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Fish Cooked In Paper

By April 2002Comments

Pescado Empapelado al Diablo (Fish Cooked In Paper With Devil’s Sauce.)

One of the most relaxing places on Oaxaca’s coast is the picturesque Lagunas de Chacahua. At the restaurant Los Delfines de Chacahua, owner Juana Ramírez says that this is the most popular dish she serves. The “paper” used is actually foil, and it creates a steamed-fish effect. She uses this technique to cook two styles of fish. The “natural” style cooks the fish with tomatoes, onions, and epazote, but my favorite by far is this version, with the spicier devil’s sauce.

Salsa Diablo:

1/4 pound tomatoes (1/2 medium-large round tomato or 2 to 3 plum tomatoes)
5 chiles guajillos, stemmed and seeded
3 chiles costeños rojos or chiles de árbol, stemmed and seeded
1/4 medium white onion, thickly sliced
5 peeled garlic cloves
1 teaspoon fresh marjoram or 1/2 teaspoon dried marjoram
2 whole allspice berries
3 black peppercorns
2 tablespoons white vinegar
1 1/2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon butter
1 teaspoon sunflower or vegetable oil
1 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon salt, or more to taste

In a small saucepan, bring 2 cups water to a boil. Cut an x in the bottom of the tomato or tomatoes, then place in the boiling water and boil for 5 minutes; remove from the pot and reserve the water. When the tomatoes are cool enough to handle, remove and discard the skin.

On a dry comal or griddle or in a cast-iron frying pan, toast the chiles over high heat until they give off their aroma. Place in a bowl and cover with the reserved tomato water. Soak for 20 minutes, then remove the chiles from the water. Reserve the water.

On the same comal, roast the onion and garlic over medium heat for 8 to 10 minutes or until transparent.

Place the chiles, tomatoes, onion, garlic, marjoram, allspice, peppercorns, vinegar, and Worcestershire sauce in a blender with 1/2 cup of the chile-soaking water. Blend well, then pour through a strainer to remove the chile skins.

In a medium frying pan, heat the butter and oil. Pour in the chile mixture and add the bay leaf. Fry over high heat for 5 minutes; the sauce should sizzle and bubble. Add the salt.

Fish

6 banana leaves (available in Mexican, Chinese, and Thai markets)
6 tablespoons melted unsalted butter (3/4 stick), to coat the foil and fish
juice of 1 lime, preferably a Mexican or key lime
1 2 1/2-pound whole sea bass, red snapper, or striped bass, butterflied, or 6 skinless fish filets, 5 ounces each
sea salt and pepper to taste, mixed
1 medium white onion, thinly sliced
3/4 pound tomatoes (2 medium-large round tomatoes or 6 to 8 plum tomatoes), thinly sliced
3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
3 tablespoons Maggi seasoning sauce
6 bay leaves
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley leaves

Heat a long griddle that covers two burners or a large comal until very hot. Place the banana leaves on the griddle one at a time and, turning once, cook until they become soft, about 30 seconds on each side.

Take half of the melted butter and add the lime juice to it.

Cut a piece of heavy-duty aluminum foil twice the size of the fish. Grease one half of the foil with the plain butter and set aside.

If you are using a whole fish, place two slightly overlapping banana leaves on the greased half of the foil (wet the edges slightly to bind the leaves). Open the fish and lay it flat, diagonally and skin side down, on the banana leaves. If you are using filets, one banana leaf per filet will be sufficient. Ladle some of the butter-lime mixture over the fish and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Spoon on the salsa diablo to generously cover the fish. Add the onion and tomato slices. Sprinkle the Worcestershire and Maggi sauces over the fish, including the head. Add the bay leaves and parsley. Wrap the banana leaves around the fish to cover, again pressing the moistened edges of the leaves together. Fold the other half of the foil over the banana packet loosely, and seal tightly by folding the edges. It is important to have a good seal on all three edges so that the steam does not escape. Move the fish to a griddle or grill, preferably over coals, and cook over high heat for 10 minutes. The foil should fully puff up in the process. Watch the foil to make sure the steam is not escaping. If it is, reseal the fish.

Serve immediately with chips or corn tortillas. Serves 4 to 6.

Hint: You can use the extra salsa diablo to cook steaks or to season chicken or vegetables for grilling or roasting.

From A Good Mango Is Hard to Find Texas Monthly, April 2002.

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