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Posts Tagged ‘fish’

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What better way to spend Thanksgiving weekend than to get away from cold Chicago and bask in the Mexican sun? Well, I was with my obnoxious family that took 2 hours to decide, read that argue about, what to do for every meal, so maybe it could be better? Actually, I’d have it no other way. A little aggravation is good for the soul. One thing that was easily agreed upon was heading to the San Benito Market in Merida (where my mom lives) with my two brothers. If you read my post on the market from the last time I was in Merida, you’ll see that I’m a big fan of the various tacos and other food items one can gorge themselves on. One thing I didn’t try on my past trip was any of the seafood. So, my brothers and I set off to find out if it’s as good as the 4-legged creatures one can devour there. We did start off with a couple of tacos each for an appetizer.

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What we found in the pescado section was that none of the “restaurants” served fish ceviche. All of the camarones one could want, but no fish ceviche. One of the stalls was willing to make it for us though. So, they headed over to the fishmongers and grabbed a couple of fish for us. One was a snapper and the other was something else. I did see some baby hammerhead sharks at the fishmongers’ counter (don’t know why my older bro didn’t get a good photo of those as I didn’t have my camera with me, but he’s not as bright as I am, so we’ll give him a pass), and the other fish did have a sharky texture, but I’m not sure if it was shark or not.

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This woman, with all of her years of skill and knowledge, proceeded to skin, inspect, and chop up the various fish. Then she added the lime juice, salt, and pepper, and mixed it around for a bit. She dumped it out and did it all over again and again tasting each time to make sure it was just how she wanted us to eat it.

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Once the fish was “cooked” enough and had enough of the seasoned lime flavor she mixed in some diced onions, tomatoes, and cilantro. Out of the mixing bowl and onto our plate.

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When a little old Mayan woman serves you something she just made right in front of your eyes with a smile like that, how can it not be delicious? Well, it wasn’t delicious, it was beyond delicious! It was delovecious! You see, I had to make up a lame ass word and it still doesn’t do justice to what she just whipped up. With some tortilla’s and super spicy salsa verde none of us had ever eaten a ceviche quite so good. You could really taste the love she put into that dish. This woman didn’t want three handsome men like us (I’m by far the most handsome of the three, and I smell the best too) to go unsatisfied. I think all three of us left a little piece of our hearts, and stomach linings with her.

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Last night was the first night of Passover. In America, typically the first two nights of Passover are a huge deal in the Jewish household (in Israel they only have Seder on the first night). Families get together for big feasts of traditional foods and celebrate the liberation from Egypt led by Moshe himself, called a Seder. I do want to state that I am not religious, I’m atheist. However, I am culturally Jewish and thoroughly enjoy a meal that consists of Matzah Ball Soup and slow braised Brisket. This year my brothers and I had the first night at our cousins with my mom’s side of the family.

Here is the traditional Seder Plate that sits in the middle of the table. It contains the symbols of the Passover story. Starting at 2 o’clock is the Beitzah, a roasted egg that symbolizes the festival sacrifice. Then is the Zeroa, a roasted shankbone symbolizing the lamb’s blood that was marked on doors to keep the Jews safe from the 1oth plague. After that is the Maror, we use green onion to remind us of the bitterness and harshness of slavery. Charoset is next, apples, honey, walnuts, and wine that are blended into a thick paste representing the mortar used by Jews in constructing Egyptian storehouses. Next is Karpas, parsley is used for the coming of Spring. There’s a bowl of saltwater that is used to show the tears shed by Jews in slavery. You dip the Karpas into the saltwater. Finally, in the middle is a glass of wine that’s set aside for Elijah the prophet.

At each individual seat there’s a small plate with the edible symbols. After we get through the Haggadah and eat the Seder plate dinner gets started.

The first thing that get’s passed around is Gefilte Fish. It’s basically a classic Eastern European fish dumpling made out of whitefish and pike. It’s eaten with horseradish.

Next is the Matzah Ball Soup. I had two matzah balls, but had already cut them up into bite sized pieces when I remembered that I needed to take a photo. I also forgot to take a pic of the matzah, but that isn’t the end of the world. I do have to say that my Matzah Ball Soup is far superior, but that’s always the case.

Then some fresh vegetables. Cucumbers, tomatoes, and red onions.

Here’s Grandma’s chopped chicken liver. Unfortunately it’s the only thing she makes anymore. She cooks up the livers, seasons them, and mashes it all down. My cousin Lorrie has to salt it though. Grandma’s taste buds aren’t quite what they used to be. But hey, she’s 86! She gets a pass.

Some bagels made out of matzah meal. They resemble bagels in shape only, but they aren’t bad.

Here’s the famous slow-braised Passover Brisket. Brisket is to Passover what turkey is to Thanksgiving. Again though, my brisket is better. I made the brisket last year, but not this year. I need to take charge of it again for the betterment of all our digestion.

Dessert consists of various cakes made with matzah meal flour and fresh fruit. Chocolate cake with raspberries, strawberry shortcake, brownies, carrot cake, grapes and strawberries.

For some reason I always tend to eat too much at Seders.

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So, Yuki and I took a few days to visit some of the early temples and castles in the Kansai region of Japan. Most of the structures we saw date back to the 8th century and are truly amazing! Besides the structures there were also tons of great sculptures from the same time period. However, as you all know, this blog isn’t about architecture, it’s about food. This post is to let you know about the incredible Kaiseki we ate our last night in Nara at the Ryokan (traditional Japanese Inn) we stayed at, Yoshino.

Kaiseki is the classic multi-course meal that progresses through various cooking techniques using regional, seasonal ingredients. It’s the highest art form you can find in food anywhere in the world. Focus on the subtleties of each ingredient to draw out natural flavors and not cover then with heavy sauces (sorry Frenchies, but the Japanese have your asses kicked in food culture!).

It started with that dish in the middle of the picture above. From left to right was a little fish grilled in a sweet soy marinade, a roasted chestnut, ama ebi (sweet shrimp), some sort of seafood that had a jellyfish-like texture in a miso sauce (I have absolutely no idea what it was, but it sure tasted good!), then a three-colored fish cake.

After that they brought out this dish. It was obviously a shrimp, but I’m not quite sure what else there was. I think it was a gratin made with the roe of the shrimp. Also on the plate as a macaroni salad and some lettuce with a tomato.

Then we moved on to the sashimi plate. It had some fantastic Chu-Toro (tuna), Tai (snapper), and the star of the plate….Ika (squid). In the States when you order Ika it’s usually very thin and a little rubbery. Not these two slices. They were about a half centimeter thick, squid steaks! Rubbery? Hell no! Each chew and the squid literally melted away in our mouths. Hands down the best squid I’ve ever eaten.

Then they brought us a plate of steamed Ayu (sweet fish). It’s a river fish that eats moss attached to stones giving it a really fresh and clean taste. It was served with a light ginger sauce. The thing that makes Ayu special is that it’s eaten when the belly is full of fish roe. There isn’t much meat, so it’s like dipping chopsticks into a bowl of fresh water caviar.

Being the meatavore that I am, the next plate was what I was most looking forward to….Beef Tataki. Lightly seared beef to give a little texture to the soft raw meat laden with mouth-watering fat. The dipping sauce is a soy-dashi mix. You see the little mound of reddish gew on the side of the dish? That’s a mix of togarahsi (Japanese red pepper) and yuzu (a small citrus fruit). You mix that into the sauce like you would wasabi for sushi, along with thinly sliced chives. With the tataki there was a small dish of sliced cucumber and I think seaweed in a vinegar sauce that cleansed the palette from the fatty beef.

Then we ate the Shabu-shabu. Unfortunately I forgot to get a picture of the individual hotpots we used, but here’s the ingredients. The broth was a light sake base, in it we added cabbage, enoki mushrooms, and shimeji mushrooms. Once they were cooked, we sloshed the thinly sliced beef around to cook it and then dipped it all in a light soy with more of the togarashi yuzu and chives.

After that we got two different preparations of Unagi. To be honest, I have absolutely no clue what the difference was. One was served on top of rice, the other with rice on the side. All I can tell you is that you will never find eel of that quality anywhere in the States. It tasted like they just caught it that morning. Best eel ever! Both came with a little dish of Japanese pickles. They were probably damn good pickles, but I don’t like pickles so I let Yuki eat mine.

After the Unagi was a clear broth soup with an ingredient we couldn’t figure out. At first, we thought it was some sort of mushroom. It wasn’t. Then we thought it might be shiroko, fish sperm sack. It wasn’t that either. We finally found out that it was eel liver, probably from the Unagi we just ate. It had kind of a crunchy yet soft texture. Not something you’ll find on any old menu.

Finally, to finish things off was a plate with fresh persimmons and grapes. persimmons are in season right now and are everywhere while Japanese grapes are absolutely huge compared to what we get.

All in all this was my 5th Kaiseki. I wish I could afford to eat like this every night as there is always something unusual and strange to the western palette. If any of you get to Japan I highly recommend splurging at least once to experience the delicate yet sophisticated Japanese cuisine at it’s finest.

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salmon

The other night I made another finance-efficient dinner that tasted outstanding; Cedar Plank Grilled Salmon with Soba Noodles, Roasted Orange Pepper, Pea Pods, and Shitake-Green Onion Salsa. Simple, well-balanced, healthy, organic, and delish!

I got the salmon at Isaacson & Stein Fish Company. It was wild caught at $9.95 per pound. Between my wife and I we only needed 3/4 of a pound, so the fish cost $6 even for both of us. I’ll take fresh wild caught over farmed any day of the week! Grilling it on a Cedar Plank, cost of $1.00, really adds a nice smoky wood flavor to salmon. The beauty of cedar plank grilling is that because the wood needs to be soaked in water for a couple of hours prior to grilling, the fish gets steamed while it’s grilled keeping it nice and moist.

The pepper cost me 37 cents at Stanley’s. Roasting peppers let’s the sugars come out resulting in a sweeter, softer pepper flavor. Since I roasted it on my grill I also got a bit of smokiness to it as well. While at Stanley’s I also got 4 bunches of green onions for $1.00. I only used a half bunch for this dish. The pea pods were also from Stanley’s and cost me 57 cents. You can buy soba noodles from almost any grocery store and shouldn’t cost more than a couple of bucks for 3 servings.

Shitakes can be expensive when purchased fresh, up to $5-6 a container. I do sometimes use fresh shitakes, but for this dish I used some dried ones we had in our pantry that cost $1.o0 for dozen. I only used 4, soaking them in hot water for a couple of hours. Save the water afterwords. It absorbs some of the shitake flavor and makes a great stock for later use.

When you add it all up the entire dish for 2 people only cost $10.34, or $5.17 per person. OK, I also added some Thai Basil to the Salmon when grilling, but I got that from my back porch garden. I also probably used a few pennies worth of Extra Virgin Olive Oil, salt, and pepper. Still, it’s less than five and a half bucks per person. What restaurant can give you a dish of this quality for that price? NONE! Cook at home, cook fresh, cook organic!

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refried_beans

 

 

 

I had a discussion with a buddy of mine the other day regarding El Barco Mariscos, the Mexican fish house on 1035 N. Ashland. You see, I live about a half block down the street on Cortez from El Barco and, as such, I know the restaurant well. While the food has always tasted good my wife and I have stopped dining there and will probably never be back. My buddy thinks it’s the beans.

 

El Barco is one of the most fun dining experiences you can have at a restaurant. Sure, the top-40 Mexican hits being played on the TV monitors are pretty cheesy, but the rest of the atmosphere is fantastic. Built to look like a wooden boat, there are stuffed fish hanging from all over the ceiling. It’s open, bright, friendly, and loud, but not too loud. It’s like a fiesta. There are always families and large groups and the line to get in sometimes starts as early as 5pm, especially on summer weekends when they have the outdoor seating open.

 

Margarita pitchers always set the mood right. Along with tortillas, lime wedges, and three different salsas you can’t help but start to loosen up and take it easy.

 

The menu is huge. I mean that literally. It used to come out in an enormous laminate that must have been 1.5 x 3 feet! They’ve since folded them, but they’re still pretty large. Lots of selections as well. All sorts of apps such as different ceviche, seafood cocktails, salads, bacon wrapped cheese stuffed shrimp (also available as a dinner), and so on. There are different grilled items available, beef, chicken, seafood, mixed. Crab legs are always on hand. Numerous fish preparations are offered, the most popular being their snapper.

 

 

 

 

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They serve their snapper deep fried and then propped up on its belly atop a bed of rice with grilled veggies (usually potatoes, carrots, broccoli, corn, and onions; comes will all dinners), guacamole, and refried beans (also comes with every meal). It comes out and you just pull the meat right off the bones. When the fish is fresh it’s absolutely delicious!

 

El Barco sounds great, right? So why won’t my wife or I go back? Very good question. The answer lies in the internal damage done shortly after ingesting a meal of El Barco. I can recall only one time when El Barco didn’t send me in a cheek-clenching, stiff-legged mad dash directly to the latrine (Yuki and  I only have one bathroom in our place, imagine the difficulty after we’ve both eaten El Barco!). That night we ate crab legs, for some reason they were very gentle on my stomach. Otherwise, I’m sure there’s been some irreparable damage done from about a dozen journeys to El Barco over the years. A hole burned somewhere along my entrails or something.

 

My buddy seems to think it’s the refried beans. Apparently he shares a similar history with El Barco except that the one night he was high and dry he claims to have passed over the beans. I ate beans the night we had crab legs, I know this for a fact. You mash that magical fruit with some lard and I’m in heaven! There’s no way I can pass a good refried bean. Eating the beans on top of everything else is more like throwing water on an oil fire. They don’t help matters, but they’re not the root cause. I think the answer is a short hop across Cortez.

 

On the south side of Cortez, next to their parking lot is a little run-down shack. I think that’s where El Barco keeps meat and other ingredients. I’m not 100% positive about this, but judging by the smells that come out of that place (especially in the hot and humid summer) and seeing the cooks going in and out, there’s meat kept at warmer than should be temperatures inside. Sometimes it smells so rotten I want to instantly heave all over the street. It has completely turned me off of ever going back. I, for one, prefer my food to be fresh as opposed to road kill left on the side of the road for a few days before making it my plate.

 

El Barco Mariscos ought to change their name to “Montezuma’s Revenge.”

 

 

 

 

(Snapper photo courtesy of Brady)

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