Cooking Class at Molika: Pesce in crosta di sale

I’m privileged to have a terrific group of lady friends who like to cook, and we get together to learn and to teach one another once a month or so. In addition to our Thai cooking classes, we’ve made timballo (Italian “drum” with pasta and eggplant), tortas ahogadas, rajas, chicken mole, macarones, and lemon cake, among some other wonderful things.

Well, my friend Magda got the wonderful idea to book us a series of classes with Héctor at Molika, downtown on Belisario Dominguez near the Plazuela. While I’ve known Héctor for several years — he’s a GREAT bread baker (sourdough and ciabatta plus other good loaves) and I am in love with his grilled vegetables (which we also frequently make at home) — I discovered that he also truly shines as a teacher!

He is funny, charismatic, and I LOVE that he teaches METHODS rather than recipes! In one two-hour class on cooking fish, he demonstrated SIX different methods of preparing the fish we commonly have available here in Mazatlán. For me who learned to cook fish while living in Japan, I learned a lot. For example, he taught us to cut off the fins (see video above) before cooking the fish (you’ll know that most Asians LOVE the crispy fins and would never think of removing them before cooking), saying that the fins have too strong a flavor.

My favorite? Well, by now you know me. I love something different, and especially something impressive. And Héctor delivered: Pesce in crosta di sale, or fish in a “tomb” of salt. I’ve eaten many fish baked in salt crust before, but nothing quite like this!

Rather than just salt with aromatics, Héctor made a salt dough with the 2 salt : 1 flour, eggs, fresh herbs and a bit of water.

He kneaded it (see video above),

Rolled it out,

Pressed two pieces (top and bottom) to the form of the corvina, sealing the dough with beaten egg, decorated it a bit,

Trimmed it to shape (video above), and then baked it for 45 minutes.

The fish of course turned out incredibly moist, aromatic and flavorful. He said he prefers to use robalo rather than corvina, but I was plenty happy with this.

He suggested that we cut the rock-hard crust in the kitchen (you can see above that’s pretty challenging), then take the encrusted fish to the table, where we open it in front of our guests. That way the room fills with the wonderfully aromatic scents.

Finally, unlike Japan where everyone knows how to eat fish on the bone, Héctor suggested we remove the flesh from the fish in front of our guests, serving it up on plates. He removed and discarded the skin, saying that baked/steamed fish skin doesn’t taste good. I can hear the shocked gasps of my Asian friends now, but it was nice for me to learn a more European approach. I will definitely give this gorgeous dish a try. I must admit that I preferred the taste of several of the other dishes he prepared! This one was just a presentational stunner, like my timballo (thanks, Allison, for teaching me!).

We made pescado en papillote, fish steamed in paper. We stuffed the fish with aromatics: lemon peel, garlic and fresh herbs (basil, parsley, rosemary, thyme), then garnished with sliced fresh celery, onion and carrot. It was interesting to me, again with my Asian influence, that Héctor taught us to peel the celery, removing the fibers. Definitely a finer dining touch than I’m used to.

Above you can see Héctor opening the papillón.

A third dish we made in this two-hour class was the dish I swore every single Japanese restaurant serves: sole meuniere (lenguado). Many of the ladies were very happy to have Héctor teach them how to filet. Cleaning and preparing fish is fortunately one of the many skills I learned well in Japan. One of the key points he pointed out is to filet fish when it’s cold, fresh from the icebox. That way it’s much firmer and easier to handle.

Héctor studied and cooked in London before returning to his native Mazatlán, and he uses lots of olive oil and sea salt, as you’ve already seen (way more than I’m used to, though I will start putting a bit more olive oil on for taste at the end), and for this dish he used a whole lot of butter as well. Nobody said good cooking isn’t fattening! He did caution us to check the ingredients on the butter we buy, as ideally it should be made from milk, and not contain emulifiers and a bunch of chemicals. I do think that’s part of the baking challenge I’ve had since I moved here — gotta buy better butter.

And here we have the finished lenguado/sole, covered with sauce from the pan and garnished with a bit of parsley.

I had been craving salmon and asparagus, and just that morning bought both to make for lunch, so was fascinated to see Héctor make this as part of our repertoire for the day. He of course used clarified butter as it withstands higher heat, to get the nice crispiness on the salmon. Note: he removed the skin before cooking. I guess this is also either a European way or alta cocina, because personally I love the crispy skin. I was sooooo gratified to see him cook it the way I feel it should be. Héctor told us that salmon, tuna and swordfish should always be left rare in the center, and I heartily agree. People here in Mazatlán always seem to overcook fish.

The fifth dish he made was swordfish. He cubed the fish, sauteed it with fresh herbs, cherry tomatoes, capers and olives. In addition to the lemon (yellow lemon) rind he added to most all these dishes, he also added a bit of lemon pulp. This concoction he poured over his famously to-die-for ciabatta, and oh my!!!! The bread somehow soaked up and enhanced the lemon flavor of the sauce, and it was soooooo delicious!

I’ve left my favorite dish for last. Fortunately, it was also probably the easiest to cook: pescado en la bolsa, fish in a bag. He used the same ingredients as most of the other dishes — fresh herbs, cherry tomatoes, olives, capers, sea salt, extra virgin olive oil. The wonderful part, besides the incredible taste?

He put all the ingredients in a ziploc bag and cooked it in near-boiling water on the stove! It took just a few minutes and there was nothing except the serving dish to clean up! My son is in Scouts, and they cook just like this on their campouts. Maybe not quite the gourmet ingredients as this, but still very tasty nonetheless.

Thank you, Magda, for setting this up for us! Thank you, Héctor, for a marvelous class! We are very much looking forward to our next one.

Anyone wanting to arrange a class for a group of friends, please give Molika a call: 669-981-1577. Héctor’s English and Spanish are flawless, and his kitchen skills are a gift to Mazatlán.

La Frasca/Shrimping in the Estuary

We had a FANTASTIC afternoon and evening learning about shrimping with a cast net/atarraya in the estuaries of Agua Verde, which is between Caimanero and El Rosario. We returned home with heartfelt smiles, new friends, 5 kilos of huge fresh shrimp (for which we paid about 7 bucks), a bunch of fresh crab (which our new fishermen friends gave us for free), and a bucketload of end-of-season mangoes ($4 for a crate full). ¡¡Viva Sinaloa y los Sinaloenses!!!!!!

We set out late Saturday afternoon with our compadres, Jorge and Silvia, to attend the first annual “Festival de la Frasca.” While Jorge told me “frasca” is not a word, and that I surely must be trying to say “zafra” or “open season,” local people tell us it is a southern Sinaloan term meaning “to capture shrimp from the estuary.”

The Festival de la Frasca was supposed to be a food fest with live music. But as usual they were running late setting up, and before we could really get into the party we found much more exciting things calling us.

Just one month ago we had driven this very same road, but shrimp season is now open, and it was an even more wonderful place! I HIGHLY recommend you visit during shrimping season! While the season lasts 6 months, the first few weeks are supposedly the best, as the shrimp and the shrimpers are the most plentiful.

As we drove in we saw men with cast nets (atarrayas) everywhere.  Though mango season has finished, it is now the height of the shrimping season, and they have already planted tomatoes. After tomato season will come chile season, and so goes the year here.

Shrimp season is huge. We were told that opening day is like Carnaval—wall-to-wall people everywhere, with families fishing, picnicking and partying all night long. Family members come from all over the region back to Caimanero and Agua Verde to help with the shrimping, and to perform their obligations under the cooperativa(to work a minimum of so many hours and to capture a minimum of so many kilos). Women and children hang out with the fishermen, so it feels like life transfers from town to the estuary during this time.

Beside the road that just two weeks ago looked so very different we saw little houses or shelters, many of them housing the shrimpers. A standard shelter like the one shown here has one or two lights powered by a propane tank, a plastic shelter for rain, chairs, a way to cook (usually a fire pit), a radio and a cell phone. As you can see, they sit just off the road. Can you imagine spending the night there with cars, trucks, and motorcycles coming by a few feet away from you all night?

We greeted one of these guys, Rodolfo, at one of the stands, and he urged us to pull over and join him. So we did. The night crew, including Marco (who lives in Mazatlán but returns home for shrimp season), his 8 year old son and his 17 year old nephew, plus one other man, were just pulling up as we arrived.

Rodolfo proceeded to feed us a whole mess of fresh crab and shrimp, beside the road, in the fresh breeze, looking out over the estuary. La vida dura. While I well know, from living in Japan, how to crack open a fresh crab, scrape out the lungs, and eat the juicy brain and meat, this fisherman really enjoyed teaching us, and my comadre, Silvia, really enjoyed learning.

Here we also ate shrimp crudo with salt and lime (my all-time favorite—huge prawns, still wiggling; oh yum!), but he also cooked some for Silvia in a pot of broth.

We stayed here about an hour, chatting, feasting and just generally relaxing. We bought our first few kilos of shrimp, as well as receiving a huge bagful of cooked crab.

There were also many changueros, who we’ve heard about since arriving in Mazatlán, but this was the first time we met a few. They are estuary shrimpers who are not members of a cooperativa. They catch shrimp but legally are not supposed to be doing so. Many of the changueros used purina (shrimp chow) to get the shrimp up to the surface. None of the cooperativa fishermen we met used purina. They were very proud to explain to us that their shrimp were the purest.

Below is a video of one shrimper casting a net, and his wife helping him take out the shrimp and put them into a bucket.

After getting back in the car, we made the rounds of several cooperativas. At the first one the view was spectacular.

Rodrigo, a man we met there, sold us some more live shrimp. At left is his photo, and below a video of some of the shrimp wishing they could run away.

We had arrived here just in time for sunset. The sky and the water glowed. People were all so friendly, open and hospitable that it was amazing. Everyone was eager to talk, to explain this long Sinaloan shrimping tradition, and to share their catch of the day with us. To me this frasca tradition is soooo important; it’s Sinaloa’s history, and the if not some of the best shrimp in the world. And tons of it are harvested BY HAND here each year and shipped worldwide. I know such shrimping used to happen right here in Mazatlán; even next to Hotel Playa was an estuary (no wonder Zona Dorada floods).

The fishermen brought out packets of salt, fresh limes and bottles of salsa, and urged us to eat from their catch to our hearts’ content. Alfresco dining overlooking the estuary with friendly, happy, relaxed, knowledgable people; it was a wonderful afternoon. Every boy we met knew how to cast a net. They seem to start as young as seven or eight.



“Girls just wanna have fun…”

We also sat here for quite a long time, again feasting on raw shrimp (no cooked ones this time), and watching the guys cast their nets in the scenic little harbor.

The video below shows a guy casting his net from a panga, so you can see that as well as the earth-bound approach shown above.

The pangas or small fishing boats go out with two guys normally, one remero or rower, and one atarrayero or net caster. Most of the estuary is only hip- or waist-deep, so the remero carries a long stick or remo and basically pushes the panga along, similar to the movement of the gondolas in Venice.

Below is a short clip of the gentleman at left rowing.

There are various cooperativas to which the shrimpers belong. This drive out to one of them was really something — estuary on either side of the road, with loads of lit pangas all around.

Below is a video, so you can get a better feel for this road-with-water-on-both-sides drive.

After visiting some very cool places and meeting lots of wonderful people, we ended up spending another couple of hours sitting with Marco and his family. It was so peaceful there, and so very pleasant. Excuse the poorer quality of the photos from here on. The batteries on our camera died, so the remaining photos are taken with our phone.

On the way out we stopped at one last cooperative, this one the largest we’d seen. Here they had a large building or warehouse, surrounded by dozens of pangasfishing. Families were sitting and standing everywhere, waiting for their husbands, fathers, boyfriends and brothers to come in with their catch.

A semi-truck full of ice was waiting nearby.

A group of men with a scale and ledgers was registering incoming shrimp.

After dipping the bins full of shrimp into ice water, they placed the bins in the refrigerated truck where they are covered with ice and then taken to Mazatlán for sorting, packing and export.

It was at this last cooperative that we also saw our youngest atarrayero, this boy of about eight, at left.

We kept telling our friends that this was an otro mundo, or other world, that most guests in Mazatlán don’t know anything about or understand. We learned a lot about how the cooperativas function and about the life of a shrimper. We all got to eat live shrimp and enjoy some great company. The festival probably happened, but we know we had a lot more fun hanging out with our friends and meeting new ones. We already have plans to go back. We will definitely go opening night next year for the carnaval de cameron, and will head out some month just before the full moon when the really large shrimp are said to be much more plentiful and easier to catch. To be able to find Rodolfo and Marco’s shelter, we put their spot into our GPS and got their cell phone number. Stay tuned.
UPDATE:

Turkish Cooking with a Mexican View

 

In my last post I told you all how I fell in love with Turkey: her beauty, history, people and blend of cultures. Well, I also loved the food. Succulent, savory lamb, and roasted and raw vegetables in multiple combinations with every meal. I especially loved how the Turks prepared eggplant, or patlican (pronounced “patlijan”).

So, I bought Greg a book called “Turkish Cookery,” figuring his real gift would be that I’d try out some of the recipes. Today was my first try. I was of course worried. I’ve never cooked anything Turkish before. But man oh man oh man, was it good! At left is a glimpse of the meal we ate today on our Mexican terrace overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

The weather here in Mazatlán has been very hot and humid. We took a long sweaty walk along the malecón/boardwalk this morning, and I then spent a couple of hours gardening. So, a cool meal sounded best today. Cucumbers are in season here, so first on today’s Turkish menu was cacik (pronounced jajik), yoghurt with cucumbers.

This dish is similar to Indian raita. I’d call it a cucumber-yoghurt salad, though my boys called it “cucumber soup.” I guess it is sort of like a gazpacho. It was easy-peasy to make and I HIGHLY recommend it on a hot day!

Peel, thinly slice and chop 2 large cukes. Sprinkle them with a bit (1 teaspoon or so) of sea salt. Let them sit. Put 500 grams plain yoghurt in a bowl, and with a whisk whip in about 1 cup of water. Add to the yoghurt mixture the salted cucumbers along with a clove of crushed garlic. Stir, and garnish with chopped fresh mint and dill. You can also drizzle a bit of olive oil on top (I didn’t and it still rocked). Be sure to chill this and eat it cold; the flavors really came forth after a couple of hours in the refrigerator. So refreshing!

The second dish I made was the one I was really craving: patlican salatasi, or eggplant salad. I ate this dish, or adaptations of this dish, quite a few times during my trip. Every time I’d ask the waiter, my meal mates or friends what the dish was called. Everytime they’d tell me “patlican,” “eggplant.” “Yes, I know it’s eggplant. But what is the name of the dish?” No one seemed to know. The photo in the cookbook looked like the dish I was craving, but what would it taste like????

First step was to mix the juice of one lemon with 1/2 cup of olive oil.

Then, just like in Japan, this recipe required that I roast the whole eggplants over an open flame, till the inside becomes tender and the outer skin becomes charred, then hold under cold running water for a few seconds before peeling off the skin. In Japanese cooking I absolutely love eggplant roasted in this fashion, and my taste proves consistent for Turkish cooking as well, evidently. After peeling the roasted eggplants (I roasted 3 big ones), you put them in a bowl and mash them up with a fork. I also used two knives like pastry knives to make sure all the pulp was cut and easy to eat.

Into the mashed roasted eggplant I dumped the oil/lemon juice, added a tablespoon of balsamic vinegar, and a couple of cloves of minced garlic (the garlic wasn’t called for in the recipe, but hey, we love the stuff). I garnished the plate with sliced tomatoes (the recipe said to also garnish with onion, green pepper and olives), and we ate the roasted eggplant salad with French bread. Mmmmmm! Definitely a hit!

As long as I was roasting on top of the stove (too much work to start the grill, I guess, or maybe I just like that grill to be Greg’s territory), I figured I might as well roast the shrimp we had for lunch as well. After grilling I drizzled these with a bit of sesame oil and a bit of homemade aioli.

What to serve all this in? While in Turkey I bought a few Kütahya bowls, underglazed and handpainted. You can see them in the photo at left, the bowls to the right of my Japanese plates. The Kütahya remind me of our Mexican Talavera, don’t you think? In the same way as Talavera, Kütahya painting varies widely quality-wise (and price-wise!).

Here is a close-up of some of the food. Afiyet olsun!!! (Bon apetit!)

And here is a photo of one of the handsome men who lunched with me, a new convert to the joys of Turkish food 🙂