Sunday, February 17, 2013

Sin Fins

There's another aisle in the fish market that sells everything that isn't a fish.

Huge piles of shrimp.  From some as tiny as your thumbnail to enormous head-on beauties like this.

This woman is selling pre-cooked octopus. We bought a raw one, cleaned it ourselves and tried a recipe for pulpo en escabeche or octopus in a light pickle.  I was following a highly respected Mexican cookbook's instructions so even when I had my doubts about the cooking time I reproduced the dish as written.  Wrong.  Octopus, I discovered, is like squid.  Either cook it for a moment or a very long time but nothing in between.  Fabulous sauce but chewy with a capital C.  I tried letting it sit a couple of days in the fridge in case the vinegar in the recipe would break the octopus down.  Didn't happen.  Friends counseled that freezing the octopus before cooking it helps to tenderize it.  So, that's where my next attempt is now - in the freezer.

This has to be the most sustainable seafood ever.  Stone crab claws - cangrejo.  You don't eat the crab just the claw and the beauty of it is that if you detach the claw properly from the body it grows back!  In the sea, a crab who gets himself in a tight corner with a predator has the ability to jettison his claw and scurry away.  Fisherman catch the crabs in a trap and then take just one claw, leaving one for defense, and then throw them back in.  Two years later - whole new claw.  I've served these with a chipotle mayonnaise but people here eat them simply with a sauce of lime juice, finely chopped habanero chile and salt.

This woman is selling dried, salted roe called huevos de lisa.  I asked her the price for two lobes and she said it was 100 pesos - $8 US - which is a hell of a lot of money for a little bit of food in Mexico.  I bought one lobe for 50 pesos and took it home not actually sure what I had purchased.  After a bit of research, it turned out to be the preserved roe of the grey mullet which in Italy is called bottarga and is served over pasta.  Molto costoso.   My pal, Glynna, is asking her how she preserved it and what she does with it.  The seller said first you clean off the excess membrane and veins and then soak it in a brine solution for an hour or so.  Then you let it dry out.  "Do you dry it in the sun?" I asked.  She answered "You can, but you have to watch out for the cats".

She told us that she sautés it with onion, tomato and chile but she'd also heard it could be made into a paté although she didn't know how to do that.  Bingo.  Here's a shot of the fabulous taramasalata Glynna made with her huevos de lisa.

 They also sell fresh roe in the market.  This is huevos de corvina known in English as sea trout or weakfish roe.  Delicious and could conceivably give shad roe a run for its money.  I cooked it using a technique I learned from my friend, David Leiderman, in his cookbook's recipe for shad roe.  You very gently poach the lobes before sautéing - equally gently - in order to stop the egg sacs from exploding.  Here you can see it sautéed and then served Mexican style - yeah - tomatoes, onions, chiles, cilantro, squeeze of lime, eat on a tortilla.  Works for me.

This interesting pile of crustacean is conch or sea snail or in Mexican, caracol.  There are two kinds - red and black.  Red is 50% more expensive than the black because it's tenderer and more tasty.  Here's a video Bruce took of the conch vendor showing me how to clean it.  At the end he declared that we could now eat the whole thing and it should be cooked for fifteen minutes.

But every video I'd watched on YouTube told me to remove all the red stuff and just cook the white bit in the middle.  And, given my octopus fiasco, fifteen minutes seemed iffy.  I resolved to take another tack.  I removed all the red stuff and divided the whole creature into three piles.  One, the red pile, would be cooked as per the fishmonger.  The second pile, half the white, would be blanched.  The third, the other half of the white, would be left raw.

Here's my conch crudo.  Thinly sliced, salt, lime juice, olive oil and parsley.  Excellent.

The fifteen minute red pile was just so much cat food.  But the blanched pile was perfect for a coctele.  In every eatery from standup counters in the market to the most upscale restaurants in Campeche they serve coctelesChico/Medio/Grande.  You can have one with shrimp or octopus, or conch or oysters or any combination thereof.  They are always served in a tulip glass like this and always with saltines.  In Veracruz they're called Vuelve a la Vida - Return to Life - since it is held that they are a miraculous hangover remedy.  Here's how you make it.

Fill the glass half full with your shellfish of choice.  The one in the picture is a mixture of shrimp and conch.  Pour in a little of the liquid you poached the shrimp in.  Then add the sauce which is a combination of 1/ 2 cup of ketchup mixed with 3/4 cup of fresh orange juice.  (I know it sounds bad but it ain't.)  Top it off with finely chopped white onion, cilantro and chile - to taste.  Mix it all up and eat with crackers although I prefer toasted tortilla chips.   Some people add some chopped tomato and a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil.  Which is a bit fancy pants for Campeche.  And in Veracruz you would definitely also get a slice or two of avocado on top but I haven't been served it that way here.  This could be the only fat free dish you'll be served in Mexico.