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Pescado a la Veracruzana (Fish, Veracruz Style)

I grew up in a dairy household. This fact always elicits some “huh”s, lotsa “really?”s and even a few “ugh!”s but that’s the way it was, and I actually didn’t mind it, mostly. About two times a year, I’d really crave meat – but the only real option was takeout from Royal Dragon, the local kosher Chinese joint. It was always eaten on paper, always lukewarm. I taught myself pretty quickly to be satisfied without it.

At Friday night dinner, most of our crowd served chicken, meatballs, brisket. We usually had fish. Salmon teriyaki, tuna with mango salsa, flounder with lemon herb vinaigrette. (Gosh, can you tell I grew up in the nineties?)

If these fish dishes made occasional appearances on our Shabbat table, there was one that was so regular in its appearances, and so beloved, it was practically a part of the family. That dish is Huachinango a la Veracruzana. My mom’s version originated in an unassuming little cookbook called “Latin American Cooking.” It’s a scrawny little volume, doesn’t look like much. The recipes in it are simple and straightforward, and in my totally-not-expert opinion, they seem authentic.

The best of the lot is my beloved huachinango. To my readers with delicate palates: for the faint of heart, this recipe is not! The snapper is baked in a plenty-spicy tomato sauce laced with capers, green olives and raisins. And, um, olive brine is one of the ingredients – so I guess this is a fish dish for those who like their martinis very, very dirty. (That’s me.) It’s sweet and spicy, sour and salty. It’s addictive. I actually make extra sauce just to eat over rice.

Feeling curious? Try it.

Huachinango a la Veracruzana
This recipe is traditionally made with huachinango, or whole red snapper. I’ve had success making it with various kinds of white fish fillets – from tilapia to flounder and beyond – and it’s a simpler dish that way, so that’s what I recommend here.

As far as cooking, the recipe I’ve included is the more traditional – and more fussy – way to cook this dish, first pan-frying the fillets to crisp the skin, then making the sauce, and then combining the two in a sauce pan. When I’m making this for company, as I did when I photographed this recipe, I usually use the oven instead. For that method, you make the sauce first. Don’t cook it all the way, since it’ll have plenty of time in the oven: once you’ve added the jalapenos, olives, etc, skip the additional 5 minutes of cooking time and remove the sauce from the heat. Then, drain the raw fillets of their marinade, drizzle with some olive oil, spoon the sauce over the fish, and bake at 350 until a knife inserted into the middle of the fillet meets no resistance. My fillets took about 18 minutes; estimate around 8-10 minutes per inch of thickness, and check when the fillets should be close to done to ensure you don’t overcook them.

3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 unsprayed lemon, juiced, peel reserved
1 unsprayed lime, juiced
3 tablespoons water
1 teaspoon cloves
salt and pepper to taste
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
6 skin-on fillets red snapper, scaled and cleaned well
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup vegetable stock
1 onion, halved and sliced
1 pinch dried oregano
1 bay leaf
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup tomato puree (fresh is best)
1 cup diced tomatoes, fresh if available
about 5 pickled jalapenos, sliced (adjust to taste)
1 cup green olives, with pimento if available
1/4 cup olive brine
2 tablespoons capers
2 tablespoons fresh parsley or cilantro, chopped

In large nonreactive bowl, combine garlic, lemon juice, lime juice, water, and cloves and mix to combine. Reserve the lemon rind — you’ll add that back in at the end. Add snapper fillets, coat each fillet with marinade, and leave to marinate in the fridge about 10 minutes.

In deep saute pan or shallow braising pan, preferably non-stick, over medium heat, add 3 tablespoons vegetable oil. When oil is hot but not smoking, add fillets skin side down, in a single layer, and cook until skin has crisped and released from pan, about 5 minutes. If necessary, do this step in batches — you really don’t want to crowd the pan.

When skin has crisped, transfer fillets to large plate and set aside.

Pour off any fat that has accumulated at bottom of pan above 1 tablespoon. Add onions, and saute until softened, 2 minutes. Add stock, bay, oregano, raisins, tomatoes, and tomato puree, and reduce heat to low. Cover and simmer about 10 minutes, until tomatoes have softened and flavors begin to come together.
Add pickled jalapenos, olive brine, capers, reserved lemon rind, and half the olives. Cover and continue to simmer 5 minutes more.

Carefully add fillets back into pan in single layer, skin side up. Cook, uncovered, about 10 minutes, until fish is cooked all the way through but still tender and flaky. Add in reserved olives about 2 minutes before finishing; they should be warm, but retain that fresh flavor.

To serve, two options: Either bring the braising pan to the table and present the dish family-style, or spoon a scoop of sauce onto each plate and top with a skin side up fillet. Either way, sprinkle the chopped parsley or cilantro overtop and serve immediately.

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  • Simcha June 10, 2011,

    Looks Delicous! I will have to try it.

  • Molly June 10, 2011,

    I’ve only had this dish once in my life, and it was actually at a Shabbat meal. I’m an olive addict, so I dreamed about it for months afterwards. I’m so happy to now have this recipe, as I can now make it for my own table. Thank you.

  • Hannah June 11, 2011,

    The sauce looks amazing and I think my family will love this dish. Lovely combination of ingredients!