Mexicans celebrate Cinco de Mayo with a feast that includes seafood

Hordes of us suffer in a cultural and culinary vacuum when it comes to south-of-the-border food.

The Mexican-food lexicon for most of us means a variety of spicy delights like chicken enchiladas in green sauce (mole verde), soft-tortilla pork (carnitas), tacos, or perhaps beef fajitas - all sizzling and satisfying - and if we're fortunate, steamy, earthy tamales, hidden in corn husks or banana leaves.

But many of us don't think of Mexican food as a showcase for the bounty of bay and ocean. With spring's Cinco de Mayo holiday upon us, why not plan a sea-kissed feast?

Cinco de Mayo commemorates a May 5, 1862 battle against French forces in the city of Puebla. The Mexicans fought with knives, stones, and sticks against Napoleon III's finest. The ragtag defenders roundly trounced the French, and now the battle is celebrated as a national holiday.

Why seafood on this cherished day? Consider that Mexico has more than 6,000 miles of coastline, along with myriad lakes and lagoons. These cool spots are a haven for savory crustaceans and little-known species of fish.

The array of fish and shellfish is dazzling; the coastal cuisines offer an untapped variety and richness, often foreign to our timid palates: Barnacles (percebes), stingray (mantaraya), dogfish shark (cazon), whelk (caracol burro), squid (pulpo) and abalone (oreja marina). In areas where ecological concerns are less important than filled bellies, sea turtle (tortuga de mar) is eaten.

For those living in the busy, mechanized world, many shellfish are too tiny and labor-intensive to prepare. But in a country where vast numbers live from the land and sea, there is a wealth of patient hands to harvest and preserve those small treasures.

Dried shrimp (camaron seco) are marketed whole or pulverized and used as a condiment. In the state of Michoacan, whitebait (charales), from Lake Patzcuaro, are used as substitutes for the more expensive and disappearing opalescent whitefish for which the area is famous.

Fish tacos are beginning to appear on menus in many local taquerias, but for the complete "ocean on a plate" experience, head to Moss Landing, Calif.'s Whole Enchilada, where chef/owner Luis Solana is a Mexican seafood expert.

Born in the state of Sinaloa, on the Pacific coast, he grew up with a deep love and respect for the sea. In his teens, he worked in his brother's restaurant in the lively Gulf Coast city of Vera Cruz.

Solana's early food training was in his mother's kitchen. "Mama Juana" had a singular gift for the handling and preparation of the traditional dishes based on the fresh catch of the day. Luis was often the "catcher" and spent hours at her side, as she cooked.

With a degree in naval engineering and respected as a contemporary painter, Solana brings to his menu qualities from both disciplines: precision and creativity. As a result, the Whole Enchilada is an excellent place to sample coastal Mexican cuisine. Diners have learned to check out the restaurant's daily specials, which allow the chef to strut his stuff.

Each Wednesday is Tamale Day, and the shrimp tamales, with Cilantro Lime Cream Sauce, are truly a tribute to Mama Juana.

Whole Enchilada's Cilantro Lime Cream Sauce

Use this satiny, subtly assertive sauce for red snapper, swordfish, halibut, or any white fish.

1 bunch fresh cilantro

1/2 cup butter

4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

1 cup chicken broth or 8-ounce bottle of clam juice

2 cups heavy cream

Juice of 2 limes

Rinse cilantro under cold running water; shake off excess water. Cut off and discard coarse stems. Coarsely chop cilantro. (There should be about 1 to 1-1/4 cups.) Melt butter in a medium-sized saucepan over low heat; add garlic and saute about 3 minutes, while stirring. Add cilantro; saute another 2 minutes. Add chicken or clam broth; bring to boil, then turn off heat and allow to cool slightly - about 10 minutes.

Add cilantro mixture to a food processor or blender. With motor running, slowly add heavy cream. Process until smooth; about 20 seconds. Return mixture to saucepan. Over medium-low heat, reduce mixture by about one-third.

Stir in lime juice. Simmer, while stirring, for about 1 minute. Yields 2-plus cups.

Seviche

Seviche - raw fish "cooked" in lemon or lime juice - is a popular appetizer throughout Latin America. Almost any white fish can be used, including sea bass, cod, red snapper, halibut, sole, even scallops. Impeccably fresh fish is more important than the particular species that is used. The freshest fish should be your first choice. In the recipe below, we've used half lemon and half lime juice. You may use all one or the other, if you prefer. The amount of spices and seasoning depends entirely on your taste.

1 pound very fresh, firm white fish (see recipe intro)

1/4 cup fresh lime juice

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon orange zest (optional)

1 to 2 teaspoons minced garlic

2 to 3 scallions, trimmed and thinly sliced

2 teaspoons hot sauce

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves (optional)

1/2 cup diced red bell pepper

1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and diced

Olive oil for drizzling

Cut fish into thin slices or 1/4- to 1/2-inch cubes. Place fish in a non-aluminum bowl. Toss with remaining ingredients except olive oil.

Cover and refrigerate for 2 to 3 hours; stirring occasionally.

Before serving, taste and add more hot sauce and salt if you wish.

If you're serving seviche as a salad course, use a slotted spoon and place it on a bed of lettuce and avocado slices. As a dip, serve with crackers or tortilla chips. Drizzle with olive oil just before serving. Pass hot sauce for added flavor.

Serves 4 to 6 as an appetizer.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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