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Adventures in the tropics

Passport & Plate - Pescado frito entero

Colombia | Thursday, 13 March 2014 | 5 photos

-Whole Snapper: In this case I’ve used a Pink Bream. Look for bright, clear, bulging eyes, clear mucus, and firm flesh. If the fish is whole with gills and guts, the gills should be bright. Fish should not smell fishy, it should smell like the sea. AVOID cloudy eyes, bruised flesh, yellowing mucus, greying flesh and gills. Your fishmonger will probably be happy to remove the viscera and the scales for you, so you don’t have to send scales flying all over your sink area or back deck…though it’s definitely been done there before.
-Fry oil, around 48 ounces depending on the depth of your pan. I used canola, but corn and peanut oil make excellent alternatives. Do not use soy or olive oil for this application.
-Coarse sea salt
-Avocado: Choose an avocado that yields to gentle pressure in the palm of your hand. Do not squeeze it or poke it with your fingertips.
-Cilantro: chop half, leave the other half bunch intact
-Ripe plantains: they won’t feel as soft as bananas because of their thicker skin, but they will turn yellow when ripe. Slice on a bias for more surface area to sear.
-Chicken stock: I used a chicken stock that I premade. You may buy chicken stock from your grocery store.
-Sweet onion, large dice
-Black beans: I used calypso beans, a Caribbean heirloom variety. Buying fresh beans makes a noticeable difference in flavor. Bear in mind the cooked volume will be twice the dry volume. Rinse, then leave to soak in twice as much water by volume for 8-24 hours. Drain the soak water before cooking, as it contains much of the discomfort-causing starches for which beans are so notorious.
-Garlic, finely minced
-Long grain rice, rinsed in a colander
-Coconut milk
-Dried arbol chilies. You may remove the seeds if you want to make it less spicy, but I don’t do that.
-Orange or, better yet, mandarina for greater authenticity
-Red jalapeno
-Fresh, coarsely ground black pepper
-All-purpose flour


How to prepare this recipe
Heat a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add some oil, then onion. Stir occasionally. When the onions are just beginning to brown and become translucent, add the minced garlic. Cook until the garlic and onions are softened and very fragrant. Add the chicken stock to the hot pan to deglaze, then add beans and reduce heat to medium low, loosely covering. The cook time on the beans varies, so plan on cooking them for at east an hour, adding water as necessary. Prep your other vegetables: Cut the avocado in half and make vertical cuts along the length of the flesh. Scoop the flesh out with a large spoon, make sure to extract the darker flesh closest to the skin, it’s the most flavorful. Slice your plantains on a bias. Mince half your cilantro. The ratio of rice to cooking liquid is 2:3, i.e. 1 cup of rice to 1½ cups liquid. Of which half should be water and half should be coconut milk. Add just a two-finger pinch of salt to the rice. The rice should be sweet, with the salt should coming primarily from the fish. For the fish, dry thoroughly with towels. Make several incisions in the thickest part of the flesh seasoning penetration, even cooking, and protein contraction. Dust fish with salt and pepper, then dredge in flour. Stuff the organ cavity with whole cilantro and citrus wheels. Temper fish at room temp for 10 minutes before frying. Heat enough oil to cover fish in a saucepan over medium heat, until just barely smoking. Slip fish gently into the oil head-first. Add the Jalapeno. Fry each side for about 5 minutes until crispy and cooked. Heat a sauté pan on high heat. Add oil, then plantains. Do not overcrowd the pan. Flip after a minute or two. Place fish upright on paper towels to drain and plantains also on towels. Salt the beans to taste. Garnish with chopped cilantro, citrus, avocado half. Squeeze different kinds of citrus on each bite. Feel free to eat with your hands. The cheeks are the bet part, I think. Eat an eyeball, it’s a novel texture.


The story behind this recipe
A friend called me one day with an idea: we ought to buy a cheap sailboat, fix it, learn to sail, then set out from Florida and spend our days fishing, diving, and exploring the Caribbean. A few weeks later we bought an aging but sturdy boat from craigslist. It took three of us ten months to prepare the boat and ourselves. Meanwhile I got a job at a restaurant to save money and it quickly became clear that cooking professionally was something I enjoyed and could do well. Spearfishing fed us well during the trip and led to magnificent culinary experiences. We traded with some Haitians our grilled grouper fillets for their barracuda fried rice. We spearfished with the locals in Boston Bay, Jamaica and they taught us their way of cooking small fish over a fire and the secret to jerk spice. We sailed to the Bahamas, Jamaica, Providencia, and to Panama’s Bocas archipelago. We had countless, wonderful learning experiences in different cultures with people from diverse backgrounds and values.
Leaving Jamaica, we were concerned about avoiding a storm system coming off mainland Colombia. After consulting only a chart, we decided to sail to Providencia before turning south-southwest to Panama. As we approached the island, we found a mountain rising out of the Caribbean sea, ringed with aquamarine reefs. Immediately, we went ashore for solid ground, fresh food, and cold beers. We found a small seafood shack with picnic tables and Pangas anchored along the beach. Close friends, the three of us shared the Pescado frito entero and the mixed seafood platter for two (lobster on the half shell, small snapper, black land crab), eating communally and by hand. The whole fried fish reflected perfectly the island’s mixture of Colombian, Caribbean and Creole populace and heritage. Satisfied, we reflected at the table about the passage across the Caribbean in our old boat and discussed the best way to clear Colombian maritime customs…but that’s a story for another time.

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