The Mexican Candidate

11 Jun

I’ve only been to Mexico once. I consider this a tragedy.


My year-of-cultzy-waitressing was done at a Mexican boite with a very good (and patient) chef. For some reason he put up with me, the waitress with the heart of a chef, and even encouraged my endless questions. Why that chile? What’s a huachinango? Where can I buy huitlacoche? Why is crema so delicious? How do you make chilaquilles?

When I re-joined the 9-to-5 world, I was singularly obsessed with trying to recreate the level of authenticity Chef brought to his meals. I could no longer afford to eat his cooking and most of the cheap Mexican joints I knew of were pretty unauthentic. I was on my own.

Old Ads

With a notebook chock full of the chef’s wisdom and a few old cookbooks I had found at the Strand I began my quest. Turns out, Mexican cuisine isn’t all that hard of a nut to crack. Just like our classic European cuisines, if your ingredients are ripe, fresh and delicious, dinner’s going to turn out alright about 99% of the time.

My Mexican food mania has waned a bit over the years (I blame Persia and Poland) but I still love a meal of mole verde and black beans probably more than any lowlander East Coaster probably has a right to.


And so it was a lovely coincidence that the Boy and I had near simultaneous guacamole cravings last week. I also wanted to cook up those Anasazi beans we’d carted back with us from Colorado, so all we needed was a main course.  We settled on Huachinango Veracruzano, aka Snapper in the style of Vera Cruz.

If you’ve never tasted this Mexican classic I implore you to run out tonight to your best neighborhood Mexican joint and try it. It’s snapper cooked in a Mexican version of the greatest sauce ever, Puttanesca. Capers flirt with chilies. Tomatoes mingle with limes. Olives cavort with cloves.

If someone sold jars of this stuff, I’d probably find myself standing at the fridge in the middle of the night eating it with a spoon. It’s that good.

Empire State Building

An intensive search through all my Mexican cookbooks led me to one recipe I deemed authentic enough for our needs. It comes from a very strange source, a book called The Mexican Stove: What To Put On It And In It by Richard Condon. Wait, Richard Condon… That name rings a bell… Didn’t he write, wait, The Manchurian Candidate? Oh yes, he did. And Prizzi’s Honor, and apparently, a Mexican cookbook. A very good one in fact!

The intro is very heavy handed, full of longing for the ’60s and anti-governmental propaganda, but if you can get past all the dystopic claptrap and millenialisit mumbo jumbo, this is a very solid cookbook, Bianca Jagger’s favorite Aztec pork pie included.

Huachinango Veracruzano, Smoky Anasazi Beans & Guacamole

If you make this, be sure to make some rice or have tortillas on hand to soak up the tart, salty sauce. If you can’t find snapper, you can substitute just about any other firm-fleshed white fish. Tilapia would be ideal.

The fish guy at Fairway talked me into trying Nile Perch. I wish he hadn’t. It was delicious, yes, but weighed too heavily on my conscience.

Richard Condon probably would find my uneasiness amusing and enlightened. He feared that Americans would be eating exclusively canned food by this time, and there I was, stressed because my fish wasn’t sustainable. Ah, how our fears have changed!

Head below the jump for the recipes for Huachinango Veracruzano and Smoky Anasazi Beans.

Huachinango Veracruzano

prep time: 3o minutes ~ cooking time: 1 hour

  • 1 1/2 lbs Red Snapper, Tilapia or similar
  • Lemon or Lime Juice
  • 1 Onion, chopped
  • 6 cloves Garlic, minced
  • 6 Roasted Red Peppers, cut into strips (rajas in Mexican cooking)
  • Olive Oil
  • 3 Serrano or Jalapeno chiles, finely minced
  • 1/4 c dry Vermouth
  • 1/4 c Sherry Vinegar
  • 2 cups Pasata or Tomato Purée
  • 15 pitted Green Olives (the very best Pimento-stuffed you can find)
  • 15 pitted Black Olives (the very best you can find, not the canned kind, please)
  • 2 tbsps Capers
  • 1/2 tbsp Mexican Oregano (dried is fine)
  • 1/8 tsp Ground Cinnamon
  • 1/8 tsp Ground Cloves
  • chopped Cilantro to taste
  • Salt & Pepper to taste

Wash the fish and place in a ziptop bag. Add enough lemon or lime juice to lightly coat the pieces. Refrigerate for half an hour.

Place a large pot over medium heat and add a glug of olive oil. Cook the onions, garlic and peppers until the onions just begin to turn golden.

Taste the chiles. Add as many of them as you think you can handle and then a wee bit more than that. We used all three Serranos.

Add the vermouth and vinegar and bring to a boil and allow to cook until just slightly reduced.

Add the tomatoes and the rest of the ingredients. Bring to a simmer and cook at least 20 minutes or up to an hour to allow all the flavors to blend, but not long enough for the sauce to lose some of it’s delectable tartness.

You can now either place the fish in an oven proof casserole and pour the sauce over and then bake in a medium oven for 20 minutes, or you can burrow the fish into your pot, making sure all pieces are covered in sauce, to cook on the stovetop for 20 minutes.

Whichever method you chose, serve the fish with rice and tortillas, guacamole, beans and a nice fruity Gewürtztraminer. This keeps marvelously as leftovers. Enjoy!

Smoky Anasazi Beans

prep time: 10 minutes ~ cooking time: 2 1/2 hours ~ soaking time: 6-8 hours

  • 2 c Anasazi Beans, rinsed, picked over and soaked 6-8 hours
  • 4 cloves Garlic, finely minced
  • 2 dried Pasilla chiles, cut into pieces
  • Salt
  • 4-6 Scallions or Green Onions, white parts chopped
  • 1 tsp Pimenton de la Vera
  • Panela Cheese, grated

Pour the soaked beans with their soaking water plus enough fresh water to cover by 1 inch into a pot and place over high heat. Bring to a boil, reduce to the barest simmer, cover and allow to cook 1 hour.

Add more water if the beans soak it all up. Do this as often as necessary.

After one hour add the garlic and the chiles and allow to cook another hour. Add a good pinch of salt and allow the beans to cook another 20 or so minutes or until they are nice and mushy. Drain them if necessary. Return to the pot, add the green onions and the Pimenton. Stir to incorporate.

To serve: Portion out the beans, top each with a little mound of cheese. Enjoy!


14 Responses to “The Mexican Candidate”

  1. Meg Fortino June 11, 2007 at 11:06 am #

    I made Snapper Veracruz a few years ago with a few necessary variations.

    I used shark because the snapper I had ordered did not arrive in good enough condition for my fishmonger to even *give* it to me! I marinated the shark and then we grilled it, and served the wonderful sauce with it.

    It was a meal I will long remember, one I continue to crave, and one I continue to make. (I make the sauce on the weekend, and then reheat it during the week when we grill the fish.)

    I’ve used amberjack (a bit rich and patently not a light white fish), snapper, halibut, mahi mahi — anything white and lovely. It’s always a wonderful meal. I serve it with rice and nice lettuce and tomato salad (topped with mayonnaise mixed with lime juice, and a few toasted pepitas).

  2. Mary June 11, 2007 at 1:34 pm #

    I’ve been having guacamole cravings and planning some sort of Mexican food night with my brother for the last several days. He’s returning from a fishing trip tonight and we are for sure going to make this tomorrow. I can’t wait. I love the smoky beans idea and I also love the previous commenter’s idea of making the sauce ahead of time.

  3. Toni June 11, 2007 at 11:28 pm #

    This looks absolutely fabulous! I think I’m going to use this sauce with some shrimp, since they’re on sale this week. This sauce has all the things I love in one place – I can understand why you might just want to eat it with a spoon!!!

  4. Lydia June 12, 2007 at 6:14 am #

    Wonderful recipes! I love fish cooked in this way. I’ve never had Nile perch, but some delicious local cod would be a good choice for us New Englanders, I think.

  5. ann June 12, 2007 at 6:56 am #

    Meg — What great ideas! Grilled shark sounds simply dreamy, especially when cloaked in Vera Cruz sauce. Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing!

    Mary — Maybe he’ll return bearing fish! Or at least some good fish tales?

    Toni — This would be so good with shrimp.

    Lydia — Don’t bother with the nile perch… It was alright, but cod is a. closer, and b. probably even less ethically fraught than cod, which is saying something. And, to top it all off, cod is way taster.

  6. Susan in Italy June 12, 2007 at 7:07 am #

    I love the NYC shots mingled with the Mexican cooking narrative. Makes me think of the New New York – Pan-Latin, way more Mexicans than 10 years ago. There must be some good restaurants popping up nowadays. And how bizarre that the author of The Manchurian Candidate turns out to be a consummate Mexican chef. All the better, I guess.

  7. Amanda June 12, 2007 at 2:48 pm #

    Oh, yum!! Yeah, you can definitely find the good ingredients in the city – it’s just that few restaurants really seem to use them!

    One restaurant that seems to get it right is that place Pequena in Brooklyn. You been there? I used to think my friend was saying “Que Pena”! I was like, why is the restaurant called “too bad”?!? Anyway, they have really excellent food. Yummy sangria also, even though that’s totally not mexican. But who cares? ;)

  8. Christina June 12, 2007 at 5:35 pm #

    You are completely turned to the beanist-side now, I can tell. Great fish recipe–I love the combination of the spices and the olives.

    I can’t seem to find an email address for you anywhere to arrange the mailing of the Christmas limas. So, here is mine: niezcka at gmail dot com. I look forward to sending them off to you because I think you’re going to love them.

    Happy day!

  9. Terry B June 13, 2007 at 12:03 am #

    Another cool post that generates a couple of thoughts, Ann. First, a question: Doesn’t the lemon juice sort of “cook” the fish, as in a seviche treatment? Does that matter?

    And second, your comparison of Richard Condon’s concerns about people eating only canned foods by now and you worrying about the sustainability of your food brings to mind a recent New York Times profile of Ruby Payne, who does seminars on class differences for educators. Here’s an example she gave about food: “The key question about food in poverty: Did you have enough? In the middle class: Did you like it? In wealth: Was it presented well?” And here I am, eating and thinking above my pay grade.

  10. ann June 13, 2007 at 7:47 am #

    Susan — There’s so many really good Mexican restaurants now. Back 6 years ago when I was really really poor, you had to hunt for them, but these days, they’re everywhere. It’s wonderful!

    Amanda — That’s hilarious about the name of the restaurant! I’ve never heard of it before, but I will definitely be looking it up now.

    Christina — You’re on, I’ll email you today. Did you decide what you’d like from NYC?

    TerryB — Yeah, I thought the lemon-soaking step was odd, too, but every recipe, even the rather inauthentic ones included it. I think it might have something to do with texture. The time isn’t long enough to ceviche-size thick slices of fish.

    I’ll have to find that article. Fascinating stuff.

  11. Julie June 13, 2007 at 11:54 am #

    I’m surprised to hear that there aren’t authentic Mexican restaurants in your neck of the woods. I would think Mexican food would be well represented in NY. Baltimore has lots of little hole-in-the-wall places where my lack of Spanish and everyone else’s lack of English are often a frustration for me.

    Anyway, I love Mexican food and I’ve often seen recipes for fish in the Vera Cruz style and always thought they looked good but have never made one. Now that I’m reading this, I’m wondering why I haven’t.

    I particularly like that picture of the building with the signs painted on it. I always find that a fascinating remnant of the past.

  12. ann June 14, 2007 at 8:11 am #

    HI Julie! — I love old building with advertisements on them too, obviously. I love to stare at them and imagine what the building was like inside when all the businesses were still active. Did you ever read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay? There’s a wonderful description of the building where the boys get their start that fits exactly with the building in my imagination. I love it.

    As to Mexican food… Back 5 years ago or so finding really good authentic Mexican in the city meant a bit of a slog uptown or to Brooklyn, and even then you had to speak some Spanish to get the good stuff. I could find it, but it took a lot of effort. It’s much easier these days when the comidas authentico are taking advantage of the vogue for Mexican food and flaunting it. I am, at heart, a bit lazy sometimes!

  13. wellunderstood June 15, 2007 at 11:37 am #

    this recipe looks perfect for a late-evening summer supper. just stumbled onto your blog and will be making return trips!

  14. ann June 17, 2007 at 9:11 pm #

    Wellunderstood — thanks for the kind words. Your blog is nice too!

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