Monday, August 27, 2012

X is for Xalapa, Mexico- A Tasty Take on Traditional Flavors

“Side Note: I know I haven’t written a post for close to a year, but my hiatus was simply because I had to be a big girl and work full time! But now that I am back to being a student, I officially have time to write about one of my favorite things in the world: Food! So I hope you all don’t hate me too much, and if you do, I hope after reading this, you will forgive me, and hate me just a little less”

 As pointed out to me by my brilliant sorority sister, Keshia, there is no country that starts with the letter “X”. Although she suggested we start our own country that begins with the letter X, I thought an easier, and more practical option would be to pick a country that has a city that begins with X, and seeing that this is my blog, and I can do what I please, I did exactly that.

As you could imagine there are many (many, many!) cities in China that begin with the letter X, but that is too predictable! Instead I wanted to take advantage of Columbus’ annual Festival Latino, and write about Xalapa, Mexico!

Xalapa (pronounced ja-la-pa) is the capital city of Veracruz, a costal state on the southeastern side of Mexico. In honor of Governor Juan de la Luz Enríquez, the city is officially, Xalapa de Enríquez. Governor Enríquez served as Governor of Veracruz from 1884 until his death in 1892, and is celebrated for the foundation of schools and universities that brought development and prosperity during the 19th century. But, before there was Enríquez, there were the Totonacas.

During the 14th century the Totonacas were the first group of people to establish themselves in present day Xalapa. The villages in Xalapa grew and united, forming one large village, and named Xallapan. During the 15th century the village was invaded by Moctezuma Ilhuicamina, and became part of the Aztec Empire…until the Spanish arrived.

Those of you who have read my blogs can guess what happens next…the Spanish, led by Hernándo Cortés, and allied with the Tlaxcala, laid siege to the Aztec Empire and destroyed what is known as present day Mexico City. From there, the Aztecs crumbled and an outbreak of smallpox eventually led to the fall of city.

Fresh Red Snapper
Due to its proximity to water, Xalapa became a thriving center for Spanish commerce, both buying and selling products form the peninsula. Popular Spanish ingredients, such as olives, capers, almonds, dried fruit, olive oil, cheeses, wine, and vinegar, imprinted with lush vegetation Xalaba to create this regional cuisine. The coast also provides a great array of gulf coast fish, including red snapper. Traditional dishes include, Arroz a la tumbada, a rice dish with a variety of seafood (translated: “tumbled rice”), and caldo de mariscos, a seafood stew known to cure a hangovers. Pescado a la Veracruzana (Veracruz fish) showcases the tasty blend of Mexican and Spanish influence. Dishes labeled “a la Veracruzana” usually mean it contains a tomato-based sauce with onions, garlic, olives, chilies and spices.

Xalapa is known as the birthplace of the jalapeño peppers. These medium-sized chili peppers are usually picked before they are fully ripe, and still green. Like most peppers, the seeds of the chili contain the heat of the jalapeño, while the flesh has a mild flavor close to the green bell pepper. The jalapeños are used in salsas, are stuffed, or used as a vinaigrette condiment, known as jalapeños en escabeche. When the jalapeño is dried and smoked it becomes a chipotle (not like the restaurant). The chipotles are usually pickled in a sweet-and-hot brown sugar and vinegar marinade. Ancient Xalapa was also known for their corn cultivations, and thus products made of maize, such as gorditas and tostada, are also prevalent to the region. The land also provides ideal climate for coffee production, which remains one of the regions main agricultural products.
Other local staples include green beans, black beans, fava beans, zucchini, and chayote. The chayote is added to Xalapan mole verde (a stew that includes ground chilies, spices and tomatillos). The root of the chayote is also consumed, typically fried and served in a red sauce. An abundant number of edible flowers are also typical to Xallapan cuisine. The most common is the squash blossom, which is used in soups and quesadillas. Also common is the yucca flower, which is also used in soups, but is also added to red mole.


Recipe Time:

To my surprise Festival Latino hardly had any Mexican food stands. Those that were in attendance served typical taco stand items. On to plan B: Find a restaurant. As it can be imagined, there are many Mexican restaurants in Columbus, but the tricky part is to A.) find good, authentic one, and B.) one that serves a dish from the region. After a great time spent reading various Columbus food blogs, Yelp, and Urban Spoon reviews, I chose Cuco's Taqueria. They are locally owned, and had good reviews about their Pescado a la Veracruzana.  Oh, did I mention that back when I had cable I heard their commercial like 52895832 times a day…because I did (marketing strategies at its finest).
Chiles Rellenos 
All my friends were too cool or busy with the real world to have lunch with me, so I took it to go. Naturally, I ordered the Pescado Veracruz but I also ordered Chiles Rellenos, because I love fried cheesy things. My meal also came with a nice, heaping, portion of tortillas with a mild salsa. The Chiles Rellenos, are two roasted poblano peppers stuffed with cheese, deep fried, and topped with a red ranchero sauce. The first bite always scares me. Peppers in themselves are necessarily spicy; it is the seeds that usually contain the heat. So, not knowing if the peppers were deseeded, I took a large bite while simultaneously clenching a large glass of water in the other hand…and to my surprised it was delicious. It was cheesy, crispy, and airy. The ranchero sauce was also quite flavorful; my only complaint is that there was a tad too much ranchero sauce.
Pescado Veracruz
 On to the main event! The Pescado Veracruz was a grilled fish (I think tilapia) smothered with the salsa Veracruz. The meal was served with black beans, rice, and guacamole. The fish was light, delicate, and flavorful. The true star was the salsas amazing blend of Mexican and Spanish flavors. It’s amazing the flavor olives can add to a dish. Minus the deep fried pepper and tortillas, the fish is a perfect light lunch that I would order again.

Red snapper would be the ideal fish to make a traditional Pescado a la Veracruzana, but budget restraints led me to choose a less expensive white, flaky fish…tilapia! The mild fish takes to the flavors of the salsa just lovely, and honestly any white fish filets would do.
I got the recipe from Food Network’s Marcela Valladolid, from “Mexican Made Easy” (you can watch her Saturday mornings at 9am).

Pescado a la Veracruzana
Serves 4

·      3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
·      4 (6-ounce) tilapia fillets or other white fish fillets
·      Salt and freshly ground black pepper
·      1 small onion, chopped
·      4 garlic cloves, minced
·      1 1/2 cups canned crush tomatoes with juice (I used tomatoes from my cousin’s garden, which I think made a big difference. Not to be super snobby, but local tomatoes always taste better, and I would recommend using them if you can)
·      1 Anaheim chile, stemmed, seeded and cut into thin strips
·      1 bay leaf
·      1 teaspoon dried oregano
·      1/2 cup pitted and halved green olives
·      1/4 cup capers, drained

1.    Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
2.   In a medium saute pan, heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil over medium-high heat. Season the fish fillets on both sides with salt and black pepper, to taste. Saute the fillets until they are opaque and just cooked through, about 2 minutes per side. Transfer the fish to a glass baking dish where they fit snugly.
3.   In the same saute pan, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion and garlic and cook until the onion is translucent, about 5 minutes.
4.    Add the tomatoes, Anaheim chile, bay leaf and oregano and bring the pan to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium, cover and let the sauce simmer until the chiles soften, about 6 minutes.
5.   Uncover the pan, add the olives and capers, and cook until the flavors combine, about 4 minutes. Season the sauce with salt and pepper, to taste.
6.   Pour the sauce over the fish in the baking dish. Bake until the fish is heated through, about 5 minutes. Remove the dish from the oven, discard the bay leaf and serve.

**I served mine with brown rice, black beans, guacamole (made by Colin) and pickled jalapeños. 

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