Dear readers: I hope you aren’t tired of reading about my adventures in Brazil, because I’m not getting tired of being here. And my lingering is not without purpose. I have taken on the task of eating as many interesting things as possible and studying how they are made. Many of these foodstuffs are no more useful to you in the North than news about how white my tan line has gotten, because the ingredients are simply unavailable up there. But I am also learning dishes with ingredients you can find, and these are the dishes that I intend to share with you.
Right now I’m sitting in an air-conditioned cyber café nursing a sunburn and, as usual, counting the minutes until my next meal, which will be sushi. Yes, they have sushi in Brazil, and yes, it’s really good. But no, I’m not going to talk about sushi today—I’m going to wait until I have more information. Today I’m going to discuss a Brazilian way of preparing fish called peixe escabeche.
The story starts with a different dish, called ensopado do peixe, which means fish (piexe) in coconut soup (ensopado). The combination of fish and coconut is one of the greatest pleasures to be had on this earth. But the thing is, when given the choice I almost always choose fried fish instead.
Why? Because fried fish might be the only thing I like better than peixe ensopado. Or so I thought. Indeed, I thought, what could be better than a good piece of fish, nicely marinated and then breaded and fried to a crisp, served with lime, hot sauce and cold beer? This is what I thought, and then I met Magdalena.
Actually, I first met her son, Celso. Celso is an instructor of Capoeira (a Brazilian martial art), and I took a few classes from him. Sharing a beer after class, I told Celso that I am Chef Boy Ari. He said, “I’m not just saying this because she is my mom—but my mom is the best cook in the world.”
Yeah, Celso. Sure. I’ve never heard that one before.
But Celso insisted, and I wasn’t in the mood to argue when he suggested that he ask his mom to teach me how to make peixe escabeche—especially when he told me what it is. Peixe escabeche is basically the same as peixe ensopado, but it’s made with fried fish. Fried fish in coconut soup.
So Magdalena and I walked down the narrow street from their hilltop neighborhood and bought the ingredients at the store: fish, a coconut, flour, tomato, onion, green pepper, tomato paste, olive oil, soy oil (or any other kind of fry oil), garlic, cumin, lime, white wine vinegar and cilantro.
First, cut 2 pounds of fish crosswise into pieces, so each piece is about the size of a deck of cards. Then squeeze the juice of a few limes on top of the fish, mix it up, and let it sit for a few minutes. While the fish soaks in lime juice, mash up a few heads of garlic and mix it with a little cumin. After about 15 minutes, rinse the fish in water. Magdalena did this lime treatment twice; after rinsing for the second time, she mixed the fish with the garlic/cumin mixture and let it sit.
At this point, Magdalena made the coconut milk. You could buy it from a can but fresh is best. Open a coconut, use a knife or a spoon to take out the flesh, and put the flesh in a blender with two cups of water. Blend it really well and pour it through a strainer, squeezing the pulp into a dry ball. The white creamy stuff that goes through the strainer is the coconut milk.
Now take each piece of fish, roll it in flour, and drop it in a pan with at least an inch of hot oil. Let it cook slowly, turning it over so both sides brown. While you’re waiting for the fish to fry, slice a tomato, half a green pepper, half a bunch of cilantro and one onion. If you still have time, argue with your friends about who’s the best sambista, or which soccer team rules.
When the fish is fried, pour 3 tablespoons of olive oil into a clean pan and add the onion, tomato, pepper and cilantro. Then add 2 tablespoons of tomato extract and 4 tablespoons of vinegar. Season with salt, cook 10 minutes and stir—but don’t stir so much that the tomatoes fall apart. Place the fried fish pieces on top of the vegetables and drizzle 4 more tablespoons of olive oil over the whole thing. Then pour in the coconut milk and stir gently, just enough to mix, but not enough to break apart the fried fish. Cook for 10 minutes and serve with rice. Stay calm. I know you want to gobble it up, but be careful not to choke on the bones.