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.

Pescadería del Mar/Our Fishmongers

One of the best aspects about living here in Mazatlán is the fresh fish we are able to buy every morning. Okay, well, we don’t go on Mondays, because there’s not been a lot of fishing on Sunday, but any day Tuesday through Saturday, you can bet we are happy campers.

We take our daily walk down the malecón and, in Playa Norte just across from the pangas, is our favorite spot: Pescadería del Mar.By now these guys know us and they’ve helped us to learn a lot about fish and fishing here in town: what’s seasonal, how fish are stored (on ice, frozen, salted) from the time they’re caught till they’re brought in to shore, and how to cook what’s available locally.

At 7 am when we’re there we usually have a terrific selection. Of course, depending on the season and the weather, we may have more or less fish to choose from. As you can see in this photo, though, there’s usually quite a variety.

The fishmongers will scale and clean any fish we choose, so I can cook it whole, or they’ll fillet (de-bone) and cut up anything we’d like, however we’d like it. They also get fresh shrimp, which I love, because they are deep water shrimp that have NOT been stored in salt, so they’re sweet rather than pungent. They get quite a bit of squid, also, which I love to saute with garlic and herbs. We can occasionally get fresh scallops, too. Our favorite is corvina, a nice firm fish that is sooooo savory! We can at least a couple of times a week get smoked marlin (usually still warm from the smoker and sooooooo aromatic!), and escabecheon Fridays.

It’s fun to watch either the fishermen fresh off their pangas across the street, or a dealer/go-between (usually on a scooter or motorcycle) come to deliver the fish to the fishmongers and make a deal. They have an outdoor scale to weigh what’s brought in, and an indoor scale to weigh what you purchase before it’s trimmed to order.

Having lived so many years in Japan, I am also very happy when they get sushi-quality tuna, though I do believe most of the fresh fish they have is sushi/sashimi quality. Chirashi has never been so delicious and affordable!

If you are a carnivore/omnivore, and do not take advantage of our local fresh fish, please do! You are missing some really flavorful and healthy, and easy and quick to cook, local delicacies!

The Smells of Mazatlán

Mazatlán is gorgeous, there is no doubt about it. The clear blue sky, ocean to the horizon, daily killer sunsets, long sandy beaches, mountains surrounding, estuaries filled with grasses and birds. Seeing Mazatlán is probably the most popular way to experience the place.

Mazatlán is rich, diverse, and complex, however; definitely a multi-sensory experience. Our sense of smell also plays a major in our experience of this paradise. When we came here as tourists, I must admit we didn’t notice the olfactory input so much as we do now that we live here. Back then we were no doubt overwhelmed by the visual beauty and thought the smells were intermittent, a side dish. Once you live here, smells play a much more important role.
I’ll keep adding to this list, but I do want to record some of the important smells of life in Mazatlán, for better and for worse:
  • TUNA. There are mornings we wake up to a permeating, cooked-fishy sort of smell. Greg, Danny and I all look at each other and grimace. It’s the tuna smell. Mazatlán has a huge tuna business. The Mazatún factory is just outside of town. We don’t know if it’s the way the wind blows, the days they happen to cook or can, or what, but there are certain days when you can’t escape it: it’s tuna time!
  • Zarandeado. The smell of barbecue emanating from the palapas along the beach. You walk the beach, or the malecon. You’re not hungry when you start. But boy, smell that fish on the barbie, and you will be!
  • Sewer gas. One of the greatest joys of life in Mazatlán is the malecon, the oceanside promenade. Walking down it towards the Fisherman’s Monument is gorgeous: the world’s biggest gymnasium, we like to call it. But oftentimes near that very monument, where most parades in town gather before starting, the sewer smells are overwhelming; you actually have to cover your nose and mouth. The city recently did drainage work down there, and the smell appears to have abated somewhat. We can only hope. But there are areas throughout town where you’d swear you were in a bathroom. In the historic downtown, for example. Gorgeous architecture, millions of pesos invested into updating and converting these homes into glory, but once you step outside…..
  • Chile and lime. This favorite seasoning combination teases the nostrils at nearly every fiesta, and there are daily fiestas. Put chile and lime and potato chips or corn chips. Put it on kernels of corn in a cup, or corn on the cob. Put the taste combo on the fruit cup you buy from the vendor on the beach. On your ceviche or fish. Nearly anywhere you wander in Mazatlán, you’ll get a whiff of this winning combination.
  • Salt. As in the fresh salt air, the ocean breeze, the sticky thick liquid that gets stuck on the screens of the sliding doors to the terrace, or in the corners of the tile floor and requires much scrubbing to remove. Salt also as in added taste for beer and margaritas, in combination with lime, of course. Salt is definitely a key smell of those with “las patas saladas.”
  • Tortillas. This is true for many places in Latin America, but/and including Mazatlán. There is no smell so wonderful as fresh tortillas being baked. Who can pass by the tortillería without grabbing a few? Especially when the government subsidizes their cost and you can get a kilo of fresh corn tortillas for less than a dollar.
  • Garbage burning. Don’t ask me why. We recycle. There are families that live at the dump and scavenge all the recyclable items to sell them and make a living. There is regular garbage collection city-wide. But burning of garbage is a fact of daily life here. There appear to be no regulations against it, or at least none that seem to be observed. So, when coming to Mazatlán, be prepared to see plumes of dark smoke from various locations around town, and the charming smell of garbage being incinerated.
  • The honey wagon. Yes, one of my favorite euphemisms for the truck that pumps the waste out of the port-a-potties on the beach. Mazatlán has beautiful, permanent concrete bathrooms built along the malecón. But use them? Agh, why use such a resource? Better to have citizens and tourists alike use the port-a-potties that the palapa restaurants have installed, and have those palapa restaurants pay to have the honey wagon pump them clean every day or two or three. The hoses are a hazard as you walk the malecón in the morning, but worse is the smell the put off. Definitely carry a wash cloth or be prepared to put your shirt over your nose as you pass by.
  • Coffee. Cafe Marino, our local brew, is some of the best-tasting coffee you’ll find. Reasonably priced, locally grown and roasted, it is a frequent component of the gift packages we send overseas. And, again, depending on the air currents and whether the roasteries is roasting or not, the wonderful smell of coffee fills the air of our port city.
  • Diesel. Ok, of course if you’re near the international highway you smell the diesel of the semi trucks, but even in the heart of Mazatlán city proper, the smell of diesel can overwhelm you at times. Those city buses, in addition to being driven by kamikazes, emit thick black smoke that will choke you if you’re not careful. Definitely not the best air to breathe while you are jogging or biking, but a fact of life in Mazatlán. Thank God for the ocean breeze.
  • Fish. Yes, one of the biggest advantages of living in Mazatlán is the fresh fish and the visits to the fishermen and their boats. But, in addition to the terrific taste of the fish and the pleasant sight of the weathered, friendly fishermen and their colorful pangas, we must admit that the smells of fresh, as well as rotting, fish and its entrails definitely fills playa norte.
  • The Market. El mercado is sensory overload and está lleno de holores: raw meat, fresh fruits and vegies, leather…

Favorite Things in Mazatlán

Fresh seafood, of course! Life here means waking up, getting Danny off to school, and walking or biking the malecón (oceanside promenade) with a cooler. We may decide to visit the pescaderos (fishermen) at their pangas (boats) in Playa Norte, or one of the two little pescaderías right across the street, to buy pargo (seabream), lenguado (sole), huachinango (snapper), or maybe sierra (saw fish) for a good ceviche. We can buy enough fish for two meals for US$3.50, or pay a bit more for swordfish or dorado, and significantly less for octopus (sometimes US$1 per kilo!) or squid. We might buy a kilo of fresh prawns for 40 pesos (US$4), or oysters from the ostioneros as they come to shore with their inner tubes and netting (US$4/dozen). We have some great conversation, beautiful views, shop for lunch, and exercise, all at an easy pace and before beginning our work day.

Zarandeado (bbq), al mojo de ajo (garlic sauce), a la parilla (roasted), in ceviche (marinated in lime juice), or raw, Mazatlán’s seafood and seafood sellers have me singing “el gran orgullo de ser de Mazatlán!” (the great pride of being from Mazatlán)
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The Green Man. Yes, he is one of my favorite things here in Mazatlán, along with dozens of other really cool and unique vehicles of all descriptions. The first time we saw him, he was also dressed up all in green and wearing a green helmet with horns, like a Jolly Green Giant version of a Viking. These days he’s added the cart to the back of his bike, and he always has his dog with him.

Los Pescaderos/The Fishermen

One of our dreams in moving to Mazatlán has been to be more physically active in the course of daily life, to be able to enjoy the outdoors more, and to eat more healthily of fresh, whole foods. With these dreams in mind, we’ve taken a long walk or bike ride most every morning along the malecón, the oceanside promenadehere in Mazatlán. A round trip bike ride from our house to the Pedro Infante statue is about 8 miles. A walk from our house to the pescaderos (fishing boats) and back is about 3 1/2 miles.

What is truly special for me is the fact that we can enjoy the incredibly gorgeous views, people-watch Mazatlecos of all ages and walks of life exercising, and we can buy fresh fish directly from the fishermen as they put in in the morning. This season of the year (June-August) they seem to come in between 7:30 and 8:30 am. Most of them have an axle with two wheels that can cradle their boat as they bring it up on the beach. Once they arrive, they unload their fish, put some of it up by the malecón for sale to the public, and take most of it across the street to what appears to be a cooperative store. They then head back to their boats to make fresh ceviche (cut up fish, carrots, lots of lime juice, onion) and wash it down usually with a ballena (whale, large bottle) of Pacifico beer (our local brew). 8:30 or 9:00 in the morning is already their lunch time. Most of the fishermen are very friendly and happy, and the boat launch beach is quite the community hangout, especially in the morning. You can see this photo I took of a domino game on the beach.

The boats are all small lanchas, with outboard motors, and seem to hold 2-4 fishermen. The lanchas remind us of the fishing boats in Cinque Terre, Italy, but they are not painted quite as colorfully. Most are named after women; we are guessing wives’ names, daughters’, girlfriends’.

If we are a little too early or too late, there is a sort of fishermen’s cooperative store right across the street from the boat launch beach. The prices are amazing, and so far there has always been a good selection. Over the last couple of months the people have gotten to know us already. The store manager is more than happy to teach me about the best methods for cooking which kind of fish. They seem to stay open as long as they have fish, so it’s best to go early.
Another thing that is amazing to me is that in the big supermarkets (Mega, Soriana…), they usually have frozen fish, not fresh. All the more impetus to take my daily walk or bike ride! I have a little basket on my front handlebars, and I carry a little cooler with ice. I can then put in the fresh fish, or pork, beef or chicken if I go to the mercado on the way also, and carry it all back safe and cool.
I’ve tried out a few new recipes, relying mostly on mangoes, limes, onion, chiles, cilantro, occasionally some cream or curry powder. Mmmm. I have not yet tried to make ceviche, as buying it is affordable and just so convenient, but I look forward to trying it out.