Fish, Latin, Quick Meals


The other day, a friend noted that, although he likes bluefish, he won’t cook it inside the house. I told him that I know a way to prepare it indoors without stinking up the joint. “You’re on,” he said.

The smelliest and most regret-inducing way to prepare fish indoors is to pan-fry rich, oily fish. For a lot of people, it’s hard to get right, too – it sticks to the pan because people are afraid to use oil; it becomes overdone and chewy, with a tough, leathery exterior because people are afraid to undercook. Don’t pan-fry. You’ll smell it for days, and not in a good way. Grilling is always a good option, but it also can pose the problem of sticking. My solution? Roast the fish. If you roast fish, you won’t smell a thing. Not even with bluefish, or any of the stronger fish.

So of course, I went to Whole Foods looking for bluefish to prove my point, and they didn’t have it. According to the fish guy, people in the greater Annapolis area don’t buy it. Same goes for mackerel, another favorite fish with a similar rich, meaty flavor profile, and sardines, a rich, meaty, small fish perfectly suited to grilling over coals. So I bought mahi-mahi, a milder but somewhat firmer fish. Whole Foods had a whole mahi mahi, iced down, in the display, and it is a striking fish with golden skin, a prominent round forehead, and a sail-like dorsal fin. Fished off U.S. waters in the Atlantic, it’s also a sustainable choice.

I like to pair strong-flavored fish like bluefish, mackerel, and sardines with chimichurri sauce. In 1997, I traveled to Nicaragua with my family for the presidential inauguration. From an ideological standpoint I have to say the president was not my cup of tea, but the trip introduced me to chimichurri, which we ate during lunch with roasted Argentine beef. It may have been the most delicious beef dish I had ever tasted at the time.

Chimichurri, sharp from vinegar, savory with onions, and green with parsley and other herbs, is perfectly suited to cutting the fattiness of rich meats. That much has been clear to the generations of Latin Americans who have enjoyed it on well-marbled, grass-fed beef. It occurred to me after the trip, however, that chimichurri was an even better pairing with rich, oily fish. And you know, it really is. My husband – “not a fish guy” – loves even the stronger-tasting fish, if I serve them with chimichurri.

Spanish mackerel, chimichurri

Roasted fish with chimichurri

Within reason, you can substitute other fish for the bluefish or mackerel, but I urge you to try this dish with one of these fish (or sardines, which are amazing with chimichurri). Don’t use a mild, delicate fish like trout, flounder, or sole – these can’t stand up to the strong flavors of the sauce. I’m not a huge fan of salmon either (except in its raw form), and I probably would steer clear of salmon as well.

And when you’re choosing fish, always choose carefully, with an eye toward preserving ocean life. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s excellent Seafood Watch program provides three easy ways to check whether your choice is environmentally friendly. They’ve got an online guide, a downloadable, printable pocket guide (sushi guides, nationwide guides, and regional guides are all available), and a super-useful mobile guide for iPhone users. The ocean needs our help – now more than ever.

2 cups flat-leaf parsley leaves, washed and spun dry
3 tbsp dried Mexican oregano
1 small onion, minced finely
1/2 tsp salt, more to taste
1 tsp ground black pepper
1/4 tsp cayenne
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 c olive oil

Bluefish or spanish mackerel, or another firm, meaty fish
olive oil
salt or soy sauce
black pepper

Combine the oregano, onion, salt, pepper, cayenne. Whisk together the vinegar and oil and stir into the onion blend. Set aside.

Mince the parsley as finely as you can and add to the vinaigrette. Allow flavors to combine for at least half an hour before serving.

While chimichurri rests, heat oven to 400F. Fillet the fish if necessary, and place on a sheet pan – lining it with foil will facilitate cleanup. Rub a small quantity of soy sauce (just barely to season) into the flesh, or salt the fish, and drizzle with a small quantity of olive oil. Roast about 8 minutes for spanish mackerel or 16 for bluefish, depending on the thickness of the filet. Season with black pepper.

Spoon chimichurri over the fish.

Variant: clean sardines; make several small (1/8″) cuts in flesh on each side. Season with a little salt and grill on an oiled grate over coals. Serve with chimichurri.

Mahi-mahi, chimichurri, potato/zucchini

Latin, Leftover Recycling, Pork Products, Quick Meals, Sandwich

Pressed for time.

The Cuban food fest of the past weekend yielded some leftovers, by design. See, I really like Cubanos. As sandwiches go, I don’t think you can beat them.

If you don’t already know, a Cubano – the archetypical Cuban sandwich – is a sandwich of ham, roast pork, Swiss cheese, and sliced pickles between the halves of a Cuban loaf, slathered with mustard. The sandwich is heated and pressed using a device called the plancha, which resembles a panino maker. Unlike the panino maker, the plancha is not grooved and does not leave grill marks. Its heavy plates flatten the bread, compressing the layers of meat and pickle, and melting the Swiss cheese.

Which brings us to Baltimore, 2010. I have leftover roast pork and a jar of house-made dill pickles. To me, that means Cubanos. The origins of the Cubano are open to dispute – no one is really sure whether the sandwich originated in Florida, among the cigar workers in Tampa’s Ybor City and Key West, or in Cuba, but it is clear that the sandwich was popular both on the continent and the island. The Cubano probably first appeared – wherever it appeared – at the beginning of the 20th century, and by the 1960s, it was eaten widely throughout South Florida and cosmopolitan Cuba.

Pickles and mustard lend tang to the sandwich, and the plancha-pressing produces a crisp, brown crust. The melted Swiss cheese holds all the sandwich fillings together. It’s a perfect sandwich. Although a Tampa variant sometimes includes Genoa salami – a tangy, garlicky sausage – most versions of the sandwich do not. Lettuce, tomato, and condiments besides mustard (such like mayonnaise) generally are considered inauthentic.


If you can find Cuban bread, use it. It’s not easy to come by outside Central and South Florida. If, like me, you live in the Land Without Cubans, use a baguette, preferably not a really good one, You want something supermarkety, not as crisp-crusty as a baguette really should be, and split down the length of the top, if you can find that. Sadly, I don’t have a panino maker or a plancha, so I use a grill press (a flat plate of stainless steel with a wooden handle). It’s not quite as effective, but it comes close. And I only had good baguettes. Whatever, it’s still a delicious, crusty sandwich.

Yellow mustard is traditional, but I prefer the mellower bite of a green peppercorn Dijon mustard. The pickled red onion also is atypical, but I had them, and I used them.

One loaf Cuban bread, or a baguette
1/4 lb thinly sliced ham – a glazed, Virginia, or maple ham is good
1/4 lb thinly sliced roast pork
2 dill pickles, thinly sliced
Optional: pickled red onions, from recipe
4-6 slices Swiss cheese (depending on size of baguette)

Slice the Cuban loaf or the baguette lengthwise. Spread the mustard on the cut sides of the bread and layer the fillings within the loaf. Replace the top and press down.

Place the sandwich in a heated plancha or panino press (with a flat plate), on a hot flat top, or in a heated dry skillet. Lower the top of the plancha or panino press, or place a heavy weight (such as a foil-wrapped brick or another skillet) over the sandwich. Press hard. If heating on a flat top or in a skillet, flip over the sandwich and repeat. When golden and crisp, remove the sandwich from heat and slice.

Beans, Beef, Latin, Pork Products, Salad, Vegetables

Cuba libre.

Those of you who follow me on Facebook know that we’ve been eating a certain amount of Cuban food during the past several days. One of my favorite people in Washington is leaving town for good, and moving back to her hometown, Tampa. I’m happy for her and all, but I wish she weren’t leaving. We’ve had some great times together over the past ten years – her office was right next to mine at my old job and over the years we’ve had cake parties together, eaten our way through a lot of DC restaurants, tried to find something good to eat in Oklahoma City (I don’t think we were successful), and consumed a lot of wine and boar sausage in Languedoc.

So to celebrate her awesomeness, some of us friends decided to throw a party. Cuban food seemed the natural choice – Tampa has a long relationship with Cuba and Cubans, starting with the establishment of Ybor City in the late 19th century as a cigar manufacturing center and vibrant Cuban community. Normally I gravitate toward the more obscure foods, or update the classics. But a buffet for forty seemed a time to play it straight. With the greatest hits of Cuban cuisine – long braises like ropa vieja, hearty dishes like black beans and rice ( frijoles negros), plátanos or plantains, and slow roasted pork – how could we go wrong?

To cater to the vegetarians at the party, I elected to make the frijoles negros a meatless dish. Along with the plátanos and the avocado/mango salad, they make a totally filling meal for vegans. For meat eaters, the ropa vieja, with its falling-apart tender beef in a seasoned tomato sauce, and the slow roasted pork, with a counterpoint of crisp, pickled red onion to cut through the fatty meat, complete a perfect home-style meal.

Family style.

Frijoles negros

Here it is – Cuban black beans and rice, suitable for vegetarians. Beer and pimentón, smoked Spanish paprika, make up for the absence of meat-based stock and ham hock. Pimentón is not traditional in Cuban cuisine but it adds smokiness, a slight sweet flavor, and depth to the dish.

1 1/4 lb black turtle beans, rinsed and picked over
olive oil
two medium onions, peeled, fine dice
8 cloves garlic, minced to a paste
1 large rib celery, strings removed, fine dice
2 cubanelle peppers, seeded, deribbed, skin removed, fine dice
1 1/2 tsp pimentón, preferably dulce (sweet)
1/8 tsp cayenne
2 bay leaves
4 sprigs fresh thyme
1 tbsp dried oregano
3 tbsp cider vinegar
1 12 oz bottle beer – pilsener style
salt and pepper

Soak beans if you have time; otherwise just simmer until cooked completely through to the center. Drain, reserving 2 c cooking liquid, and set aside.

Place a large pot over medium low heat and add oil. Sweat vegetables, adding in the order prescribed. When all vegetables are tender, add pimentón, cayenne, and oregano and saute for one minute. Add bay leaves, thyme, 1 tsp sugar, and drained beans. Add vinegar, beer, and about 1/2 c water. Simmer, covered, until very tender – about 30 mins; remove lid and add the reserved bean cooking liquid. Continue to simmer another 30 minutes. If the mixture requires more water to stay moist and somewhat soupy, add more water (add 1 tbsp vinegar per additional cup water). Remove thyme branches and bay. Taste for salt and pimentón, and season. Do not be surprised if you need to add quite a bit of salt – beans often require aggressive seasoning.

Serve with steamed rice.

Slow roasted pork shoulder, sour orange mojo

Sour oranges are not widely available outside of Latin markets, and even then, you may not find them. I was fortunate to find them at the Berkeley Bowl. But don’t worry – the bottled juice, available at most Latin markets, is just fine. You also can substitute a 50/50 blend of orange juice and lime juice.

6 lb pork shoulder, or Boston butt, bone-in
3 c sour orange juice, either freshly squeezed or bottled (jugo de naranja agria)
8 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
kosher salt

Combine the orange juice and garlic cloves at least 24 hours before roasting the pork. Rub the pork with salt, about 1/2 tsp per pound, and marinate in the orange juice about 24 hours. If you don’t have the time, you can marinate for as few as 4 hours.

Oven 400F/200C. Remove the roast from the marinade and place on a rack in a roasting pan. Season evenly but lightly with kosher salt. Reserve the marinade in the refrigerator.

Roast at 400F/200C for about 20 minutes, until a golden brown crust begins to form. Reduce the heat to 200F/90C and roast for 6 hours, rotating the pan a couple of times.

Slow roasting pork shoulder.

Remove the roast from the oven and allow to rest for 45 minutes before slicing. Meanwhile, pour the excess melted pork fat from the roasting pan and place the roasting pan, with drippings, on the stove. Pour in the reserved marinade and bring to a simmer, incorporating the fond (drippings) into the marinade. Strain.

Delicious roast pork with pickled onion.

Slice the pork and serve, drizzled with sauce, with pickled red onion.

Pickled red onion

I’ve flash pickled red onion on these pages before. Here’s a slower version that you can store, in the pickling liquid, in the refrigerator. It’s best after about two hours, and within a few days.

2 red onions, peeled and sliced pole-to-pole
2/3 c red wine vinegar
2/3 c filtered water
2 tsp kosher salt

Dissolve the salt in the vinegar and water. Pour over the onions and allow to sit, covered, for at least 2 hours. If you wish to pickle overnight (the onions will be totally pink if you do), refrigerate the container.

Ropa vieja

Ordinarily, the beef for ropa vieja is simmered first in a mirepoix-based broth; the beef is shredded into ropy strands and simmered in a spiced tomato sauce. But I hate to lose that beefy flavor to the simmering water, so I always simmer the beef in the tomato sauce. Bonus – not only does the hearty taste of the beef enhance the sauce, but the acid in the tomato helps tenderize the meat, and the dish can be completed in one pot, rather than two.

2 lb skirt steak (flap or plate)
two medium onions, peeled, fine dice
8 cloves garlic, minced to a paste
4 cubanelle peppers, seeded, deribbed, skin removed, fine dice
2 bay leaves
4 sprigs fresh thyme
1 tbsp dried oregano
1 tsp ground cumin
2 28-ounce cans crushed or diced tomato

Place a large, deep pot over medium low heat and add oil. Sweat vegetables, adding in the order prescribed. When all vegetables are tender, add the oregano and cumin, and saute for one minute. Add 1/2 tsp salt, bay leaves, thyme, and the tomatoes. Add the beef and bring to a bare simmer. Cook at a very low simmer, covered, until very tender – about 2 hours.

Remove the meat from the pot and shred it roughly into long, ropy chunks of strands about 1/2″ wide. Return to the pot and bring to a bare simmer again. Cook until very tender, another 45 minutes. Season with salt and add oregano or cumin if necessary. Remove thyme branches and bay.

Serve over rice (especially yellow rice, arroz amarillo, made golden with achiote).

Avocado and mango salad

Jicama adds crunch to this salad, and lime juice keeps it tart. Don’t skimp on the lime – the mango can be too sweet, and this isn’t a dessert; it’s a salad.

2 avocadoes, peeled and pitted
1 large mango or 2 small mangoes, sliced parallel to the pit
1 small jicama root, peeled
2 limes
watercress, washed and dried
sea salt and black peppercorns (I used smoked peppercorns)

Slice the avocadoes into about 8 slices per half. Slice the mango into thin batons, about 1/4″ thick or less. Arrange the mango slices on top of the avocado slices, squeeze lime juice over all, and season with pepper.

Julienne the jicama and toss with lime juice. Arrange atop the mango. Season with a little salt and garnish with watercress.

Avocado, mango, jicama, lime.

Cocktails, preserving, Q&A, Vegetables

Bloody good.

A reader wonders whether it is possible to achieve the perfect Bloody Mary at home, and considers the essential role of pickles. Special guest appearance by DC mixologist Jason Strich, who provides his recipe for a spicy, celery salt- and horseradish-infused Bloody, accompanied by my pickled beans, on the Bloodies page.