For millennia, Mexican people have used corn husks as cooking vessels. Alan Mallett, the executive chef at Houston’s Cafe Noche, has adapted the technique for the restaurant’s signature Little Boats because, he says, the ingredients “steam in their own juices and retain all their flavor and texture.” Three variations on the theme—cabrito, pork, or snapper, seasoned with fresh cilantro and onion—may be sampled at Cafe Noche. Not only is the food a work of art but the restaurant itself is a gallery, its long dining room displaying colorful paintings against stark white walls. To cook Little Boats at home, try the snapper version, accompanied by a sweet-hot adobo sauce and a mango-jicama salsa.

Little Boats

1 pound skinless snapper filet
2 cups adobo sauce (see recipe, below)
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
1/2 cup chopped onion
12 corn husks (tamale-style)

Cut snapper filet into strips approximately 1/4 inch by 2 inches. Marinate strips in adobo sauce for 5 minutes. Remove from marinade and mix fish with cilantro and onion in bowl. Spoon equal portions of snapper mixture into each corn husk, close tightly, and tie ends with strips of husk to form boats. Steam in covered sauté pan with 1/2 inch of water, 10 to 15 minutes, until fish is firm. Open boats and serve with remaining adobo sauce and garnish with mango-jicama salsa (see recipe, below). Serves 4.

Adobo Sauce

6 ancho chiles
10 pasilla chiles
2 cups hot water
1 1-inch cinnamon stick
5 whole cloves
6 black peppercorns
1/4 teaspoon thyme
1/4 teaspoon marjoram
1/4 teaspoon cumin
6 cloves garlic, peeled
2 tablespoons mild white vinegar
2 bay leaves
2 tablespoons sugar
3 cups chicken stock

Toast chiles in shallow pan in a 300-degree oven until slightly charred, 4 to 5 minutes, watching carefully and turning occasionally. When cool enough to handle (wear latex gloves if skin is sensitive), slit and remove seeds. Soak in hot water 20 minutes. Transfer chiles and 1 cup of the water to blender. Add all ingredients except vinegar, bay leaves, sugar, and stock. Blend well. Combine with remaining ingredients in saucepan. Simmer for 15 minutes, until sauce thickens.

Mango-Jicama Salsa

1/2 cup shredded jicama
1/2 cup chopped mango
2 tablespoons lime juice
2 tablespoons fresh-squeezed orange juice
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
1 jalapeño, seeded and finely chopped
Salt to taste
1 tablespoon vegetable oil

Mix ingredients in glass bowl with wooden spoon, adding oil last. Make sure oil coats everything. Let stand 2 hours in refrigerator before serving.