Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. Teach a man to cook a fish and you save his marriage.
“Honey, will you make pescado a la veracruzana for me tonight?”
“You know I don’t make veracruzana sauce.”
“But couldn’t you just once, Honey, you know how much I love it.”
“Hey, it’s not like I’m the only one who knows where the kitchen is.”
“But, Honey, you know Don Day doesn’t know how to make pescado a la veracruzana.”
“Then why don’t you learn?”
In San Miguel de Allende, Boris and Jessi Olvera have a sweet little restaurant on a very busy street called San Antonio. The restaurant is appropriately named La Cocina de Boris y Jessi, and it’s where they turn out stylish comfort food that Boris labels “Mexican/American”. On a typical day you might find hamburgers, chili, biscuits and gravy, barbacoa, fish tacos or spaghetti and sausage on the menu.
About the only problem with La Cocina is its size. Though there are a lot of benefits to running an open kitchen with seating for only about 12 people, it becomes very difficult to hold chef’s tasting dinners or cooking classes or, Don Day is guessing, to make much money. So, a couple of months ago, Boris and Jessi branched out.
They arranged to use a friend’s home to hold monthly themed dinners paired with wine and, also once a month, to host a cooking class.
A couple of weeks ago, Don Day saw that an upcoming cooking class was going to feature pescado a la veracruzana so yesterday, in an attempt to ease the tensions commonly found with the state of matrimony, Don Day attended.
Don Day discovered pescado a la veracruzana in Puerto Vallarta about 15 years ago and it immediately became one of his favorite Mexican dishes. Though Don Day had it first on the Pacific coast of Mexico, as the name (fish in the style of Veracruz) suggests, the dish originated on the Caribbean coast.
I still remember how much the sauce reminded me of puttanesca, one of my Italian favorites and how shocked I was that such a strong tasting sauce could partner so well with the delicate flavors of fish. It’s the capers and olives in veracruzana sauce that give it its similarities to puttanesca but when the whole dish is put together it’s fairly obvious that it’s origins are probably Spanish with a hint of Mexican.
Despite his first name, Boris Olvera was not born in Transylvania but in Mexico City and before opening La Cocina with his wife Jessi, was the chef at Franciscan Estate in Napa, California.
Boris looks like a chef is supposed to look. He’s a stocky guy with one of those linebacker necks that makes his head look like it’s sitting directly on his shoulders. He’s got more than enough hair for both himself and Don Day (though he’s never offered to share). He’s got one of those faces that makes it impossible to guess his age and it could be anywhere between 25 and 55. He’s got some tattoos that peek out from the arms of his chef coat that suggest he wasn’t just a banker before he became a chef. And he seems like a really nice guy. The kind of guy you’d like to put back a juicy fat steak and not one but two bottles of red wine with. And the kind of guy you listen to when he tells you how to make pescado a la veracruzana.
Jessi who, with her big hair and bangs, A-line dresses, perfect posture and cowboy boots reminds me of a country singer but I can never decide which one, started the class off perfectly by cracking open some beers. Don Day was happy to be up in the morning and off to school.
Boris started by showing us how to make a salsa and a salad and Don Day feigned some interest and enthusiasm but Don Day was really there for the main event. I was there for the pescado.
Boris began prepping the sauce by chopping one large white onion. I couldn’t help but wonder if Jessi ever gets jealous of the way Boris caresses his knife. It rivaled a performance by Michael Flatley as every segment of onion ended up almost exactly the same size.
Boris told us something he learned from his grandfather. “If you always keep your knife very sharp, you’ll never cut yourself.” It’s apparently because, if the knife is sharp, you won’t need to involve the other hand to add pressure to the cut.
Boris also told us about catching one of his waiters using his knife to open a can. Now to Don Day, who has had more than one snap tab break off a can of Corona, this seemed like a beer in need is a beer indeed situation, but apparently this is not what you do with a $250 knife. I looked at the width of Boris shoulders again as I wondered what became of the waiter.
The onions went into a pot on the stove to saute in olive oil and Boris moved on to cutting six large plum tomatoes into perfect wedges. As he added them to the pan he mentioned that canned tomatoes could be used but “there’s no reason to not use fresh in Mexico.”
Next came a few small cloves of garlic.
“How much garlic you put in depends upon how much you like garlic,” said Boris and remarked that Jessi obviously had a dreaded fear of vampires with how much she puts into dishes.
“That looks like Barbie garlic”, she said about Boris’ chosen amount for the pescado a la veracruzana.
Next came a tablespoonful of capers.
“Be careful how much capers you put in,” said Boris, “as they can take over the dish. Spaniards love capers and use them at least every other day.”
Last in the pot was a cup of chopped green and black olives and piquillo peppers. The piquillo is “a chile that’s sweet with next to no heat” Boris told us.
Don Day was surprised that, except for bay leaves, a little oregano and a little salt and pepper, no other spices at all were added.
The sauce bubbled away and Boris held it up to show how much natural juice had been released by the tomatoes. Meanwhile a pot of rice was being prepared in chicken broth while the fish was getting ready to swim in the sea of sauce.
Don Day has seen pescado a la veracruzana with huachinango (red snapper), dorado (mahi-mahi) and tilapia. Boris Olvera had chosen a fish that was very similar to tilapia and that was new to Don Day. Mojarra roja is like tilapia in both look and taste except for a little red racing stripe on the side of its flesh and a little more chubbiness in its body.
We were ready. Well after Jessi cracked open a few more beers, we were ready.
The salad had lots of orange and lime citrus in it that perfectly cleansed the palate for the pescado.
The sauce was lighter, fresher than any veracruzana that Don Day had ever tasted. The capers and olives were the dominant tastes in the sauce but didn’t overly dominate the flavor of the fish that, due to the perfect amount of time in the pan, flaked beautifully with the fork. The tomatoes and onions hadn’t been boiled into submission; they were still visible and their tastes came out individually as well.
Don Day had learned how to make the perfect pescado a la veracruzana. He said to himself, “Self, you must make this for Don Day’s Wife. That and a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc will definitely save your marriage.
If you’re not personally invited to the fish dinner at Don Day’s and are looking for pescado a la veracruzana in a San Miguel restaurant, it’s not easy to find. Don Day has seen it on the menu at MuRo and Pescau and Don Day’s cooking class partner and country/folk singer superb Billie Parker (who may be back performing at La Brasserie again later this month) told me that it’s on the menu at Hecho en Mexico.
Or, even better, you could make it yourself and invite Don Day over. If that’s the case, I’m willing to share Boris’ exact recipe (it’s for eight people so let me know if I should bring six of my friends).
Pescado a la Veracruzana
2 cloves garlic
2 pounds (1 Kilo) tomatoes
1 Red Bell Pepper
1 Tbsp Olive Oil
Salt and Pepper to Taste
2 Bay Leaves
½ tsp oregano
2 Tbsp Capers
2 Tbsp Olive Relish or Black and Green Olives (about 10 each) and Piquillo Chile, chopped
8 Fish Filets
Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Saute onion and garlic. Add the tomatoes and simmer. Add the red pepper and let the mixture cook for 10 minutes.
Add the olives and capers and cook for 5 minutes. Add bay leaf, oregano, salt and pepper to taste. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes.
Add the fish fillets into the saucepan with ½ Liter of water. Put the lid on the pot and simmer for 15 minutes.
Serve over a bed of rice with fresh corn tortillas.
If you’d like to attend Boris and Jessi’s cooking classes, you can stop in to their restaurant or check for details on their Facebook page by becoming a friend of La Cocina Sma.
La Cocina de Boris y Jessi is located at 35 Ancha de San Antonio in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. They’re open from 9:30 am to 3:45 pm, Monday to Friday.