During the winter months, Mexico’s varied and beautiful coastal waters yield an unsurpassed assortment of delicacies from the sea. This is when pescados y mariscos — fish and shellfish — are at their finest and freshest. The seasonal bounty from the ocean coincides with the observance of Lent, a traditionally meatless time of year, and the demand for seafood, in this nation of seafood lovers, is higher than ever.
Rapid transportation and efficient cooling have made fresh seafood easily available all over the country. In mercados, supermarkets, and even at the backs of trucks, people are lined up on every meatless Friday, and all through Semana Santa – Holy Week – eager to buy and prepare the family’s favorite Lenten seafood dishes.
From the carnivals that usher it in, to the solemn processions that lead to its conclusion, Lent is the most ritualistic period of the Mexican religious calendar and, as always, food is an integral part of it. Each region has its specialties, and each cook her own personnal sazón – flair for seasoning; but whether the budget can bear jumbo shrimp or humble fish heads, something tasty will result when seafood is paired with Mexican herbs and spices.
During this season, I look forward to getting up early on Friday mornings and joining my neighbors in the careful placement of flowers, purchased or picked from the garden, which line the sidewalks of town on every Friday of Lent. After arranging the pansies, bougainvillia, or a variety of petals, preparations are made for the trip to the market, where crowds are gathered around the fish stalls, looking, sniffing, poking, probing, and finally making a choice for the day’s comida.
My husband and I have traveled extensively around the coastal regions of Mexico this fall and winter, and tried a number of local seafood specialties. In markets, small cafes, restaurants and food stalls, people were quite open to sharing their culinary skills. As I look through my “recipe collection” from these trips — mostly small scraps of paper — I fondly remember the cooks who invited me into their kitchens, wrote down lists of ingredients, and gave us samples of various dishes. I’ve chosen a few of my favorites, each from a different part of the country, which represent only a tiny sampling of the seemingly endless array of pescados y mariscos .
Shrimp-Stuffed Poblano Chiles: Chiles Rellenos con Camarones
This recipe comes from the gulf coast state of Tamaulipas, where shrimp are plentiful, although I’ve also seen variations of it in Veracruz and Sinaloa. The small cocktail-size shrimp called pacotillas are used for stuffing the chile, which is served at room temperature en escabeche — in vinaigrette. For an informal meal, serve it as a main course, with a cream soup as a first course, and a crusty French bread or bolillos. For a more formal meal, serve the chiles individually on beds of lettuce as an appetizer.
For the vinaigrette:
- 1/3 cup olive oil
- 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 1 large onion, thinly sliced
- 2 medium carrots, peeled and sliced into rounds
- 1/3 cup white wine vinegar
- 1/4 cup water
- 1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
- 1 whole clove
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 sprig each fresh thyme and marjoram (or 1/4 teaspoon each dried)
For the chiles:
- 8 poblano chiles, roasted, seeded and peeled
- 14 ounces small shrimp, cooked and peeled
- 2 tender, inside stalks of celery, finely chopped
- 2 medium-size new potatoes, boiled until just tender, peeled and cut into small cubes
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
- 3/4 cup mayonnaise, regular or low-fat
- salt and pepper to taste
In a medium saucepan, heat the olive oil over low heat and saute the garlic, onion and carrot until the onion is transparent.
Add all remaining ingredients, bring to a boil over medium heat and continue boiling for 3 minutes.
Remove from heat and add the chiles.
Let the chiles marinate at least 3 hours in the vinaigrette, then remove them, drain them and stuff them with a mixture of the shrimp, celery, potatoes, parsley, mayonnaise, salt and pepper.
Arrange the chiles on a platter and pour the remaining vinaigrette over them.
Seafood Soup: Caldo de Mariscos
A specialty of the Veracruz coast, seafood soup, in one variation or another, is found all over Mexico, where it is commonly sold in markets as a morning-after hangover remedy. Not surprisingly then, it is said to have originated in the hard-drinking, tough-talking harbor town of Alvarado. The success of this soup depends upon using a really good fish stock; the fish and shellfish found in this dish vary according to region and availability.
Fresh lime wedges and strips of jalapeño chiles should be served on the side.
- 6 medium tomatoes, chopped
- 1/2 large onion, chopped
- 3 large cloves garlic, chopped
- 1/3 cup olive oil
- 3/4 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1/8 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
- salt to taste
- 2 1/2 quarts fish stock ( see NOTE)
- 2 dozen medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
- 1 1/2 pounds fish filets, cut into thick strips or chunks
- 8 meaty crab claws
Liquify the tomatoes, onion and garlic in a blender or food processor.
Heat the olive oil to the point of fragrance, add the tomato mixture and cook over medium-low heat for approximately 20 minutes, or until thickened.
Add the oregano, cumin, salt, pepper and fish stock and bring to a boil. Continue boiling over a low flame for 10 minutes, then add the shrimp, fish, and crab claws and continue cooking over a low flame for another 8-10 minutes.
NOTE: If you don’t have a favorite recipe for fish stock, you can place 3 quarts of water in a stockpot with 4 fish heads and spines, 1 small onion, 4 peeled garlic cloves, a bay leaf, a chopped celery stalk, a sliced carrot, 8 black peppercorns and salt to taste. Bring it to a boil, cover tightly and simmer for 30 minutes. Strain the stock before using it in the recipe. It can be made a day ahead and refrigerated.