The impression most Americans have of Mexican cuisine comes from the innumerable restaurants that serve the ubiquitous food often referred to as Tex/Mex, popularized from along the borders of Texas and Arizona… hearty and filling fast food like refried beans, tacos, burritos, and the melted cheese-smothering enchiladas. But a long ways from this food in both style and miles are regions in Mexico where the cuisine is light and elegant, haunting and sophisticated, with vivid fresh flavors in salsas with aromatic herbs and spices. There is still a focus on chilies, but there are at least fifteen to choose from, all subtly different from each other, from the fresh chilies like habaneros, serranos, and poblanos and the game changing smoked and dried jalapeños called Chipotle, to the aromatic and haunting dried chiles like ancho (dried poblano), guajillo and negro. There are restaurants in Mexico City that rival those in LA or New York, but for me, the epicenter of this cuisine is the region of Yucatan and the port city of Veracruz. I find this cuisine to be exuberant and startling, like a new found love.
A forty pound Pacific Halibut, caught off the coast of Santa Barbara.
I first tasted this iconic meal around 1986, in a festive little restaurant/bar on Melrose Blvd in LA called Border Grill. (It later moved to Santa Monica for 26 years.) It had been newly opened and I heard about it from cooks I admired, so one hot afternoon I wandered in for lunch. Sitting at the bar, I could watch the two chefs, Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, bustling around like a two lady brass band, serving little bowls of amazingly light and aromatic salsas, giving tastes of their specials, making cooling drinks on a hot day, and causing the whole place to hum with excitement. They both exuded a whole ton of gravitas but spread it around, as if to say “this place is all about having fun.” I had the special, Swordfish Veracruzana, and it changed every idea that I ever had about Mexican cuisine. I was hooked, just like the Swordfish, and they reeled me in with the salsas. The flavors were startling, explosive but separate and crisp, as well as healthy tasting. Each ingredient was utterly fresh and intense, the bright cherry tomatoes, chili peppers, the neon green olives, with the limes and capers highlighting the wonderful fresh fish.
1 to 1 1/2 pounds Halibut filets, Swordfish filets (US or Canada are NOAA sustainable) or Sea Bass, True Cod, Rockfish, Striped Bass, and of course the iconic Red Snapper
1/2 cup Castelvetuano olives, pitted and halved (any small green tasty olive will work but the neon lime green Castelvetuanos are amazingly beautiful in this meal)
1 medium sweet onion, minced
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved (we also like dry farmed Early Girl tomatoes)
3 limes, juiced
1 tablespoon capers plus 2 tablespoons caper juice
4 cloves garlic, crushed
2 jalapeño peppers, julienned into 2 inch strips, seeds and pulp removed
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper (if the jalapeños aren’t very spicy, use 1 teaspoon)
3 tablespoons olive oil (we like Spanish olive oil for this sauté)
2 tablespoons fresh oregano
1 teaspoon cumin seed, ground
1 teaspoon coriander seed, ground
2 limes, juiced
Dry the halibut or swordfish well and lightly coat both sides of filets with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Sprinkle salt on both sides and put aside.
Preheat the oven to 425 F.
In a 12 inch sauté pan, heat olive oil on medium heat until you can smell the olives in the oil and add onions, cook until translucent, stirring often, about 5 minutes.
Add the garlic, cumin, and coriander and cook until the kitchen smells fragrant, about a minute, and then add the capers and caper liquid. Stir for a minute.
Add the olives, jalapeño peppers and the tomatoes, stir often to coat everything in fragrant oils.
Cook until the tomatoes lose their round shapes, add the fresh oregano and cayenne, the salt and the pepper, and stir together. Remove from heat.
In a 7 by 11 inch Pyrex type glass pan, add lime juice and 1/4 cup of the liquid from the sauté pan and place the filets of Halibut in the pan.
Add the entire sauté mixture on top, smothering the fish.
Bake for 20 minutes if you are using Halibut, Swordfish or Sea bass, but only 15 minutes if you have used a lighter flaky fish like Red Snapper, Rockfish or Cod.
Enjoy this fiesta from Veracruz!