
But after three months in San Jose del Cabo, I wouldn’t try to codify a “Baja cuisine.” As Mexican regions go, Baja California Sur is too young, modern, diverse and dynamic for any one cluster of dishes to represent the state, or for even a defined style of cooking to have evolved.
Yet I sensed four currents of Mexican cooking coursing through Baja California Sur:
• Simply prepared seafood inspired by proximity to the Sea of Cortez, with its varied bounty of fish and its expansive white beaches, where local families have camped on weekends and holidays for generations. On the beach, the catch may be grilled quickly, then tossed onto a tortilla with a homemade salsa and a dash or two of hot sauce. In one of the region’s artfully ambitious restaurants, the seafood is apt to be prepared and presented with more precision, such as parrotfish steamed in banana leaves, topped with a pesto of cilantro and cashews, and accompanied with a ratatouille of prickly pear.
• Despite the area’s emphasis on seafood, more beef is prepared in gutsy and rustic hacienda ways than you might expect along a warm coastline. Baja, however, continues to celebrate its ranching culture, which remains alive despite the sparse forage of the desert and the encroachment of condominiums.
(Much of the state, incidentally, still is open range, something to keep in mind as you drive along the coast, your eyes diverted by multimillion-dollar “villas” rising above the beaches.)
• No matter how casual or how grand, few restaurants of Los Cabos are without at least a dish or two from other regions of Mexico, recognition that much of the area’s population, whether permanent or seasonal, consists of people who have arrived in cars with license plates saying Nuevo León, Michoacán, Jalisco, Sinaloa, Sonora or some other mainland state.
• By the same token, the 18-mile stretch of Highway 1 between San Jose del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas is dotted with tony seaside resorts whose clientele is in large part international, thereby helping account for the Italian, Japanese, Chinese, French and Thai restaurants in and about the two cities.
If Mexican food frequently is knocked as “unhealthy” it isn’t for its content so much as its vivid flavors, which invite overindulgence. Many of the staples of the Mexican diet are marvelously wholesome – avocados, tomatillos, tomatoes, beans, corn – and their preparation often retains their nutrients without adding too much distracting impact from butter, sugar, salt and the like.
The two supermarkets we frequented had terrific produce sections, their bins sagging with pineapples, papayas, cantaloupes and other vitamin-dense fruits. A subsection of one produce department included more than 20 fresh herbs, some familiar (minty yerba buena, earthy epazote) and some new to me (ruda, said to be favored by the Aztecs as a cure for intestinal ailments).
For every downtown cart selling ice cream, another would be dispensing fresh-sliced watermelon and mango. The most popular breakfast destination along the blue-collar street Valerio González Canseco was a café specializing in take-away jugos and licuados, its entrance crowded with sacks of oranges.
And just try to find some traditional “manteca de cerdo,” or lard rendered from pork. When I asked its whereabouts at one of the supermarkets I was shown to an aisle lined with jars of “manteca vegetal comestible,” or vegetable shortening. There wasn’t a tablespoon of lard to be found in the place.
But as I began to prepare beans that called specifically for lard, I remembered a nearby open-air café where the specialty is carnitas, chunks of pork fried in large caldrons of oil alongside the sidewalk out front. The place does a huge business, and I got to speculating that it must have some lard it would be willing to give up.
Sure enough, the cooks at El Michoacano saw me coming, and had a kilo of old- fashioned pork fat in my hands before I completely got out my request in my halting Spanish. The plastic container was dented, its top torn, and it had to be kept in a plastic bag in the refrigerator because there was almost as much lard on the outside as inside. Like oak with wine, a little lard goes a long way, and that kilo was far more than I needed during our three-month sojourn.
No, there’s much more to Baja cookery than fish tacos. As we neared the end of our stay, I returned to the most historic and alluring place to shop for food in San Jose del Cabo, the Alberto A. Alvarado Aramburo Mercado Municipal, the old-time communal market in the middle of the city.
In addition to produce stands and Tortilleria Erika, it includes Marlene Cremeria y Polleria for chicharron, chorizo, chicken and cheese, Carniceria Dos Arbolitos for carne de puerco, New York rib-eye, machaca and other cuts, Sinaloa Fish Market for cabrilla, chica, huachinango, camaron, atun and other seafood, and a food court with 10 small stalls, most of which are named for and overseen by women – Marbella, Sonia, Ely.
I walked up and down the central corridor, scanning the menu boards while debating with myself about what to order for one last late breakfast in San Jose del Cabo. Should it be caldo de camaron, bisteck con nopales, rojo pozole or blanco pozole, chilies rellenos, menudo?
Fish tacos weren’t among the options, but chilaquiles was, and at a table in front of the stall Luncheria ZuLema that’s what I ordered, with a verde sauce, two fried eggs and a tall tumbler of freshly made orange juice.
It was the perfect send-off. The accompanying salsas were blistering hot, the chopped cilantro fresh, the white onion sweet, the eggs precise, and the chilaquiles – basically triangles of leftover tortillas simmered in a zesty tomatillo sauce – had the elusively correct texture, slightly chewy and hauntingly toasty.
Now there’s a dish of challenge and invention, just the item to keep me fueled and interested on the drive back to Sacramento.
Pescado a la Veracruzana
Prep time: 45 minutes
Cook time: 35 minutes
While most closely identified with the Mexican coastal city of Veracruz, this classic seafood entree can be prepared wherever meaty fish fillets can be found. We generally used cabrilla, sometimes called flag cabrilla, a member of the grouper family caught in the Sea of Cortez off San José del Cabo. Serve with a fruity albarino, pinot grigio, chenin blanc or sauvignon blanc. This recipe is adapted from “Authentic Mexican” by Rick Bayless with Deann Groen Bayless (Morrow, $30 384 pages).
Note: Prep time does not include the 1-hour marinate time for the fish.
For the fish:
1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless meaty fish fillets like red snapper or halibut, preferably in 4 pieces, each 1/2-inch thick
Freshly squeezed lime juice and a little salt
For the sauce:
3 tablespoons vegetable oil, preferably part olive oil
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
2 pounds (4 medium-large) ripe tomatoes, roasted or boiled, peeled and cored, or three 15-ounce cans good-quality tomatoes, lightly drained
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
20 meaty green olives (preferably manzanillo), pitted and roughly chopped
2 tablespoons large Spanish capers
2 medium pickled chilies (jalapeños), stemmed, seeded and sliced into strips
1 tablespoon pickling juices from the chilies
1 1/2 teaspoons mixed dried herbs, such as marjoram and thyme
2 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley, plus a few springs for garnish
3 bay leaves
1-inch cinnamon stick
1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns, very coarsely ground
1 cup light-flavored fish broth, bottled clam juice or water
Salt, if necessary
Rinse the fillets, lay them in a noncorrosive dish and sprinkle them with lime juice and salt. Cover and refrigerate about 1 hour.
In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium heat, add the onion and cook, stirring frequently, until golden, 7 or 8 minutes.
While the onion is cooking, cut the peeled fresh tomatoes in half crosswise and squeeze out the seeds into a strainer set over a small bowl. Cut the tomatoes into 1-inch pieces and place in a mixing bowl. Collect all the juices on the cutting board and add to the tomatoes, along with those strained from the seeds. Canned tomatoes need only be lightly drained, then cut into 1-inch pieces, collecting the juices as you go.
Add the garlic to the lightly browned onion and stir for a minute or so, then add the tomatoes and their juice. Simmer for 5 minutes to reduce some of the liquid.
Divide the olives and capers between two small bowls, and set one aside to use as garnish. To the other bowl, add the jalapeño strips, pickling juice, mixed herbs and chopped parsley. If you don’t wish to have the whole bay leaves, cinnamon, cloves or cracked pepper in the finished sauce, wrap them in cheesecloth and tie with a string; otherwise, add them directly to the bowl containing the herbs.
After the tomato mixture has simmered and reduced, add the olive/caper mixture which contains the jalapeño strips, pickling juice, herbs and spices (either loose or in cheesecloth). Add the fish broth (or clam juice or water). Cover and simmer 10 minutes. Taste and add salt if necessary and remove bay leaves and cinnamon stick (if added loose) or cheesecloth-wrapped spices.
Fifteen minutes before serving, remove the fillets from the refrigerator and rinse them again. Either poach them in the sauce on top of the stove or bake in the sauce, as follows:
Stove-top method: Nestle the fish fillets in the sauce so they are well covered. Set the lid on the pan and place over a medium heat. After 4 minutes, turn the fillets over, re-cover and cook 2 or 3 minutes longer, until a fillet will flake under firm pressure.
Baking method: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place fillets in a single layer in a lightly greased baking dish. Spoon the sauce over them, cover with aluminum foil and bake for 8 to 10 minutes, until the fish just flakes when pressed firmly with a fork at the thickest part.
Serve the poached or baked fillets on warm dinner plates with lots of the sauce, garnished with a sprinkling of the reserved capers and olives and a sprig of parsley.
Per serving: 412 cal.; 40 g pro.; 20 g carb.; 18 g fat (2 sat., 6 monounsat., 10 polyunsat.); 54 mg chol.; 1,218 mg sod.; 4 g fiber; 9 g sugar; 41 percent calories from fat.
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cook time: 30 to 45 minutes
Serves 6 to 8 (about 24 tacos)
Fine fish tacos are found at stands all about Baja California, customarily selling for less than $2 in U.S. currency. When you fish the Sea of Cortez, however, you have to do something with the seafood you don’t release.
While we were in San Jose del Cabo, a brightly polka- dotted, sleek, meaty and rich member of the mackerel family, the sierra, were running strong. We released nearly all of them, but kept a couple for tacos, their oily flavor more than compensated by the spiciness and sweetness of this batter, adapted from Deborah M. Schneider’s “Baja: Cooking on the Edge” (Rodale, 274 pages, $27.95). She says double-frying the fish is essential, but we found a single frying to be satisfactory.
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon granulated garlic
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
1/2 teaspoon dried whole Mexican oregano, rubbed to a powder
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
12 ounces (1 bottle) cold beer, plus more to thin the batter if necessary
2 pounds firm, meaty fish
Freshly squeezed lime juice
Vegetable oil, for deep frying
24 tortillas, preferably corn
To make the batter, whisk together the flour, baking powder, garlic, cayenne, mustard, oregano, 1 teaspoon salt, and pepper until well blended. Stir in the beer until there are no lumps. (Batter may be made several hours ahead and refrigerated.)
Trim the fish of all blood lines and skin. Cut into pieces the size and shape of your index finger. Sprinkle with a few drops of lime juice and a little salt. (If not using immediately, wrap and refrigerate.)
Pour oil into a deep, wide pan to a depth of 2 inches and heat over medium-high heat to 350 degrees. Use a deep-fry thermometer or test the heat by dropping a little of the batter into the oil. It should bounce to the surface almost immediately and be surrounded by little bubbles.
Pat the fish dry with paper towels. Check the thickness of the batter by dipping in one piece of the fish. The batter should be the consistency of medium-thick pancake batter, coating the fish easily but dripping very little. Add a little beer if the batter seems too thick.
Add the fish to the batter. Using tongs or chopsticks, swish each piece to make sure it is thoroughly coated, then lift it out of the batter, let it drip once, and lay the fish gently into the hot oil. Cook a few pieces at a time until they float and the batter is set but still very light in color. Pieces that stick to the bottom may need to be nudged with a spatula to release them.
Remove the fish to a rack to drain; reserve the frying oil. (The fish can be prepared ahead to this point, cooled on a rack, and refrigerated uncovered. Cool the oil and reserve.)
When you are ready to serve, reheat the oil to 350 to 360 degrees and refry the fish a few pieces at a time until crisp and golden brown.
To serve, hold a tortilla in your hand and add a few pieces of fish and the traditional accompaniments: shredded cabbage, pico de gallo, chopped white onion, cilantro, lime juice, mayonnaise-based sauce (mix together 1/2 cup mayonnaise, 1 to 2 teaspoons white vinegar, 1 1/2 tablespoons milk or water). Corn tortillas customarily are preferred for fish tacos.
Per serving based on 8 servings without accompaniments: 480 cal.; 31 g pro.; 60 g carb.; 11 g fat (2 sat., 3 monounsat., 6 polyunsat.); 36 mg chol.; 343 mg sod.; 5 g fiber; 3 g sugar; 22 percent calories from fat.
Prep time: 40 minutes
Cook time: 1 hour
Serves 2 as a main dish, 4 as a side dish
Chilaquiles verdes, a popular breakfast dish in Mexico City, can be dressed up for dinner by adding a couple of cups of shredded roasted chicken.
For this dish, the tortilla chips, sauce and crema can be prepared in advance, but simmer the final assembly just before serving to retain the dish’s proper texture.
This version was adapted from “Authentic Mexican” by Rick Bayless with Deann Groen Bayless (Morrow, $30, 384 pages).
Note: The prep and cook times include the time to make the salsa verde and the crèma espresa. The prep time also does not include the 16- to 28-hour set and chill time for the crèma espesa
6 medium-thick corn tortillas, preferably stale and store-bought
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 1/2 cups tomatillo sauce (salsa verde) (recipe follows)
1/2 cup chicken broth
1/2 cup boneless, cooked chicken, cut in chunks (optional)
1 large sprig epazote (optional)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup thick crèma espesa (recipe follows), or commercial sour cream thinned with a little milk or cream
2 tablespoons crumbled Mexican queso fresco or queso anejo, or a cheese like feta or mild Parmigiano
1 thinly sliced onion, broken into rings
Cut tortillas into fourths. If they are moist, dry them out for a few minutes in a 350-degree oven until quite leathery.
Pour the oil into a medium-sized skillet set over medium-high heat. When hot enough to make the edge of a tortilla sizzle, add half the tortilla pieces. Turn them frequently until they are lightly browned and nearly crisp, then remove and drain on paper towels. Fry and drain the remaining tortilla pieces in the same fashion. Reduce the heat to medium-low and discard any oil that remains.
Return the tortilla pieces to the skillet and add the tomatillo sauce (salsa verde), broth, optional chicken and optional epazote. Stir well to coat the tortillas. Cover the skillet and simmer until the tortillas are soft but not mushy, about 5 minutes. Season with salt.
Scoop the mixture onto a warm serving platter. Drizzle with the crèma espesa, sprinkle with cheese and decorate with onion rings. Serve immediately.
Per serving based on 4 side dish servings without optional ingredients: 319 cal.; 5 g pro.; 26 g carb.; 23 g fat (5 sat., 6 monounsat., 12 polyunsat.); 9 mg chol.; 241 mg sod.; 4 g fiber; 3 g sugar; 63 percent calories from fat.
Salsa verde (tomatillo sauce)
1 pound (11 medium) fresh tomatillos, husked and washed
3 fresh chilies serranos or 2 fresh chilies jalapeños, stemmed
5 or 6 sprigs fresh cilantro, roughly chopped
1 small onion, chopped
1 large clove garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
1 tablespoon lard or vegetable oil
1 or 2 cups poultry broth, less for a thicker salsa, more for a thinner
Salt, about 1/2 teaspoon, depending on the saltiness of the broth
Boil tomatillos and chilies in salted water to cover until tender, 10 to 15 minutes; drain.
Place the tomatillos and chilies in a blender or food processor, with the cilantro, onion and garlic. If using a blender, stir well. Process until smooth, but still retaining a little texture.
Heat lard or vegetable oil in a medium-large skillet set over medium-high. When hot enough to make a drop of the puree sizzle sharply, pour tomatillo mixture in all at once and stir constantly for 4 or 5 minutes, until darker and thicker. Add the broth, let return to a boil, reduce heat to medium and simmer until thick enough to coat a spoon, 10 to 20 minutes. Season with salt.
1 cup whipping cream
2 tablespoons buttermilk
Pour the cream into a small saucepan, set over low heat and stir just until the chill is off; do not heat above 100 degrees (lukewarm). Stir in the buttermilk and pour into a glass jar.
Set the lid on the jar (but don’t tighten it) and place in a warm (80 degrees to 90 degrees) spot. Let the cream culture and set for 12 to 24 hours, until noticeably thicker (perhaps almost set like yogurt or sour cream). Stir gently, screw on the lid and refrigerate at least 4 hours to chill and complete the thickening.
Chayote with tomato and green chili
Prep time: 35 minutes
Cook time: 35 minutes
Can’t wait for that summer zucchini to arrive? Look around the supermarket for the Mexican vegetable chayote, which isn’t zucchini but is similarly flavored and textured, though it also suggests cucumber and melon, or a hybrid of all three. After seeing mounds of chayote in the markets of San Jose del Cabo, we went looking for a recipe, and found this side dish back home, at the Web site www.simplyrecipes.com (type chayote into the search field) of Sacramentan Elise Bauer.
1 pound chayotes
6 ounces roasted tomatoes (you can use canned fire roasted tomatoes, or roast whole tomatoes on stovetop or under broiler until skin begins to blacken; do not remove skin but process whole)
1 clove garlic, chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons chopped onion
1 large green Anaheim chili pepper (stem and seeds removed and discarded), chopped (wear gloves).
Pinch red chili pepper flakes
1/4 cup water
Salt to taste
1/4 cup roughly chopped cilantro
1/4 cup finely grated Monterey Jack cheese
The peel of chayotes is tough and inedible even when cooked, so peel them completely. This may take a little doing, as the folds in the chayotes can make it difficult. Cut the chayotes into 1/4-inch-wide, 2-inch-long julienned strips, with or without the core.
Purée the roasted tomatoes and the garlic in a blender, set aside.
Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the chopped onion and green chilies. Cook on medium heat until just soft, about 3 or 4 minutes.
Add the tomato mixture and red chili flakes, and continue to cook 3 minutes more. Add the chayote, water and salt to taste. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally for 15 minutes. Add the chopped cilantro and cook for 5 minutes more. The chayote should be just tender, moist but not watery.
Sprinkle with grated cheese and serve.
Per serving: 126 cal.; 3 g pro.; 9 g carb.; 9 g fat (2 sat., 6 monounsat., 1 polyunsat.); 6 mg chol.; 191 mg sod.; 4 g fiber; 2 g sugar; 64 percent calories from fat.
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