Cooking Veracruz style
August 17, 2007
As a fan of Mexican food I’m always interested in learning about regional differences and peculiarities in the cuisine – like which chilies are most commonly used in Oaxaca or what kind of seeds are used to thicken a mole in Michoacan.
But there is one place in Mexico whose culinary identity depends on the confluence of different cultures: The city of Veracruz, located on the southeastern coast of the mainland in the Gulf of Mexico.
Founded in 1519 by Hernan Cortes of Spain, the port is regarded as the place where modern Mexican history began. Shortly after the arrival of the Spaniards came immigrants from Cuba and African slaves brought in to work the sugar plantations.
From a food standpoint, the Spanish brought a Mediterranean influence with olives, capers and tomatoes while the Cubans and Africans contributed more of a Caribbean note with peanuts, coconuts, plantains and rum.
Up until the 20th century and the advent of airplanes to move goods, Veracruz was the only significant point of entry from Europe. Even today 75 percent of port activity in Mexico takes place in Veracruz.
Typically, when you see “Veracruz” as a description on a menu it refers to some version of tomato sauce applied to some type of fish. In the recipe that follows we are using big shrimp but could just as easily use filets of firm white fish like snapper or Mahi Mahi.
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The thing to remember when using this recipe is to sear your shrimp or fish in a fairly hot pan then add the sauce and allow the seafood to finish cooking in the sauce.
It was the fresh rosemary along with pickled jalapeños that caught my eye when I first saw this recipe. You just don’t see this combination in other parts of Mexico. But it works and demonstrates how the different cultures came together and benefited from each other. Kind of like world peace, one dish at a time.
• Brian Shaw is the chef and owner of Cafe del Rio in Virginia City.
2 medium yellow onions, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, minced
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, minced
8 Calamata olives, chopped
8 green olives, chopped
2 tablespoons capers, rinsed and chopped
3 tablespoons pickled jalapenos, chopped
8 ounces dry white wine
1-28 ounce can diced tomatoes in juice, blended slightly
1 bay leaf
2 tablespoons of pickling juice from jalapenos
1 tablespoon of salt
2 pounds peeled and deveined prawns (16-20 size)
juice from one lime
4 tablespoons chopped cilantro
In a medium sauce pan sweat the onions and garlic over medium heat until translucent. Add the olives, rosemary, thyme, capes and chopped jalapenos. Cook for about two minutes. Add the white wine and cook for about 5 minutes to release the flavors – not to reduce. Add the tomatoes, pickling juice and bay leaf and simmer for another five minutes or so. Add the salt, stir and remove from heat. The sauce can be made up to this point and stored refrigerated for up to two days.
For service: heat a large saute pan to fairly hot. Add a little olive oil or clarified butter (enough to just cover the bottom of the pan) and allow to get hot. Add the prawns and saute over high heat until just pink. Add the sauce and return to simmer. Cook for about 3 or 4 minutes. Add the fresh lime juice and cilantro. Stir to combine. Taste for salt. Serve with steamed rice.