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Adventures in the tropics

Passport & Plate - Pargo Rosa con Leche de Tigre

Costa Rica | Thursday, 5 March 2015 | 5 photos


Ingredients
1 Grapefruit (juice)
2 Limes (zest and juice)
1 Orange (juice)
1 Serrano chili (cleaned and seeded)
3 Fresno chilies (cleaned and seeded)
1 Sweet red onion
1 Avocado
1 Yellow bell pepper
1 Meaty tomato (brandywine heirloom is an excellent choice)
1 Whole Pargo Rosa (red snapper)
Coarse salt
1/2 Turmeric root
1/2 Ginger root
3 Cloves of garlic
Fresh, crisp cilantro. In Costa Rica long-leaf, wild cilantro is common and is called "culantro coyote". This is Eryngium foetidum, and it's different from the north American and European coriandrum sativum.
Bit of coconut milk
Ice
Small corn tortillas
Oil for frying (canola)

 

How to prepare this recipe
Preparing the fish:
Choose a fish with clear eyes, supple flesh, bright gills, and the smell of the ocean. Carefully fillet the fish and skin the fillets, then remove the pinbones from the fillets (I use needle-nose pliers for this task). Take a metal spoon with a rough edges and scrape away the remaining flesh from the bones, tail, and head. Save these scraps. Place all scraps on butcher paper on ice to keep them cold during the remaining preparation.

To make the Leche de Tigre:
Chop the ginger, turmeric, a handful of onion, garlic cloves, 2 fresno chilies, half the serrano chili. Place these ingredients in a bowl. Combine the fruit juices. Pick a handful of clean cilantro leaves. Add the fish scraps and coconut milk to blender to form the "leche" base, then add the other ingredients, except the cilantro. Puree until smooth, add a three-finger pinch of salt, then add the cilantro for the last few seconds. Taste and adjust.

Cut the fillets into bitesize chunks. To "cook" the ceviche, place the fish and the leche de tigre into a nonreactive bowl and mix gently to coat the fish. The strong acid of the citrus acts on the proteins of the fish breaking bonds and causing them to unwind, much like heat does, creating the cooked texture. Leave in the refrigerator for 15 minutes while the food science happens.

Very finely dice some onion, yellow bell pepper, the remaining chilies, tomato, and avocado and set aside. Fry a few tortillas in a large, heavy pan in enough oil for them to be submerged. Place onto paper towels to dry and sprinkle with coarse salt while still hot.

Before the tortillas cool, casually place a spoonful of ceviche onto the center, sprinkle the vegetables and avocado on the fish and top with some whole cilantro leaves.

 

The story behind this recipe
For 6 months I did a work exchange at a lodge and restaurant in Dominicalito, Putarenas, Costa Rica. Every morning I would surf and every evening I would cook with the chef, old man Bert, for the guests. Old man Bert was the chef and owner of a seafood restaurant in St. Croix for many years. Each night was a new lesson in the kitchen. One week Bert's truck broke, so would rode the horses all the way down the mountain with coolers and ice to the fisherman's shack to buy our fish for the evening. We purchased fresh pargo rosa (local red snapper) and macarela (king mackerel), loaded up our coolers and turned back toward the mountain. It was still very hot, but finally the sun was nearing the horizon as our horses carried us upward. Old man Bert taught me how to make this ceviche, which calls upon the Peruvian ceviche tradition of "leche de tigre." He deftly cleaned the fish with inspiringly confident hands, and instructed me to prepare the vegetables meanwhile, creating this elegant yet simple dish in the short time before sunset. When I bit into it, I experienced the juxtaposed sensations of warm and cool, fire and water, crisp and soft, salty and sweet and tangy. The textures and complex flavors layered perfectly, ending a remarkable day. We all sat by a long table on the deck, perched high on the mountainside by the sea. No one spoke for a few minutes, just slowly eating, contemplating, looking out over the jungle and the sea. The guests, old Bert, and I were all from different places and times but at that moment, it mattered only that we were present there together. From our lookout we could see both of Costa Rica's peninsulas and, as the sun set and we ate, I swear I could see the way the earth curved at the horizon. I felt a tremendous connection to those people, that time, and place.

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