One of the highlights of any cruise is visiting the various ports of call on the itinerary. The sea days are fun and relaxing, but I really love going ashore and soaking up some local color. As many of you know, one of the stops on my most recent cruise was Cozumel, Mexico. Cozumel is a beautiful place, but I’d already been there twice before. I’ve partied at Carlos’ n Charlie’s, guzzled margaritas at Senor Frog’s and shopped ‘til I dropped at the dockside “strip mall” set up for the tourists right off the pier. I didn’t want to sit on the ship all day either, so I decided to try to find something else to do. The day before we docked, I was looking through the shore excursion booklet to see what my options were. Snorkeling? Nope. Hiking to the Mayan ruins? Um…NO! Hanging out at the beach? Well…I can do that at home for free. Then, I saw it: an authentic Mexican cooking class led by a professional chef at the four star (and air conditioned) Playa Mia Resort. Ding Ding Ding! I think we have a winner!
Apparently, the Playa Mia also hosts a few other excursions for the cruise crowd as well. The next morning as I waited for the tour bus, I was joined by a rather eclectic collection of my fellow passengers toting beach towels, suntan lotion and scuba gear. I couldn’t be sure, but it didn’t look like most of them were interested in cooking. I was right. When we arrived at the resort, everyone except me ran off to the beach, while I wandered around with my tenth grade Spanish skills trying to find the cooking class. Finally, a nice cabana boy took pity on me, handed me a pina colada and led me to the kitchen.
The kitchen itself was pretty bare bones; just a big, white, tiled room with several portable work stations and a big sink. Each station had two propane gas burners and a griddle. I looked around, but I didn’t see an oven anywhere. There were six other “students” in the class, most from another cruise ship. And, there was our instructor, Chef Luis.
Isn’t he adorable? He looks like he’s about twelve. I almost asked to see his driver’s license before letting him touch the knives! But actually, he was pretty knowledgeable. He was also a lot of fun. He kept the entire class organized and entertained.
Under Chef Luis’s tutelage, we learned how to prepare three dishes – an appetizer, and entree and a dessert. For the appetizer course, we made something called Huaraches, which consists of a grilled cornmeal base topped with sautéed chorizo, potatoes, black beans and cheese. The entree was a fish dish called Snapper Veracruz, which was red snapper wrapped in a banana leaf with olives, onions, peppers and tomatoes and baked in a foil pouch with a splash of white wine. The dessert course didn’t have a name – or at least Chef Luis never gave us one. It was a sort of napoleon made out of very thin sugar cookies and filled with a kind of rice pudding mixture. To be honest, I didn’t really get the dessert, but it tasted pretty good, so I just went along with it.
Today, I’m going to share the recipe for Snapper Veracruz with you. It’s a nice, light, healthy dish with tons of flavor. Plus, it’s pretty easy to throw together. Since we were not given a written recipe to follow, I’m kind of winging it from what I can remember from the class.
First, you need to get some nice, fresh snapper fillets like this one. Season it with some salt and pepper.
Then melt some butter and olive oil in a pan.
Sear the fish about one minute on each side.
Remove the fish and sauté the vegetables.
Add the wine and flambé.
OOOH! Let’s see that again!
You actually don’t have to do this step. I think Chef Luis was just showing off. If you don’t feel comfortable starting a fire in your kitchen, just simmer until the wine is reduced by half.
Then, assemble your dish in a banana leaf. If you don’t have a banana leaf, you can skip it and just assemble the dish in aluminum foil. The banana leaf is kinda cool, though.
Wrap it all up and bake.
Here’s what it looks like when it’s all finished. That little jar in the upper right corner is homemade hot pepper sauce made by some locals. It is wicked awesome! I brought some home with me.
We served our Snapper Veracruz with some yellow rice and some cute little corn tamales that Chef Luis made for us. I wish he had taught us how to make those too!
Chef Luis also gave us a little tutorial on how to decorate our plates so that our dishes looked pretty.
Here’s mine. What do you think?
After we finished cooking our food, we all went upstairs to a private dining room with a spectacular view of the Caribbean Sea and enjoyed the fruits of our labor. So, what did I think of my “authentic” Mexican cooking class? It was a lot of fun, although I don’t know how authentic or truly Mexican it was. All of the ingredients we used were ones that I could easily find at any supermarket here at home. There wasn’t a chili pepper in sight! I kind of felt that the menu was “watered down” a bit to accommodate the so called “generic” palates of American tourists. That always irks me! But, the food was very good and Chef Luis was very engaging. Plus, the pina coladas and margaritas just kept on coming! And, hanging out in a nice, air conditioned room beats melting outside in ninety-five degree heat any day. Just sayin’.
adapted from Chef Luis
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 6-8-ounce skinned and boned red snapper fillets (If snapper is not available, you can substitute grouper or any flaky white fish.)
1 large onion, thinly sliced
1 green bell pepper, thinly sliced
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup pitted green olives, sliced
1 large or 2 medium tomatoes, sliced into eight 1/4-inch slices
Salt and pepper to taste
4 banana leaves (I have seen banana leaves in some Asian and Latin markets. If you can’t find them, you can omit them and just wrap your fish in foil.)
Aluminum foil for wrapping
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Sprinkle snapper filets with salt and pepper to taste. Heat butter and oil in large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add fish to the pan and sear one minute on each side. Remove from pan and set aside.
2. Add a little more oil if needed. Lower heat to medium and cook onions and peppers until crisp-tender, about 5 minutes.
3. Add wine and simmer until reduced by half. (In the class, Chef Luis had us flambé the wine and vegetables in the pan. You can try this, if you dare, but I take no responsibility for any negative outcome!). Remove from heat.
4. Place each fish fillet on top of a banana leaf and top with 1/4 of the vegetable mixture. Top each with 2 slices of tomato and some green olives. Roll up into bundles “burrito-style” and place each bundle on a square of aluminum foil. Then, roll up and seal each sheet of foil around each bundle and place on a baking sheet. Bake for 15 minutes or until fish is cooked through.
5. Remove from oven, unwrap each bundle and serve with yellow rice or boiled potatoes.