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Wood-Grilled Whole Fish Puerto Vallarta Style

This image courtesy of Joseph DeLeo

Along Mexico’s west coast. It seems like all the best seafood restaurants are flipping hinged flat baskets of butterflied, marinated fish over wood fires, fragrant with garlic and smoldering branches. And this flipped fish—pescado zarandeado is how that translates into Spanish—is for the locals about as celebratory as a cochinita pibil in the Yucatan or huge pot of mole in central Mexico. There’s strong Asian influence along Mexico’s west coast (many Chinese settled there after helping build railroads in the late nineteenth century) and it surfaces here in the use of soy sauce in the marinade and Chinese toasted chiles in oil as a condiment. But I’ve never quite understood why the marinade at Tino’s (the famous Fish Zarandeado place near Puerto Vallarta) starts with achiote. A spice that’s used practically nowhere but the kitchens of Yucatan. My marinade echoes Tino’s quite accurately except that I’ve replaced achiote with red chile puree. Butterflying a whole fish: In most places, cooks simply layout a fish (scaled, gills removed) and, holding a butcher’s knife parallel to the work surface, cut the fish in half, starting at the lips and cutting straight through the head, then the body, then the tail. Once past the head, the knife typically stays on one side of the backbone, so that the finished fish winds up in two flat half-fish pieces, one with the backbone, the other without. At Tino’s, they go one step further. Ensuring even cooking and easy eating. They split the fish in half as I described, but then remove the backbone from the piece that still has it. The two marinated sides (they look like fillets, With head and tail still attached, rib bones still in place, backbone removed) get grilled along with the marinated backbone, which Tino’s clientele enjoys picking at for the tasty nuggets that cling to the bones. If you’re not a wizard with a knife, ask the person behind the fish counter to butterfly your fish as I described (you may remove the head and tail if you wish), making sure to keep the bones to marinate and grill along with the boneless parts.

Serves4

Cooking MethodGrilling

CostModerate

Total Timeunder 1 hour

OccasionCasual Dinner Party

Recipe CourseMain Course

Dietary ConsiderationEgg-free, Gluten-free, Halal, Kosher, Lactose-free, Peanut Free, Tree Nut Free

EquipmentGrill

MealDinner

Ingredients

  • 4 dried ancho chiles or 8 dried guajillo chiles (2 ounces of chiles total), stemmed, seeded and torn into flat pieces
  • 8-ounce can tomato sauce
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 3 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
  • Salt
  • 1 3-pound whole fish (round fish like snapper, grouper or striped bass work really well), split as described in headnote OR 1½ pounds meaty fish fillets
  • Oil for brushing or spraying the basket and fish
  • 1 medium, red onion, thinly sliced, for serving
  • 2 limes, cut into wedges, for serving
  • Chinese toasted chiles in oil (or your favorite salsa or hot sauce), for serving (optional)
  • Corn tortillas, for serving

Instructions

  1. Marinate the fish. In a dry skillet over medium heat, toast the chile pieces a few at a time, pressing them firmly against the hot surface with a metal spatula until they are aromatic, about 10 seconds per side. In a bowl, cover the chiles with hot tap water and let rehydrate for 30 minutes: place a plate on top to keep them submerged.

  2. Use a pair of tongs to transfer the rehydrated chiles to a food processor or blender. Add ½ cup of the soaking liquid, along with the tomato sauce, garlic, soy and Worcestershire. Blend to a smooth puree. Press through a medium-mesh sieve into a bowl. Taste and season highly with salt, usually about 2 teaspoons.

  3. Cut ½-inch-deep diagonal slashes along the flesh side of the fish (to promote even cooking and aid in marinade penetration). Sprinkle both sides with salt. Spread or brush about 3 tablespoons of the marinade over both sides of the fish—spread some on the bones as well. (You’ll probably have marinade left over for another round of fish. It’ll keep for a couple of weeks in the refrigerator.)

  4. Grill the fish. Turn on a gas grill to medium or light a charcoal fire and let it burn until the coals are covered with white ash. Lay a grill basket over the fire. When the basket is quite hot, brush or spray it generously with oil. Spray or lightly brush the fish with oil, then lay the oiled side down on the basket: spray or brush the other side. Close the basket and lay it over the fire. Cook, turning every 3 or 4 minutes, until the fish is cooked through but still juicy—a 3-pound snapper typically takes 10 to 15 minutes.

  5. Gently and carefully open the basket and remove the fish to a platter. Serve with the red onion, lime and toasted chiles—and plenty of warm corn tortillas-for making very tasty soft tacos.

Notes :

  1. To make Pescado Zarandeado, you’ll need a large, hinged flat grill basket (like Rome’s #68 15 x 18-inch Super Grill Basket).

  2. Working Ahead: The marinade can be made a week or two in advance and refrigerated, covered. It’s best to buy the fish the day you’re cooking it; if you have to buy it the day before, wrap it well and store it in the coldest part of your refrigerator packed in ice. Marinating the fish for too long can result in oddly textured, “cured” fish, so smear on the seasoning just before you cook the fish. Which should be when everyone is ready to sit down.


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