For a moment last week, the weather turned humid and sweltering, spot-on summer weather. Sidewalk cafes were bursting with drinkers and diners. No one was wearing a coat, or much of a shirt. Bare legs and flip-flops returned. And appetites turned summery, my own included.
These steamy, near-tropical sunny afternoons make me want to cook Mexican fare, and more specifically, the food of the Yucatán Peninsula. Full disclosure: A few weeks ago, I made a quick getaway beach trip there, and the simple, flavorful food seemed just right for summer, and for the barbecue as well. I came home hungry for more.
Yucatecan fare differs from other Mexican food. It is a cuisine rooted in the cooking of the native Maya people, crossed with that of the many conquerors who passed through. The ingredients there are rather particular; among them is achiote, also called annatto, a hard seed that imparts a delicious musky flavor and bright color to many marinades.
Achiote is at its best in the company of garlic and hot chilies, along with an assortment of pungent spices, ground to a paste. The thick red sauce is diluted with the juice of sour oranges and tiny limes. The Yucatecan custom is to coat fish with the spice mixture and wrap it in banana leaves with pickled onions before cooking. Fish prepared this way is always wonderfully moist, and the banana leaves, aside from making the ideal parcel for grilling or pit roasting, add a subtle aroma and taste.
For smaller pieces of fish, the packages can be cooked directly on a hot griddle or grill and be ready rather quickly. Larger fillets or whole fish work better in an oven or a covered grill, and will take 30 minutes to an hour to bake. The fish will steam a bit more as it rests before the package is opened.
To accompany the fish, serve rice and black beans cooked with the pungent herb epazote, and a chunky onion and tomato salsa heavy with chopped serrano chilies and cilantro. And extra limes. If you're in the mood, pan-fry some slices of ripe plantain until golden and toss some salt in their direction.
The fish looks gorgeous served straight from the banana leaf package, and the flat green squares make good plates, too. It's casual. Pop open a cold beer and ease into summer.
Yucatan Fish (Tikin Xic)
Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes, plus 45 minutes' marinating
Yield: 6 servings
1 medium red onion, thinly sliced
Salt and pepper
1 serrano pepper, sliced or chopped
Salt and pepper
1/2 cup orange juice
1/4 cup lime juice, more as needed
2 teaspoons achiote (annatto) powder, available in Latino and Indian markets
Pinch of cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
1/4 teaspoon chipotle chili
1/2 teaspoon cumin seed
1/2 teaspoon cloves
6 allspice berries
4 garlic cloves, smashed to a paste
1 3/4 pounds grouper or sea bass filet, skin on
Banana leaves, available in Latino and Asian markets, or use baking parchment or foil
2 ripe tomatoes, sliced into wedges
1. Make the pickled onions: Put onion in a bowl and season generously with salt and pepper. Add serrano, 3 tablespoons orange juice and 2 tablespoons lime juice, then mix well. Set aside for at least 15 minutes. Combine and reserve remaining citrus juice for marinade.
2. Make the marinade: Put achiote, cinnamon, oregano and chipotle in a small stainless steel or glass bowl. In a small dry skillet over medium heat, lightly toast cumin, cloves and allspice until fragrant, 1 minute or less. Grind toasted spices to a powder in a spice mill or mortar, then add to other spices. Add garlic, 1 large pinch salt and remaining citrus juice and stir to make a paste. If very thick, add more lime juice. (Note: achiote may stain surfaces or clothing.)
3. Season fish on both sides with salt and pepper. Using a sharp knife, score skin at thickest parts, if desired. Paint fish on both sides with marinade. Squeeze a little lime juice over fish. Chill for 45 minutes (or up to 2 hours).
4. Bring fish to room temperature and heat oven to 425 degrees. Cut banana leaves crosswise into foot-long lengths and soften by passing them briefly over a stovetop burner. Rinse leaves and pat dry. Lay a double thickness of leaves on a baking sheet and lay fish on it, skin side down.
Top fish with a large handful of pickled onions. Arrange tomato wedges over onions. Sprinkle with salt and a little more lime juice. Lay more leaves on top, then wrap like a package, tying with string or strips of leaf. Bake for 25 minutes, then remove and let package rest, unopened, for 15 minutes. Serve with remaining pickled onions.