Cornmeal Crusted Fish with Mint Chimichurri

You know you’re pregnant when you seriously consider going to the grocery store in your underwear.

We’ve had 40+ days of 100+ temps here in Texas and with that heat, combined with my HOLY CRAP hot flashes, I have basically stopped getting dressed and stopped cooking. Usually I’d suck it up and turn on the oven anyway, driven by my incessant need to cook, but the thought of doing it in overpriced-yet-still-made-of-polyester maternity pants in an already hot house while standing on swollen feet has put the brakes on my usual inclinations. Hence the total lack of blog posts lately.

Which all leads me to this recipe — a summer dish if there ever was one. This dish needs no simmering, no reducing, no baking, and unlike many “summer” dishes, no standing over a hot grill outside wondering if you might actually live on the surface of the sun. Summer grilling is for folks up north. We do that stuff in the fall.

Chimichurri sauce is a common condiment in Argentina, usually made with parsley, vinegar, onion, oil, and some source of heat like cayenne. This one uses mint, green onion, serrano pepper, lime juice, honey, and no oil, so is it really a chimichurri? I’m not sure but it sounds good anyway so I’m sticking to it. There’s a (apocryphal?) story that the original is named after an Irishman in Argentina — a hurried mispronunciation of “Jimmy McCurry” turns into “chimichurri” — so I feel a bit of leeway is built into the culture of the thing.

You’ll get to use a whole mess of mint for this sauce, which will please anyone who grows mint in the garden and has been frustrated with the fact that it grows like a weed and yet its most prevalent use is as a single sprig of garnish here and there. On a side note, does anyone else imagine that the little bugs on the mint leaves must all have minty fresh breath?

Additionally, this is a perfect meal for bikini season as it’s quite low in calories. (I suppose if you’re a dude in a Speedo you’ll like that too, but dude, really, ditch the Speedo.) You need very little oil to cook the fish and the sauce is practically calorie-free.

Now, I must again consider…we definitely Keep Austin Weird around here, but can Austin handle a sweaty preggo buying milk in her giant undies? We’ve had a thong-wearing homeless transvestite run for mayor, so why not?

Cornmeal Crusted Fish with Mint Chimichurri
A chopped herb sauce of mint and green onion warmed with serrano pepper, brightened with lime juice, and sweetened with honey makes a light summer condiment for pan-fried fish fillets with a bit of cornmeal crunch. You can use any thin white fish fillets for this dish; I’ve chosen catfish this time around.

Adapted from: Cornmeal Crusted Scallops with Mint Chimichurri, Cooking Light magazine, May 2005

Serves 3

for chimichurri:
1 1/2 cups fresh mint leaves
3/4 cup green onion, roughly chopped
1 clove garlic, peeled
1 1/2 Tbs. fresh lime juice (about 1 1/2 limes)
4 tsp. honey
2 tsp. serrano pepper, or to taste
1/4 tsp. salt
black pepper, to taste

for fish:
3 (6 to 8 oz) white fish fillets, such as catfish
1/2 cup yellow cornmeal, for dredging
1 Tbs. canola oil

For chimichurri: In a food processor, combine all of the chimichurri ingredients with 1 Tbs. water.  Process until finely minced, stopping to scrape the sides down with a spatula.  If the herbs aren’t making good contact with the blade (and stop getting more finely minced) add a little bit more water, a teaspoon at a time, to loosen the mixture so that the food processor more easily combines the ingredients. Don’t add too much water or you’ll have a watery chimichurri.

Adjust honey, lime, salt, and pepper. If your mint was bitter you might need more honey.

For fish: Pat fish dry. Season with salt and pepper. Place cornmeal in a shallow container with sides, like a pie plate.  Dredge fish in cornmeal, shaking off any excess.

Heat 1 Tbs. oil in a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Place fish in skillet; if the pan is hot enough you should hear a gentle sizzle. Cook 3 minutes, flip, lower heat to medium, and cook an additional 2 minutes.  Times will vary by thickness of fillets; the fish is done when golden brown and the thickest part of the fillet flakes easily with a fork.

For best color, do not move fish while it’s browning and avoid overcrowding your pan.  If three fillets don’t easily fit (with room to spare) in one skillet, divide them into multiple batches. Use 1 Tbs. oil for each batch and wipe out the skillet with a paper towel between batches.

Approximate nutritional info: 305 calories, 10g fat, 31g protein, 24g carb, 5g fiber.

Do you have a recipe that uses a lot of fresh mint? If so, you should post it in the comments here.

Blender Salsa with Guajillo Chilies

People love to ask pregnant women about cravings. I can’t buy pickles without someone making a sarcastic comment. I’m sure it would BLOW THEIR MIND to know I’ve been eating pickles since 1982.

I haven’t had many cravings. No desire to eat dryer lint, soil, or cigarette ashes. Not even chocolate. My husband says there’s no way to know if I want anything weird because I eat weird things all the time. (He’s referring mostly to sardines on toast. Again with the mind blowing!)

But there is one thing this rapidly expanding ass would chase like a greyhound after a fake rabbit—bean burritos.

No, not just delicious homemade bean burritos. Not just hot, fresh tortillas wrapped around lovingly seasoned beans. I’ve resorted to nasty fast-food burritos. The Taco Cabana scourge of every street corner of San Antonio. (Seriously, the Cabana must outnumber Starbucks two to one in S.A.) I can’t explain the appeal. It must be purely hormonal. A need for iron maybe.

Determined not to eat any more of that garbage, I’ve been careful to keep stocked with good tortillas and beans so I can make my own burritos.

So when I read Nick Kindelsperger’s post on Paupered Chef about a friend’s quickly blended salsa with a heavy dose of dried guajillo chilies, I knew I had to make a batch. “Batch” doesn’t quite describe the quantity here—more like an “ass ton” of salsa.  A full quart. With this on hand, I can elevate even a mediocre burrito into something quite tasty.

Nick says this salsa has “insane heat”. I should have taken this claim lightly knowing it was coming from someone living in Chicago. I live in home city of the Nuclear Taco and have enjoyed a truly endorphin-rush-inducing burn. (You don’t know what spicy food is until you’ve gotten high from it.) I’d feed this salsa to a baby; it’s not hot at all. This should have been obvious, since the guajillos are the only source of heat and they’re not very spicy chilies.

Still, this salsa was outstanding. The guajillos give it a deep chile flavor and the pureed texture is perfect for topping tacos and burritos. It’s also quite lovely with fried eggs for breakfast. If I had it in me to make tamales, this salsa would be my sauce. I tweaked it a bit; my recipe doesn’t look exactly like Nick’s, but it’s close.

If you’ve never worked with dried chilies before, you’ll be amazed by the complex flavors.  See the tips below on how to handle them for various uses.

Blended Salsa with Guajillo Chilies
Dried chilies lend their deep red color, berry undertones, and slight heat to this pureed salsa of tomatoes, onion, garlic, and cilantro. Perfect for spooning over tacos, this salsa is dark, thick, and clingy. 

Makes one quart

12 dried guajillo chilies (or substitute New Mexico chilies)
1 (28-oz) can whole peeled tomatoes, with juice
1/2 bunch fresh cilantro, roughly chopped
1/2 onion, roughly chopped
2 cloves garlic
4 limes, juiced
sugar, to taste (I used about 1 Tbs. Will vary.)
kosher salt, to taste

Pour boiling water over chilies. Let soak for 30 minutes. Drain chilies and discard the water. Cut off the stem ends, slice lengthwise, and remove the seeds. Place chilies in a blender with remaining ingredients and puree.  Adjust sugar and salt. Chill.


How to Use Dried Chilies

* Rinse or rub clean before soaking to remove any surface dust or dirt.

* Pour boiling water over chilies and soak for 30 minutes to soften. Chilies may also be toasted (but be careful not to burn) in a dry hot skillet before use to intensify their flavor.  Soaking is not necessary if adding chopped chilies to a very long-cooking soup or stew.

* Remove stems and seeds (before or after soaking or toasting).

* Pureed chilies make a flavorful paste for adding to sauces or stews. To get the blender going, add an appropriate liquid like water or stock. (For beef chili, I puree a combination of smoked and non-smoked dried chilies with a bottle of beer and add it to my chili pot.)

* Dried chilies can be stored for many months but they will eventually lose flavor. Store in the freezer for longer keeping.

* Wear gloves when removing the seeds from hotter varieties.

Balsamic-Fig Compote

It seems I claim that just about everything on this site is “fast and easy.” But, yeah, it kinda is.

Since I spent my professional life working with limited hours in a rented kitchen or with unlimited hours at god-awful times of the night (holla to the bakers who work while you sleep!) and had only four hands to do the work, easy was a must.

You don’t make a profit in a small food business unless you are seriously efficient. We turned out great food, but we didn’t make anything that took 3 hours to prep. I started out with overly ambitious menus but I’d have been broke within a year if I’d kept it up.

Over time, my area of expertise necessarily became healthy food that doesn’t take too long to make. A skill I’m especially glad to have now, since I am being kept up at all hours of the night by Little Miss Flashdance, the tiny lady residing in my pregnant belly who just loves to schedule her auditions for 3 am. Later, she’ll want to eat at 3 am. Later still, she’ll be on the phone with boys at 3 am.

So I’ll continue with the fast and easy, yes?

You already know how to cook perfect pork tenderloin, which is indeed fast and easy. Now serve that succulent strip of piggy with a luscious fig compote. This is a sweet sauce, for sure, but it’s sweet in a grownup kind of way—sweet with balsamic vinegar, honey, and the concentrated figgy-ness of the dried fruit, stewed until plump and thickly glazed with a syrupy reduction.

And yeah, it’s fast and easy.

Balsamic Fig Compote
Sweet, tangy, and succulent figs are great paired with roasted pork tenderloin. The initial prep takes very little time but the figs will have to simmer (unattended) for 20-30 minutes, so start these first before you prep the rest of the meal. 

6 Servings

1 tsp. olive oil
1/4 cup shallots, minced
1 (7-oz) bag dried figs
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
3 Tbs. honey
1/2 cup water
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp. fresh thyme, minced

Prep figs: Remove the tough stems and cut in half lengthwise.

Heat oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add shallots and cook until soft, stirring often to prevent burning with so little oil.

Add figs, balsamic vinegar, honey, and water. Season with salt and pepper.

Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer 20-30 minutes or until figs are plump and tender. If you lose a lot of water to evaporation and your figs aren’t tender, add more water, cover, and simmer longer.

Remove cover, raise heat to medium, and cook until the liquid reduces to a thick, syrupy consistency.

Add fresh thyme. Adjust salt and pepper as needed.

Note: If reheating leftover figs, you may need to add a bit of water to loosen the reduction.