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On the trip to Malta that I wrote about last week, we spent one day on Gozo, the country’s second largest island. More rural than the eponymous main island, Gozo has its own full share of marvels, from megalithic to medieval, as well as lovely rolling hills and excellent traditional food. A highlight of the day for Tom and me was lunch made by the noted Gozo chef George Borg – a lunch made not just for us but partly by us.

This was a fun occasion as well as a delicious one. George is a delightful man and a very talented chef, passionate about Maltese culinary traditions, as well as about wine. When we arrived at his studio kitchen, he had work stations and aprons set out for us; and he started us right off at helping to prepare the antipasto course: his own Gozo-style ftira.
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Now, the ftira we had in Valletta, as I showed last week, was on a thick base of bread, hence fairly heavy for an antipasto. George’s version lightens it by using flaky butter pastry. We were intrigued. The topping we made that day was potatoes, onions, tomatoes, olives, capers, garlic, and anchovies. I thinly sliced potatoes, Tom halved grape tomatoes, and George did the rest.

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While the ftira was baking, we moved on to preparing the next course, which was to be stuffed baked pasta shells. For the filling I mashed several little cheeselets – Malta’s ubiquitous fresh sheep cheese – with grated pecorino, chopped parsley, and black pepper.

Then, in the the most unusual way of treating pasta I’ve ever encountered, George gave Tom and me each a pastry tube filled with the cheese mixture and a pile of pasta shells to be filled with it – raw shells.

 

Once stuffed, the shells went into gratin dishes. George poured on milk to come half way up the pasta, sprinkled the dishes generously with grated pecorino, and put them in the oven to bake with the ftira.

 

Next, George brought out the fish that was to be our main course: fillets of lampuki. This autumn-season specialty is Malta’s favorite fish. Elsewhere, it’s called dorado, dolphin fish, or mahi mahi. But the ones caught here are nothing like the huge, bull-headed, pastel-hued creatures we in the US know as mahi mahi. The lampuki we saw in Malta’s fish markets were small, slender, silvery, white-fleshed fish, with no scales.

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The fillets George cut up were no more than a foot long. He said this was the end of the lampukis’ season, and that was as big as they ever got. To give us an authentic Gozo experience, he cooked them in one of the favorite local ways: just floured, shallow-fried, and served with a tomato sauce.

George’s sauce was based on his own sundried purée of tomatoes. (That is, not a purée of sundried tomatoes but a fresh tomato sauce that he’d made, spread out on trays, and left to thicken in the sunshine – much the way it’s done in Sicily.) He stirred salt, sugar, and capers into the purée, then softened chopped garlic in olive oil in a skillet, added the seasoned puree and a good slosh of water, and set it on the stove to simmer.

 

At last we sat to lunch. Our host had opened two local wines for us to choose from: a Vermentino and a Sangiovese. Naturally we tried both! They were very good. Tom has a blog post on Maltese wines that says more about these two.

 

The ftira was delicious – and quite light, thanks to the crisp, buttery flaky crust. It was hard to resist gobbling it all down, but we knew how much more there was to come.

 

Next came the baked stuffed pasta. The parts of the shells that had been in the milk were soft and fully cooked, while their top edges were firm, brown and crunchy. The milk itself had thickened into a lightly cheese-flavored cream. The mix of textures was a bit disconcerting to us – not the way we’re used to dealing with pasta. It tasted fine, but we still haven’t gotten past our sense of its oddness.

 

 

The lampuki was lovely in its simplicity – quite delicate but very flavorful – and the rich tomato sauce made an ideal complement. We relished every bite of the sweet, firm flesh, whose richness was nicely counterpointed by the acidity and brightness of the sauce.

 

George was eager to give us dessert, but after all those good dishes we couldn’t eat another thing. Tiny cups of espresso and glasses of an excellent grappa made a perfect conclusion to this wonderful meal. As we departed, with compliments on all sides, George gave us a copy of one of his cookbooks. I’m very much looking forward to trying some of his recipes!

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I’m just back from a vacation that included four days of exploring Malta. The Maltese islands – mere dots in the Mediterranean between Sicily and Africa – are truly fascinating. Cliffs, caves, and grottoes, Baroque palaces, medieval fortresses, 5,000-year-old megalithic temples, some the oldest stone structures in the world; and on top of all that, interesting, unusual food.

For example, here Tom and I are having a midmorning snack of pastizzi, a popular Maltese pastry resembling Neapolitan sfogliatelle but with savory fillings, usually fresh ricotta or (a relic of British rule?) mushy peas.

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Not surprisingly in an island culture, fish of all kinds were abundant and delicious. The seafood we had at two restaurants, Palazzo Preca in Valletta and Tartarun in Marsaxlokk, was all exceptionally fresh and fine.

We tried both restaurants’ versions of aljotta, Malta’s signature fish soup. Often described (unfairly, in our opinion) as an adaptation of bouillabaisse, this is a rich, dense fish broth harboring small pieces of several kinds of fish, served with fresh lemon for squeezing and crusty bread for dunking.

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Another appetizer was described on its menu as “local octopus, lemon confit, lardo, 10YO condimento, crispy quinoa, olive & mint.” (Condimento, I learned, is a prestigious kind of balsamic vinegar, this one being 10 years old.) The combination was lovely to look at and luscious to eat.

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Our main courses of seafood were equally good:

An enormous mixed fry of various fishes, squid, shrimp, and octopus

Giant prawns sautéed in garlic, white wine, and tomato, served on a bed of rice

A sauté of mussels and four kinds of clams: razor, surf, vongole veraci, and praires

The best, freshest, sweetest, grilled squid Tom has eaten in a lifetime of consuming squid at every opportunity

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We also explored non-seafood dishes, at both a lunch and a dinner at a Valletta restaurant called Nenu the Artisan Baker. It serves only traditional Maltese foods, with locally produced ingredients. Our lunch was two kinds of ftira, the Maltese equivalent of pizza. It consists of a fairly thick base of bread dough with various toppings, baked in a wood oven.

This one is called karmni s-sultana: potatoes, tomatoes, anchovies, onions, caper berries, olives, mint, and fennel seeds.

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And this one is ta’ Nenu: sundried tomatoes, black olives, peppered Maltese goat cheese, onions, Maltese sausages, capers, and thyme.

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These were hefty items, which we couldn’t possibly finish, much less go on to eat anything else for that lunch. The rest of the menu was so interesting, we decided to come back that evening for dinner. We quickly discovered that everything Nenu serves is hefty. Our appetizers would easily have done for main courses.

Here’s fwied tal-fenek: rabbit liver in a sauce of onions, garlic, prunes, anisette, and cream.

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And zalzett malti: Maltese sausage in a spicy tomato sauce with peas.

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Our affable waiter jokingly counseled us not to dip too much of the good crusty bread – the Maltese are rightly proud of their bread – in the sauces, because of the dishes yet to come. And right he was.

Here’s Tom’s kirxa, a curried tripe stew, which was served with pan-fried potatoes and garlic bread. It had several kinds of tripe, not just honeycomb, and a delicious but unusual set of curry spices that we couldn’t identify.

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And here’s my fenek moqli, described as rabbit marinated in garlic and red wine, fried in olive oil, and served in its own juices. (I’d have called it braised, though I later learned that “fried” in Malta can mean either deep-fried or sauteed.) It came with roasted potatoes and steamed vegetables.

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Our waiter delicately informed me that Maltese people eat rabbit with their fingers, because of the many small bones to be navigated around. I believe I became an honorary Maltese citizen that evening, because I ate my rabbit with my fingers too.

With that gargantuan repast, I’ll conclude this post. We had one more, very special, meal in Malta, which deserves a separate post of its own.

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In every book of Martin Walker’s “Mystery of the French Countryside” series, police chief Bruno Courrèges finds time between pursuing criminals and preserving the peace in his Périgord village to make fabulous meals for his friends. When Bruno cooks, readers are right there in the kitchen with him, and for enthusiastic home cooks, the urge to step in and help out is almost irresistible.

A dinner Bruno makes in The Templars’ Last Secret did prove irresistible for Tom, our friend Hope, and me this week. Being all Bruno devotees, we were intrigued by this very unusual menu of his and decided to try making it for ourselves:

Venison Pâté with Haitian Epice
Fish Soup
Blanquette de Veau with Rice
Salad and Cheese
Wine-Poached Pears with Ice Cream

Of course we couldn’t reproduce that meal exactly: Much of what Bruno eats he grows or gathers for himself, or else buys from artisans at his village’s outdoor market. But we came as close as we could.

 

Venison Pâté with Haitian Epice

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Bruno wasn’t originally planning to have this course, but one of his guests, a young Haitian woman from the Ministry of Justice, brings him a jar of épice, her mother’s version of Haiti’s all-purpose spicy green sauce. Bruno opens a can of his homemade venison pâté so everyone can taste Amélie’s gift with it.

We couldn’t find a venison pâté, so we substituted a rabbit terrine and created our own épice with guidance from recipes on the Web. It was very easy to make. We simply pureed small amounts of green and red Bell peppers, two hot Serrano peppers, a tiny red onion, scallions, garlic cloves, lots of parsley, and a little basil in the food processor.

It was a lively sauce, tasting bright and intensely vegetal at first, with a sneaky zing of heat just as you were swallowing. It gave a nice lift to the lushness of the terrine. We could even have taken it a bit hotter – maybe try a Scotch bonnet pepper next time. With this appetizer Bruno served a sparkling Bergerac rosé wine. We drank an Alsace crémant, a regional transgression that nevertheless worked quite nicely.

 

Fish Soup

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One way to tell this must be a Périgord recipe is that it starts by cooking diced potatoes and crushed garlic in a casserole with duck fat. Fish soup made with duck fat! – totally new to us. Fortunately, I had duck fat in the refrigerator, so we were off to an authentic start. Continuing to do as Bruno did but guessing on quantities, most of which aren’t given in the story, we then added cubes of fresh cod, chopped canned tomatoes, stock that we’d made from shrimp shells, and a glass of white Bergerac. All that simmered along until the fish was done, when we adjusted the salt, poured in another glass of the wine, stirred in chopped parsley, and served.

It was unexpectedly rich and hearty for a thin-bodied soup made so simply from cod. We could just detect an undertone of the shrimp-shell stock’s flavor. The wine also made a definite contribution. We were lucky to have found that bottle of Bergerac. It’s uncommon here and was very distinctive: slightly herbal-spicy and only barely not sweet. But there was something more unusual in the soup’s flavor that we struggled to identify. Finally we remembered: the duck fat! It gave the soup an almost meaty essence. We three liked it as much as Bruno’s guests did. And we, like them, happily drank white Bergerac with it.

 

Blanquette de Veau

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Even at first reading, we were each struck by the oddity of serving a soup and a stew at the same meal. We were still dubious about it after deciding to make the full menu, but we put our trust in Bruno and went ahead.

To save some work on the cooking afternoon – and since stews are always better the second day – Hope undertook to prepare the blanquette herself on the preceding day and bring the finished dish to us. This entailed simmering two pounds of cut-up veal with aromatic vegetables, separately sauteeing a pound each of shallots and mushrooms in butter, thickening the veal cooking liquid, and stirring in the veal, shallots, mushrooms, and much heavy cream.

The blanquette was luscious, especially since Hope had used shiitake for half the mushrooms, instead of all small whites. The sauce had perversely not thickened quite as much as it should have, but it made a delicious dipping medium for crusty bread, as well as a sauce for the rice. With this course, Bruno served Pécharmant, a light red Bergerac wine made in Bordeaux-blend style. We had a modest Bordeaux wine of the same grape blend.

 

The Missing Salad and Cheese

We know Bruno intended to have salad and cheese at this meal. Before the guests arrive, he picks and washes salad greens from his garden and takes cheese out of his refrigerator. But that’s the last they’re heard of. As the dinner progresses, Bruno offers second helpings of the blanquette, and in the next paragraph he brings in the dessert. Well, even Homer nods. We had our salad and cheese, but to honor Bruno’s omission, I didn’t take a photo of them.

 

Wine-Poached Pears with Ice Cream

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Bruno poaches his pears in red wine to cover, with cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and half a glass of his own vin de noix. We did the same except for the walnut liqueur, which is unattainable here. Also, Bruno seems to have left his pears whole, but we halved and cored ours first, because they’re so much easier to both cook (less wine, less time) and eat (no maneuvering around the cores) that way. We did, however, follow his manner of serving them, with a splash of sparkling wine and a scoop of excellent vanilla ice cream in each bowl. To make up for the absence of vin de noix, we awarded ourselves glasses of Bruno’s favorite dessert wine, Monbazillac.

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We three thoroughly enjoyed each part of this meal, as well as the making of it. But, for all our admiration of Bruno and his creator, we can’t commend the dinner as a whole. For us, the sequence of soup and stew didn’t work. The two dishes were too similar in color, texture, and general character for the palatal contrasts that are part of the pleasure of a truly great meal. Just too much of the same thing – especially with the richness of the duck fat, cream, and butter. We’d had greater success with the harmony of a previous Bruno feast we’d tried.

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Culinary serendipity takes many forms, not the least of which is sparking ideas for using small amounts of leftovers. On a recent day, my refrigerator and freezer produced a 7-ounce raw filet of John Dory, 3 ounces of raw shrimp, and 4 ounces of mushrooms.

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With an open container of heavy cream also available, inspiration for dinner was easy: something classically French. Julia Child to the rescue, with her poached fish recipes in the first volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. From the book’s five major recipes, five variations, and five suggested shellfish garnitures, I chose almost the simplest, Filets de Poisson Bercy aux Champignons.

Scaling down the recipe to serve two instead of six required some adjustments. I also took a few shortcuts for further simplicity, hoping that Julia wouldn’t disapprove. For example, the shrimp for the garnish were to be first boiled for five minutes in a stock made from wine, water, onion, carrot, celery, parsley, bay leaf, thyme, tarragon, and peppercorns; then tossed in a pan with butter, seasonings, and wine.

I couldn’t see doing all that for my eight little shrimp. I just boiled them for two minutes in salted water, then sauteed them briefly in butter with minced shallots and thyme. I sliced the mushrooms and also sauteed them in butter for a few minutes.

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The fish filet was to be poached in a 350° oven. I strewed minced shallots in a shallow baking dish; laid in the fish filet topped with salt, pepper, and more shallots; poured in enough wine and water to cover the filet; and dotted butter over all.

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Now I was supposed to bring the dish to a simmer on top of the stove before covering it with a sheet of buttered wax paper and putting it in the oven. But I couldn’t: my only baking dish small enough not to surround the filet with too much liquid couldn’t take a direct flame. So the poaching took quite a bit longer than the recipe expected. I worried a bit, but gentle cooking rarely harms a fish, and eventually a fork could pierce the flesh easily, which meant the fish was done.

At that point I realized I had another problem. The poaching instructions that I’d followed had been in a separate master recipe, which didn’t have mushrooms. When I returned to my Bercy recipe, I saw that I ought to have included the mushrooms in the poaching. Oops! Oh, well – it was a pity that my mushrooms couldn’t exchange flavors with the poaching liquid, but they’d just have to join the dish later.

I gently removed the fish to a plate, poured its liquid into a small pot, and boiled it down to about half a cup’s worth. I stirred in a flour-and-butter paste and then heavy cream. Brought the sauce to a boil, seasoned it with salt, pepper, and lemon juice, and folded in the shrimps and mushrooms.

Back into its baking dish went the fish filet, and all the sauce and garnishes over and around it. The recipe also called for more dots of butter, but since the dish had already received almost a stick of butter and half a cup of cream (!), I decided to skip that.
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All this was done in the afternoon. In the evening I sprinkled grated parmigiano (instead of gruyere) over the fish in its sauce and reheated the dish under the broiler. Again, because I couldn’t first reheat it on top of the stove, it took a longer time in the broiler – about 10 minutes to warm it through. It hadn’t browned as much as it should, but I was afraid to overcook the fish, so I took it out and served it.
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It was wonderful – even after my shortcuts and alterations. The John Dory was excellent, as always. The mushrooms had – amazingly, given their short time in the sauce – absorbed all the goodness of fish, shrimp, and cream. The sauce itself was silk and velvet on the tongue, and it tasted like the sweet-salt soul of the sea.

Being something of a partisan of Italian cooking approaches, I hardly ever make classic French dishes any more, but this one reminded me of what I’d been missing. Maybe it’s time to revisit them occasionally.
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Incidentally, Beloved Spouse poured a relatively simple white Burgundy with this dish – a Côte de Nuits Villages – and the combination was delightful.

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Tom and I are back from the birding trip to Costa Rica that I mentioned in my last post. Our very modest expectations for its gastronomical aspects were right on target: The food was fresh and flavorful, but there was a very narrow range of both ingredients and preparations.

Unexpectedly, breakfast was the meal we most enjoyed. At home, our breakfasts tend to be minimal (except on Sundays), but after arising at 5 am to spend the first hours of daylight out looking at birds, the prospect of coming in to a hearty breakfast is mighty attractive. As I said last week, the rice-and-bean dish called gallo pinto is an inescapable part of a Costa Rican breakfast. Here are a few that we had:

Gallo pinto, scrambled eggs, potato cakes, sausages

Gallo pinto, scrambled eggs, potato cakes, sausages

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Fried eggs, gallo pinto, plantains, ham & cheese sandwich, potato cake

Fried eggs, gallo pinto, plantains, ham & cheese sandwich, potato cake

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Gallo pinto, scrambled eggs, bananas, beef with mushrooms

Gallo pinto, scrambled eggs, bananas, beef with mushrooms

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For lunches on the road in rustic country restaurants, we always received casado, the archetypical Costa Rican mixed plate of rice, beans, plantains, and another vegetable or salad, surrounding a piece of protein – usually a choice of fish or chicken. The fish was often trout, sometimes tilapia, both of which are extensively farmed in the fast-running streams of the rain forests. Chicken seems to be the de facto national bird of Costa Rica (which, officially, is the clay-colored thrush). Though it was always good, I came to believe that most Costa Rican chickens were born legless – a disappointment to this dark-meat fancier. Dinners at the lodges where our birding group stayed were buffet-style, with only minor day-to-day variations on the same or similar food choices. (Tom has made me swear not to serve him chicken for at least the next month.) Some examples:

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Trout, beans, rice, plantains, cabocha squash, salad

Trout, beans, rice, plantains, cabocha squash, salad

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Tilapia, rice, beans, plantain, cabocha squash, salad

Tilapia, rice, beans, plantain, cabocha squash, salad

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Chicken berast, plantains, rice, beans, tomatoes, vegetable frittata, tortilla

Chicken breast, plantains, rice, beans, tomato salad, vegetable frittata, arepa

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So, all in all, the food on our trip was sustaining rather than exciting. But exciting the birding definitely was. In one week we saw nearly 200 species, including quetzals, trogons, motmots, toucans, parrots, aracaris, oropendolas, cotingas, manakins, honeycreepers, flower-piercers, and 23 different kinds of hummingbirds. Here we are at the end of an aerial tram ride through the rain forest. Quite a change from our usual urban life!

Aerial tram 1

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Filet of John Dory

“John Dory” is an odd name for a kind of fish, and the John Dory is an odd-looking kind of fish. Even its scientific name is odd: Zeus faber, a Greek god with a Latin attribute that means maker or artisan.

John Dory drawing

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In other languages, it’s named for the patron saint of fishermen: Saint Pierre, San Pietro, San Pedro. That black spot on its side in the image (which is from Alan Davidson’s book Mediterranean Seafood) is supposedly the saint’s thumbprint. A medium-sized, vertically flattened, slow-swimming predator, it has sharp spines for protection, eyes set well forward for binocular vision, and a protrusible jaw for ingesting its snuck-up-upon prey.

It’s also a delicious fish. A perfectly grilled whole San Pedro – beautifully fresh, pulled out of the Mediterranean that morning – that a restaurant in Barcelona served to Tom and me three years ago still lives on my mind’s palate, as well as in my vacation photo files.

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IMG_3419b

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I’ve never seen a whole John Dory, with its huge head still on, for sale in this country, but on the rare occasions when filets are available in my fish market I always snatch some. The flesh is very fine grained and the skin smooth and shiny.

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two filets

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A few of my cookbooks have recipes featuring John Dory, but I find them all overelaborate. For me, John Dory is so rich-tasting and so distinctive that smothering it with vegetables and cream sauces, herbs and spices, is too much gilding of the lily. A sprinkling of salt, a dusting of flour, and a gentle sauté in butter are all that are needed to bring up its own pure goodness.

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in the pan

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The most I ever do in addition is, occasionally, deglaze the sauté pan with a splash of white wine or white vermouth and pour that over the plated filets. Believe me, that is paradise enow.

By and large, I believe that the best way to cook any fish is as simply as possible. I want to preserve the integrity, intensity, and delicacy that are the natural characteristics of prime, fresh fish. Of all the various sea creatures that we humans consume, none rewards simplicity more than the exuberantly shaped, insidiously delicious John Dory.

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fish plated

 

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I’m just back from my birding trip in the Yucatan and haven’t started serious cooking yet. So this week I’ll write about some of the good things I ate there.

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One dish I was particularly looking for was pollo en escabeche, to see how the recipe I’d tried here, just before the trip, would compare. I found this Valladolid specialty in a restaurant in that city. It looked nothing like the one I’d made, and it tasted much, much better than mine.

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The chicken had been cut in strips after its poaching, spice rub, and sautéeing. There were large chunks of sweet onion, strips of pink pickled onion, and one whole large yellow chile xcatique, which was much hotter than the little yellow peppers I’d used. The broth was dark brown, full-flavored, and lightly speckled from the spice paste, with only a hint of the vinegar that had been so strong in mine. I have to admit that mine was only a crude approximation of the real thing. I don’t know whether to blame my recipe, my ingredients, or myself.

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On Thanksgiving Day I had turkey for dinner, semi-traditionalist that I am. Pavo en negro was a far cry, however, from the familiar North American holiday bird. The turkey may have been originally roasted, but then it was shredded and served in a black sauce along with a slice of (also perhaps-roasted) pork loin and a halved hard-boiled egg. From the name I was expecting the sauce to be a thick mole, but it wasn’t. As I’ve since learned from Rick Bayless’s book Authentic Mexican, it’s a Yucatan specialty based on a paste made from chiles burnt black, ground achiote seeds, Mexican oregano, black pepper, cloves, cumin, garlic, and vinegar.

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For all that assertive spicing and almost shocking appearance, the dish was remarkably subtle, and the smooth, flavorful sauce seemed to get even better as it cooled. I wiped up every last bit of it with fresh tortillas.

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One evening Tom and I shared a first course of papadzules. This Yucatan specialty consists of fresh tortillas moistened with a sauce of pumpkin seeds, rolled around a filling of crumbled hard-boiled eggs, and topped with a tomato sauce with a touch of habanero chile. In The Cuisines of Mexico, Diana Kennedy calls it one of the most beautiful of Mexican dishes. Mine, eaten in a very simple restaurant in the town of Felipe Carrillo Puerto, was not very impressive to look at but was surprisingly delicious.

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That same restaurant gave me another excellent dish: pollo en pibil. Pibil is the word for the Yucatan style of pit barbecuing, though the same effect can be achieved on an indoor stove. My chicken had been marinated in bitter orange juice and spices including achiote (which gives it a rich golden-red color), then wrapped in banana leaves and steamed. It was among the best-flavored chicken preparations in this passionate chicken lover’s memory.

pibil

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Just one anticipated culinary pleasure was denied me. I’d been hoping for pulpo – octopus. Just about every menu listed it, but not a single place had any. We were told it was because of high winds following a cold front (from the same storm that caused so much trouble in the Midwest last week), which made it impossible for the fishing boats to bring in any octopi. As a consolation, for dinner on my last night, in Cozumel, I had a combinación de mariscos: grilled shrimp, lobster, and fish, all totally fresh and delicious. Not a bad way to end a trip.

mariscos 1

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Here are a few of the other dishes that we ate. Clockwise from upper right, gambas a la plancha, pescado a la veracruzana, cocteil de concha, huevos rancheros, tacos de pescado, menestra.

yucatan dishes-01

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