Monday, April 11, 2011

A French dinner, by way of Mexico

Got a whole bunch of tomatoes lying around? Like, 2 pounds of tomatoes? Well grab 'em, because you're going to need them (seeded, chopped) for this recipe:

Oh, and that's right--I almost forgot to mention your huge bunch of fresh parsley. You'll be needing that, too.

The dish I'm talking about today is pescado a la Veracruzana, or fish, Verucruz style. The name Veracruz refers both to the state and the port city located on the eastern coast of Mexico. I was there, for two days, in early 2006, when my friend Malcolm and I stayed on after a community service trip to Oaxaca to explore the country a bit. We were pressed for time during our travels, but we still wanted to make it to the beach to swim and to beat the heat. Overwhelmingly, we were told that the western coast of the country was where to go for beautiful sand and pristine waters, but our research turned up the fact that the nearest western beach from where we were at the time could be reached only after a bus ride of eight to nine hours. We decided to see about going to the eastern coast instead. Bam! Veracruz, in a measly four hours. Bus tickets were purchased. We were excited.

During our stay, locals that we met often inquired about me and Malcolm's itinerary. Well, we told them, we're going to Mexico City--also known as the D.F., or Distrito Federal--for about 5 days. The locals nodded in appreciation. Also, we confessed, we'll be going to Veracruz for a day or two. The locals paused. Tactfully, they inquired, "Oh, I see. Why?" We explained ourselves: lack of time, desire to swim. "Why?" we asked. "Is it not so nice?" The locals, ever polite, assured us that it was fine, but often added, in a smaller, affectedly unconcerned voice, that there were lots of sharks in the water. "Be careful," they said. Malcolm and I encountered this same scenario at least 5 or 6 times, until it became a joke. We were going to Veracruz. We were determined not to be eaten by sharks.

When we got there, what we found was a small, slightly seedy, slightly dirty, but on the whole more or less charming port city. We walked around the central plaza, or zocalo. We ate the fruit ices that everyone in town was eating. We had an adventurous dinner of some kind of offal-ish pork cut. We made our plans for the beach the next day. Unfortunately, when we got up the next morning, we discovered that Malcolm had been struck down by the dreaded traveler's illness Montezuma's Revenge. After some negotiation with the hotel management to let Malcolm rest in the comfort of our room for the remainder of the day, instead of checking out as we had planned to, he settled in for the long haul, while I packed my bag to head out to the beach. After a long bus ride for which I didn't have exact change and therefore couldn't pay, earning me dirty looks from the driver for the entire ride, I arrived at a flat, not so pretty, beach. But it was a beach nonetheless. Setting my fears aside, I swam a little. I read my book. I tanned, or rather, burned to a crisp, since Malcolm wasn't there to sunscreen my back. After a while, as I tend to do, I got hungry.

It probably won't surprise you to discover that my main interest while traveling is the local cuisine, and therefore to know that when I decided to head to Veracruz, I tried to read up on what to eat there. As it turned out, the city is quite famous for the fish dish mentioned above. So, that day at beach, I was determined to find me some pescado a la Veracruzana, if only so that the trip there wasn't a total bust. I happened upon it at a casual seaside restaurant not fifty paces from the shore, and, despite my pretty much lifelong ambivalence about eating fish, when the dish arrived to my table I knew I was in for something good. It was a pristine white fillet of fish--most likely red snapper--bathed in a beautiful, and beautiful-smelling, fresh tomato sauce, its red flecked with the varying shades of green of parsley, olives and capers. I dug in. It was delicious, rich with flavor while still being light and not too filling. I was sold. When I got back to the U.S., I recreated the dish several times, and it remains my favorite way to prepare fish, period.

It doesn't hurt that it's so easy to make. Basically, you sauté chopped onions and garlic, sprinkling in a healthy dose of oregano (preferably of Mexican origin) towards the end of this process. Then you add a copious amount of chopped tomatoes, plus chopped green olives and some whole capers, as well as some water to create a broth. After letting these flavors simmer and meld for a few minutes, you slip in your fish fillets that you've briefly marinated in a mixture of lime juice and salt, and you let them poach just a few minutes until they're flaky and cooked through. Before serving over rice, you add a generous showering of chopped fresh parsley, and you cut up some limes to squeeze over at the table. Take it from me: this dish is a winner, and it tastes just as good in the U.S., or France, or wherever you might be, as it does in its hometown.

Pescado a la Veracruzana
Serves 4 - 6


- 6 white fish fillets, such as snapper, cod, flounder, tilapia, etc.
- Juice of 4 or 5 limes, plus more limes for slicing
- 3 tbsp. olive oil
- 1 white or yellow onion, sliced into thin half-moons
- 3 cloves of garlic, minced
- 1 tsp. red pepper flakes, or to taste
- 2 tsp. dried oregano, preferably Mexican, or to taste
- 3 c. (about 2 lbs.) seeded and chopped tomatoes
- 1/2 c. green olives, pitted and chopped
- 3 tbsp. capers, rinsed
- 1 c. water
- Salt, to taste
- 1/2 c. chopped fresh parsley
- Limes, for slicing


1. Place fish fillets in a shallow dish and pour lime juice over. Sprinkle with a small amount of salt, and place in the refrigerator to marinate.
2. In a deep, wide, and heavy saucepan, heat the olive oil over a medium flame. Add the onions and garlic and a pinch of salt and sauté, stirring frequently, for about 6 minutes, or until onions are soft and translucent.
3. Add the red pepper flakes and oregano. Stir to coat and heat through.
4. Add the tomatoes, olives, capers and water and stir to combine. Add more salt, to taste (be careful here. The olives and capers add quite a bit of salt to the sauce). Bring sauce to a simmer and cook for about 15 minutes.
5. Gently slip the fish fillets into the sauce; cover the pan partially. Cook until fish is cooked through but still flaky, about 8 - 10 minutes.
6. Sprinkle the parsley over the dish and serve over rice, with lime wedges.

Friday, April 1, 2011

A Pesto for Printemps

That's spring, for you non-Francophones out there. As I discussed in my last post, spring, glorious spring has sprung in Toulouse--as I write this, my bedroom windows, which open on our huge, overgrown garden, are flung wide, allowing soft, cool breezes and lazy sunlight to gently filter in.

I really lucked out with this garden. You see, I set up my housing here in Toulouse before I left New York, taking a gamble on my room, housemates, etc. I'm happy to say that the place I live is truly better than anything I could have imagined: situated at the end of a quiet block, it's a big, two-story house with a large, well-stocked kitchen, and of course, the garden that I just mentioned. As I talked about in some of my container garden posts from 2009, I've been growing more and more interested in gardening and agriculture--as someone who's obsessed with food, it's natural to want to understand more about where it comes from, and especially gratifying to be able to grow it yourself. Serendipitously, my housemate Ben is an experienced jardinier, having lived on a farm for a while last year, and he's been maintaining our fruit and vegetable plants this year. When I first arrived, in September, I benefited from the last of the season's ripe, juicy tomatoes, and harvested some small cauliflowers and cabbages this winter. Right now, though, it's all about the early-spring crops of lettuces and tender green spinach:

The spinach we've got just grows and grows, so I've been trying to take advantage of it by mixing it into nearly everything I cook: tossing some into a bowl of warm pasta; sautéeing it with mushrooms; folding it into rice. Because there's so much of it, the thought occurred to me to try to make something that would call for a lot. And then it came to me: pesto! I love pesto, and I love that you can make it out of nearly anything green (arugula, as well as fresh herbs like parsley and cilantro come to mind)--not just the basil that most people associate it with--and that you can incorporate nearly any type of nut, and not just pine nuts. What I happened to have on hand were some flaked almonds, so I decided to use those. To tie it all together, I added just a little bit of something that goes wonderfully with both spinach and almonds--lemon. If you've ever eaten the classic Italian side dish of some quickly sautéed spinach finished with a refreshing spritz of lemon juice, you know what a natural pairing the two ingredients make. Same goes for almonds and lemon: many dessert recipes--like this one for pound cake, this one for madeleines, and this one for cookies--call for both. So for my pesto, I added a touch of freshly grated zest. The fresh spinach, the subtle almonds and the tart lemon combine to produce a pesto that's a lot lighter and brighter than the ones you might be used to. Spring in a bowl!

Spinach and Almond Pesto with Lemon
Makes about 1 1/2 cups


- 1/2 c. flaked or slivered almonds, or use slightly less whole peeled almonds (if your nuts are fresh, there is no need to toast them. If they're not, toast in a pan or low oven until fragrant and allow them to cool.)
- 3 cloves garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
- 1 tsp. grated lemon zest
- 1 tsp. salt or more to taste
- About 6 oz. or 4 c. packed spinach leaves, washed and roughly torn
- 1/2 c. olive oil or more as needed
- 1/4 c. grated parmesan cheese
- Freshly ground black pepper, to taste


1. Place almonds, garlic, lemon zest and salt in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until nuts are ground, but not too finely.
2. Add spinach, in batches if necessary, and pulse to combine. Once all spinach is added, leave the food processor running as you drizzle in the 1/2 c. olive oil. If mixture remains too thick, add more oil.
3. Scrape pesto into a bowl. Add parmesan and some grinds of black pepper and stir to combine. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt or pepper as needed. Store in the refrigerator for one week or in the freezer for one month.