Holly A. Heyser
As much as I love catching fish, I enjoy experimenting with new ways of cooking seafood even more. The first good news was that we managed to get about 15 pounds of fish safely back from La Paz, Mexico, where Holly and I spent a week at the end of May—transporting fish and game from another country can be dicey.
Most of it was still frozen when we returned to California, but the top layer of mahi mahi, some of the bonito, and the one yellow snapper I caught had defrosted. Time to go on a fish-cooking binge!
As I was thinking about how to serve all these fish, the natural inclination was to, of course, go Mexican or Spanish. But Mexican cooking is Holly's turf, and I have stayed away from that cuisine on purpose. This time, however, she gave me special dispensation to break out the avocado, chiles, and cilantro.
I started with the obvious:
Holly A. Heyser
How can you make seafood dishes inspired by Baja, Mexico, and not make ceviche? I know, right? It's on every menu there, and it's gooood. My version of ceviche, however, is actually not Mexican. It is Peruvian, where ceviche is thought to have originated. What makes it Peruvian? Really the mix of citrus juices—I use key lime, orange, and lemon juices—and a tropical-tasting, fiery Rocoto chile, which is a Peruvian pepper.
Ceviche is bracing and clean, and a perfect antidote to all the rich food I've been eating lately. No fat—just a crisp acidity and floral heat from the Rocoto chile combined with the meaty little pieces of snapper I marinated in it. It was a little too spicy for Holly, so maybe I'll only use half a chile next time.
Up next is a Spanish recipe for bonito, a little tuna with very dark red meat. I first found this recipe in Penelope Casas's Delicioso! The Regional Cooking of Spain. It is a wonderful, quick stew of seared tuna or bonito briefly simmered with a spicy red sauce loaded with roasted red peppers, garlic, and fresh herbs—all buzzed in a blender like a salad dressing.
Holly A. Heyser
This is a big, bold dish that cries out for crusty bread and a light red wine or a dry Spanish rosé. I've made this recipe with yellowfin and bigeye tuna before, and it came out just as good. I highly recommend you give it a go. I call the dish Bonito, Canary Islands Style.
So I had a big red dish. What about a big green dish? I went to one of the bibles of Mexican cuisine for this one, Diana Kennedy's The Essential Cuisines of Mexico. Kennedy describes a dish called pescado en cilantro, which is typically done with snapper.
Since I'd used up my snapper, I decided to use some of the mahi mahi; I also wanted to modernize Kennedy's dish a bit. Pescado en cilantro is what is sounds like: fish and cilantro sauce. It's baked with onions and lime juice, and in Kennedy's original, the cilantro sauce. I didn't want my sauce to discolor, so I made it raw, like a salad dressing, and added it at the end. I also sautéed the onions first, because I'm that way, and added garlic and fire-roasted jalapeños I'd preserved last season; Kennedy's original calls for simple pickled jalapeños, which would also be good.
Holly A. Heyser
This sauce rocked the house. Spicy, smoky, very green with cilantro—cilantro haters you'll need to skip this one—with bite from the raw garlic and the lime juice. It is a great foil for the mild baked fish.
Again, I urge you to give this dish a try. It works with all sorts of fish, not just mahi mahi, too. Here is my full recipe for fish with cilantro-jalapeño sauce.
Last up was my special dish, the one you see at the top of this post. The city of La Paz showed us such a good time when we were there that I wanted to design an original dish in gratitude. So I thought a lot about this one on the plane ride back to California.
The Master Narrative of Baja is the intersection of desert and sea. And mahi mahi, which the Mexicans call dorado, is one of the region's glamour fish. It is firm, sweet, and just a little oily—not mackerel oily, though. Think good salmon oily. It is a helluva game fish, fun to catch and beautiful to look at. I had to use this fish for the dish.
What about the desert? Nopalitos sprang to mind. I happened to find some already de-spined at the Sacramento farmers' market, so I was in business. If you've never eaten the paddles of the prickly pear cactus, which look like beaver tails, they are crunchy, mild, and, unfortunately, a little slimy. Blanching helps reduce this a lot.
Avocado is also in everything in La Paz, and the dominant tortilla they serve is a corn tortilla, not a wheat one. The dish was all coming together. But it needed a sweet element ... and then I remembered the prickly pear syrup in the fridge I made last season! Perfect.
So here it is, a recipe I dedicate to Baja: Dorado a La Paz. Mahi mahi dredged in corn masa and fried in avocado oil (you can buy avocado oil online from Earthy Delights). The fish is set atop a nopalitos salad with onions, chile, a little more avocado oil, and lime juice (use key limes here, it really, really makes a difference). The sauce is my prickly pear syrup simmered with salt and a chile, and it is all topped with a little fresh avocado.