Thursday, July 11, 2024

The best of both worlds: How to prepare delicious pescado a la veracruzana

Pescado a la veracruzana holds a special place in my heart as one of my all-time favorite dishes. The fresh ingredients in this recipe create a Mediterranean-Mexican fusion that is as satisfying as it is delicious. Its versatility shines through as it can be prepared with various types of fish and is suitable for anything from everyday meals to special occasions. 

In English, we would probably translate “a la veracruzana” as “Veracruz-style.” The dish itself is the story of two worlds coming together. It is a marriage of the bountiful seafood of the Gulf of Mexico and tomatoes, which are native to the Americas, with Spanish ingredients such as olives, garlic and capers. In this sense, pescado a la veracruzana also reflects the historical legacy of the time when the port of Veracruz was Spain’s gateway into Mexico. 

On April 22, 1519, an expedition under the command of Hernán Cortés disembarked in what is today the state of Veracruz, establishing the first Spanish colony in Mexico. (Wikimedia Commons)

In 1521, Hernán Cortés founded the town of Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz (Rich Village of the True Cross) in what is today Veracruz. This settlement not only served as a starting point for the Spanish colonization of Mexico but also served as a key logistical center for Cortés’ ambitious campaigns. The port of Veracruz became a crucial point of entry for Spanish ships and supplies, facilitating further exploration and the eventual conquest of Mexico. The strategic significance of Veracruz extended beyond military operations, as it became a hub for trade and cultural exchange between Europe and the Americas.

Legend has it that the origins of pescado a la veracruzana trace back to the Lenten traditions when locals sought satisfying alternatives to red meat during this period of abstinence. Inspired by Biscayne sauce from Spain, this savory medley of sautéed onions, garlic, peppers, tomatoes, olives, capers, herbs and spices, simmered until thickened, creates a hearty topping for fish filets. Garnished with vibrant cilantro or parsley, the flavorful dish is traditionally served alongside white rice or baby potatoes.

While red snapper is commonly preferred for pescado a la veracruzana, tilapia or sea bass are also excellent choices for this recipe. Veracruzana sauce is renowned for its unique balance of flavors and its mildness — unlike many other Mexican sauces, it doesn’t use any hot peppers. However, those seeking an extra kick usually add a few pickled chiles güeros. When I make this at home, I prefer to forego the chilis and instead opt for a generous dash of spicy paprika.

Pescado a la Veracruzana is cooked in the oven for 20 minutes, making it a quick and simple dish to prepare. (Unsplash)

Now, let’s dive into how you can recreate this culinary masterpiece in your kitchen:

Ingredients:

– 4 filets of white fish (such as red snapper, sea bass or tilapia)

– Olive oil

– 1 onion, sliced

– 4 large cloves of garlic, sliced

– 4 tomatoes, diced

– 1 cup tomato puree

– ½ cup pitted green olives

– ½ cup capers in brine, drained

– ½ tsp dried oregano

– ¼ tsp dried thyme

– 1 bay leaf

– 3 tbsp fresh cilantro, minced

– 3 pickled güero chilis (optional) 

  • Fry the onions in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil until soft and translucent. Then add the sliced garlic and fry until slightly brown. 
  • Add the diced tomatoes and sauté until softened. 
  • Add the tomato puree, chiles, olives, capers, oregano, thyme and bay leaf. Turn the heat to low and simmer for about 20 minutes to reduce the amount of liquid and concentrate the flavors. Add salt and pepper to taste. 
  • Stir the fresh minced cilantro into the sauce for just a couple of minutes before serving.
  • To achieve a fish that’s crispy on the outside, you need to get the surface very dry before frying by using paper towels to remove as much moisture from the surface as possible. Then lightly season with salt and pepper and cover with a thin layer of all-purpose flour.
  • Add oil to a frying pan over medium-high heat and fry both sides of the fish in the pan until cooked through. 
  • Plate each filet, add a heaping scoop of the sauce on top and serve.

The delightful blend of savory and aromatic flavors in this sauce can be creatively incorporated into a variety of dishes beyond fish. Its rich tomato base with herbs and spices lends itself beautifully to enhancing other seafood delicacies like shrimp or scallops. I also love it smeared on a slice of bread or for topping hearty grains like quinoa or couscous. 

Veracruzana sauce is a healthy and versatile partner for your culinary creations. Each savory bite not only delights your taste buds but also serves as a delicious connection to centuries of cultural fusion. Whether you’re getting creative in the kitchen or venturing into new flavors, make sure veracruzana sauce is on your menu.

Sandra Gancz is a Mexican writer and translator based in San Miguel de Allende who specializes in mental health and humanitarian aid. She believes in the power of language to foster compassion and understanding across cultures. She can be reached at: [email protected]

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