Recipe: Fish Fillets with Fresh Tomatoes, Capers and Olives (Pescado a la Veracruzana)
To most aficionados, the mention of Mexican seafood brings to mind chunky, broth tomato sauce with olives, herbs and chiles — pescado a la veracruzana. It is both classic and nationally ubiquitous, which means all cooks think they can and should make it, whether or not they have visited Veracruz. It's only in the seaside home, though, that I've tasted the beautifully light, distinctively veracruzana sauce with its special lilt of herbs and spices.
What follows is a recipe based on the version served at the Pescador restaurant in Veracruz. I'd offer it with the customary molded white rice, and, for an all-Gulf meal, I'd start with spicy crab soup and have butter-fried plantains for dessert. Here's the place some might enjoy a fruity, dry white wine like a Chenin Blanc, or sparkling limeade
- For fish
- 1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless meaty fish fillets like red snapper or halibut, preferably in 4 pieces each 1/2 thick
- Freshly squeezed lime juice and a little salt
- For 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 of garlic, peeled and minced
- 20 meaty green olives (preferably manzanillo), pitted and roughly chopped
- 2 tablespoons large Spanish capers
- 2 medium pickled chiles jalapenos, store-bought or homemade, steamed, seeded and sliced into strips
- 1 tablespoon pickling juices from the chiles
- 1-1/2 teaspoons mixed dried herbs (such as marjoram and thyme)
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley, plus a few sprigs of garnish
- 3 bay leaves
- 1 inch cinnamon stick
- 2 cloves
- 1/4 teaspoon black peppercorns, very coarsely ground
- 1 cup light-flavored fish broth, bottled clam juice or water
- Salt, if necessary
The fish: Rinse the fillets, lay them in a noncorrosive dish and sprinkle them with lime juice and salt. Cover and refrigerate about an hour. The sauce: In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium, 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 only need 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 aside to use as garnish. To the other bowl, add the jalapeno 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.
When the tomatoes are ready, add the mixture of pickled things, herbs and spices, along with the fish broth (or clam juice or water). Cover and simmer ten minutes, then taste for salt (and remove the cheesecloth-wrapped spices). Finishing the dish: 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:
The stovetop 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.
The baking method: Preheat the oven to 350°. Place the fillets in a single layer in a lightly greased baking dish. Spoon the sauce over them, cover the 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 sauce, garnished with a sprinkling of the reserved capers and olives and sprig of parsley.
Poaching verses baking: Some people find the oven's indirect heat adds slower cooking more comfortable than stove-top poaching. If doubling the recipe, use the baking method.
Fish: Robalo (snook) is more common in Mexico (and much less expensive) than the red snapper; its meat is firm and mild like a grouper (sea bass) or one of the cods. Practically any rather mild, nonoily fish will work — striped bass, halibut, fluke, large rock cod, monkfish or the like. Fine-textured fish don't jibe with the sauce and tend to fall apart.
Timing and Advance preparation
If the broth is on hand, this superb dish takes an hour or less to prepare (plus the hour for marinating the fish). The sauce may be made up to 3 days ahead and stored in the refrigerator, covered; warm it to room temperature before completing step 3.
Whole Fish a la Veracruz: The dish is often made with two 1 ½-pound or four ¾-pound whole or pan-dressed fish; choose farm-raised trout, coho or catfish, whitefish, black bass, sea trout, perch, snapper or the like. Make two diagonal slices on each side, marinate them (step 1), then use the baking method to finish the dish. Cooking time will be a few minutes longer.