Delicious dishes begin with salsa
They dance on the streets in Veracruz City. A couple of nights a week, locals and visitors dress up in their Sunday best and assemble in the town square to enjoy Veracruz’s famous dance, the danzon. Set to live music, the spectacle of young and old dancing together proves unforgettable. We did our best to keep in step; mostly, we just worked up an appetite.
Good thing, as there’s much food to love in Mexico’s state of Veracruz, especially the seafood from the Gulf. In the morning, we stroll along the waterfront on the lookout for the bicycle vendors selling warm fish empanadas from baskets. Flaky pastry stuffed with shredded fish, tomatoes, olives, capers and sometimes hot chile, these empanadas fill our dreams. Later, a walk along Veracruz’s beaches justifies our supper of stunningly fresh fish smothered in salsa Veracruzana.
Luckily, salsa Veracruzana ranks as one of the easiest sauces to make at home. Ideally, the chunky sauce starts with ripe, fresh tomatoes. In the offseason, canned tomatoes make an adequate stand-in for garden-fresh.
Olives and briny capers, peppered throughout the sauce, confirm the Spanish influence on Mexico’s food. Jalapenos, the ubiquitous fresh chiles named after the state’s capital, Jalapa (aka Xalapa), spice the sauce just perfectly. Pickled jalapenos pair deliciously with the tangy character of the olives and capers.
Be sure to use pickled jalapenos made without added sugar. Nacho slices, for example, would be too sweet. For the olives, I like manzanilla — with or without pimento. Capers prove more palatable when rinsed before using.
I always make a large batch of this salsa to use over grilled fish, to eat on chips, to season crab for an empanada, to dollop over scrambled eggs or to tuck into tacos.
Snapper a la Veracruzana is beloved throughout Mexico. Back home, I use a variety of fish, always on the lookout for local, sustainable, wild-caught or responsibly farmed. Thick, meaty white fish pairs beautifully with the briny sauce. So does rich, flaky salmon — especially when grilled. When thin fillets, such as tilapia, are on the menu, I use a hot nonstick skillet or the broiler instead of the grill. Sauteed shrimp, smothered in the Veracruz sauce and served over white rice, makes a gorgeous dinner.
Don’t think I forgot about those Veracruzana-style empanadas. The recipe that follows makes use of frozen puff pastry, the salsa and some pasteurized lump crab. The stuff of dreams indeed. Or, at least the perfect dance.
Veracruz Tomato Olive Salsa
Always rinse raw onion before using it to remove any unpleasant odors and aftertaste.
Prep: 15 minutes
Makes: 4 cups
2 cans (14.5 ounces each) diced fire-roasted tomatoes
1/2 cup finely chopped white onion, well rinsed, drained
1/2 cup chopped pitted green olives
2 tablespoons finely chopped drained pickled jalapenos or 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh jalapeno
2 tablespoons drained capers, rinsed, optional
2 tablespoons each, thinly sliced fresh: parsley, cilantro
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon salt
Put tomatoes with their liquid into a food processor or blender and process with 4 on/off turns to roughly chop. Do not puree. Transfer the tomatoes to medium-size bowl. Add remaining ingredients. Serve at room temperature.
Nutrition information per cup: 115 calories, 6 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 13 g carbohydrates, 6 g sugar, 2 g protein, 785 mg sodium, 4 g fiber
Grilled Salmon With Veracruz Tomato Olive Salsa and Poblanos
Prep: 20 minutes
Cook: 10 minutes
Makes: 6 servings
2 cups Veracruz tomato olive salsa, see recipe
2 poblano peppers
1 small red bell pepper
2 pounds salmon fillets, each about 11/2 inches thick, rinsed, patted dry
Salt, freshly ground black pepper
Parsley leaves, for garnish
Thinly sliced lime for garnish
Make the salsa.
Set poblanos and red bell pepper on stove directly over the gas flame. Cook, turning often, until skin blisters and blackens on all sides, about 5 minutes. (Alternatively, roast peppers on the grill or 6 inches from the element of a heated broiler, turning often until skin blisters and blackens, 5 to 8 minutes.) Let peppers cool, then slip off charred skin with your hands. Rinse briefly under cool water. Remove the core and seeds and pat dry. Cut into 1/4-inch strips, then cut strips crosswise into thirds.
Preheat a gas grill to medium-hot. Or, prepare a charcoal grill for direct cooking and let coals burn until they are covered with gray ash, then spread coals in an even layer.
Heat the salsa in a bowl in the microwave until it is hot, about 2 minutes.
Brush fish generously on all sides with oil; sprinkle with salt and pepper. Grill fish, skin side up, 6 inches from heat source, until the fish releases easily from the grill grates, about 6 minutes. Use a thin metal spatula to gently flip the fish. Grill until the salmon is nearly firm when pressed with a finger, about 3 to 4 minutes more. Transfer to a large platter.
Pour the warm salsa over the fish. Sprinkle with roasted pepper pieces and parsley. Garnish with lime slices and serve.
Nutrition information per serving: 288 calories, 13 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 96 mg cholesterol, 5 g carbohydrates, 3 g sugar, 35 g protein, 338 mg sodium, 2 g fiber
Spicy Crab and Tomato Empanadas
Cooked, flaked salmon, chopped cooked shrimp or drained canned tuna can be substituted for the crabmeat. The unbaked empanadas can be wrapped in plastic and frozen for up to 1 month. Bake from frozen increasing the time by 10 to 15 minutes.
Prep: 30 minutes
Chill: 30 minutes
Bake: 30 minutes
Makes: 8 large empanadas
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 cup Veracruz tomato olive salsa, see recipe
1/2 pound premium lump crab meat, about 11/2 cups, drained
2 tablespoons chopped drained pickled jalapenos
1 large egg
1 tablespoon milk
1 package (17 ounces) frozen puff pastry sheets, thawed according to package directions
Heat the olive oil in a medium skillet over high heat. Add the salsa. Boil gently over medium heat, covered with a splatter guard, stirring occasionally until juices are reduced and salsa is quite thick, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool.
Drain crab and put into a bowl. Gently stir in the cooled salsa and the jalapenos. Season to taste with salt and refrigerate until cool, about 30 minutes or up to several hours.
Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Whisk the egg with the milk in a small bowl. Transfer the crab filling to a strainer to drain off any excess liquid.
Unfold 1 sheet of the puff pastry sheet onto a lightly floured work surface. Use a rolling pin to roll the sheet into a 10- by 10-inch square. Use a sharp knife to cut into 4 squares. Repeat rolling and cutting with second pastry sheet.
Brush some of the egg mixture around the edges of each pastry square. Spoon 1/4 cup of the crab filling into the middle of each pastry square. Fold the pastry over the filling to make a triangle and to completely enclose the filling. Press the edges to seal. Use the tines of a fork to press the edges together decoratively. Repeat to make 8 empanadas.
Transfer empanadas to the prepared baking sheets. Brush tops with some of the egg mixture and sprinkle with salt. Refrigerate until chilled, about 30 minutes or up to 2 hours.
Heat the oven to 375 degrees convection or 400 degrees conventional. Bake until the empanadas are deep golden brown, about 30 minutes. Let cool for 5 minutes before serving.
Nutrition information per empanada: 393 calories, 26 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 48 mg cholesterol, 29 g carbohydrates, 1 g sugar, 10 g protein, 423 mg sodium, 1 g fiber