Cooking in Quintana Roo
Food stylist John Carafoli finds the Yucatan's fish, fruits and vegetables are a feast for eyes and stomach.

By JOHN CARAFOLI
CONTRIBUTING WRITER
Va-ca-tion: 1.a period of suspension of work, study, or other activity, usually used for rest, recreation, or travel; 2. recess or holiday; 3. freedom or release from duty, business or activity.
While the definition of a "vacation" is seemingly straightforward, different people interpret the word quite differently. In fact, there are as many types of vacations as there are people.

The only way I can take a true vacation is to escape completely from my work and home on Cape Cod in the middle of the winter and go to Mexico. For the past eight years, I have been renting a house in the Yucatan, on a strip of deserted beach in the state of Quintana Roo, one of the last peaceful outposts.

There are no phones, no TV or radio, and no shoes or heavy clothes required for an extended stay. All that I experience is the sound of the rolling ocean, the rustling of palm trees, and a view of the sandy beach. For me, this is truly a vacation setting. The routine is the same every year. I pick up the car, buy staples at the supermarket, and drive two hours to a 10-mile road filled with potholes. As soon as I arrive at my destination, everything is left in the car. I grab my bathing suit (it was placed in the duffel bag for easy access) and off I go on a long ocean swim. Instantly, I am at ease in a remote paradise.

No matter where I happen to be, my desire for authentic, fresh food prevails. The next day, I am back in the car for a 20-minute drive, dodging the potholes to the local village. My errand is to pick up warm corn tortillas bundled in brown paper from the tortilleria (tortilla factory), and wonderful fresh produce from my favorite outdoor markets.

The wooden booths are laden with ripe red roma tomatoes - the best I have had since last summer's crop here on the Cape - and a variety of exotic fruits and vegetables. I buy tomatoes for fresh salsa along with perfectly ripe Haas avocados for guacamole and my favorite simple salad which consists of tomatoes, cut into chunks, thinly sliced white onion, a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, fresh-squeezed lime juice, salt and fresh ground pepper to taste. There is an array of beautiful, fresh chilies such as poblano, jalapeños (red and green), serrano, Anaheim and habanero (the hottest variety of chili known), as well as white and red onions, peeled by the natives.

I search out fresh fruits like papaya, mango, and delicious oranges for fresh squeezed juice in the morning, and also tangy limes for cooking and making my perfect margaritas. The food is a feast for the eye as well as for the stomach. My fish - red snapper, grouper or even barracuda and lobsters - has already been purchased from local fishing boats. I flag them down as they pass by the beach in the late afternoon. The fishermen even fillet the fish.

It is never dull cooking in Mexico with all of the fresh produce and fish, but cooking in a rented house does have its challenges. My house contains the bare minimum of kitchen equipment. The stove is a two-burner gas camping stove that I also use to char peppers, chilies and tortillas. There is no oven. For cooking rice, beans, and my "Tequila Tomato Sauce", I have only a worn-out, battered aluminum pot with a lid. For frying tortillas and eggs, there is a broken-down, non-stick pan. I do insist on one luxury though: the sharp, professional knives that I bring from home.

Several of the meals I cook in Mexico are hard to reproduce here in the U.S. Many of the products, like unpasteurized cream, cheeses and some produce items, are just not available and substitutes have the tendency to yield completely different flavors. I have kept any hard-to-find ingredients to a minimum in the following recipes.

This colorful, exciting fiesta dinner exemplifies all that makes cooking in Mexico such an adventure for me. All of the produces may be found in your local supermarket.

My trips to Mexico have turned me into a perfectionist - no, a snob - when it comes to my favorite cocktail, the margarita. I'll happily wait to enjoy them until winter, when limes are at their peak because their flavors are at their best. I do part company, however, with those who insist on the conventional bell-shaped margarita glass. On vacation, or if I am serving more people than I have glasses for, I'll use a small, one-cup water tumbler with straight edges.

It is essential to start with a quality 100 percent agave (the plant tequila is made from) tequila. Look for reposado, which means aged. Never consider using a mix, and use only fresh lime juice. After mixing, let it rest in the pitcher for several minutes before pouring the four servings. Melting the ice slightly is an essential step for the success of this drink. As an accompaniment, I fry up some quartered, corn tortillas for chips and serve them with salsa.

Carafoli's Favorite Margarita

1 lime wedge

Several tablespoons salt, preferably kosher

5 ounces tequila

4 ounces Cointreau

3 to 4 ounces fresh lime juice

8 to 10 ice cubes, crushed

Moisten the rims of four stemmed glasses with the lime wedge. Pour salt into a small, flat dish and swirl the rims of the glasses in the salt to coat. In a large pitcher, combine the tequila, Cointreau, lime juice and ice. Stir to mix and let stand for several minutes. Stir again just before pouring into prepared glasses, and garnish with a lime wheel if desired.

I developed this recipe in Mexico using grouper, but you can use any firm, white fish. Serve with rice and black beans topped with a little sour cream. Also, serve warm flour tortillas in a basket with a colorful napkin.

Fish in Tequila Tomato Sauce

6 tablespoons olive oil

2 medium onions, chopped

1 Poblano pepper, seeded and cut into strips

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/4 cup tequila

3 tablespoons Cointreau

1 (32-ounce) can whole plum tomatoes, crushed

3 bay leaves

3 tablespoons capers

1 1/2 tablespoons fresh chopped herbs (thyme, marjoram and oregano)

10 black peppercorns, crushed

1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves, roughly chopped

Salt to taste

Flour for the fish (about 1/2 cup)

2 tablespoons butter

3 pounds haddock fillets or any other firm, white fish, cut into 6 pieces

Heat 3 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large skillet. Add the onions and poblano pepper and sauté until translucent and tender. Add garlic and cook for 3 minutes, being careful not to burn the garlic. 2. Remove pan from heat, to a place with no flammable materials nearby. Add the tequila and Cointreau, and, while turning your face away from the pan, ignite. Return to heat and shake pan until flames dissipate, cooking for 3 to 4 minutes until alcohol evaporates.

Add the tomatoes, bay leaves, capers, herbs, peppercorns, cilantro and salt. Cover and cook for 20 to 30 minutes over medium heat.

Dredge the fish in flour, shaking off excess. In a sauté pan or cast iron skillet heat the remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil and 2 tablespoons butter and quickly sauté the fish until golden, turning carefully (approximately one to two minutes per side).

Transfer the fillets to the tomato mixture, and cover with sauce. Reduce heat to low and simmer, covered, for 10 to 12 minutes or until fish flakes when tested with a fork.

Salsa Cruda, nothing more than uncooked tomato sauce, is one of the most common condiments in Mexico. Serve it with warm tortilla chips. Try making your own tortilla chips by cutting the tortillas in quarters and frying them in vegetable oil. Drain them on paper towels and then sprinkle with a little salt. The aroma will fill the house and your guests will be impressed when they come through the door thinking they are in a real Mexican kitchen. For a colorful appetizer, steam some mussels or Cherrystones, place them on a large platter, and top with this sauce.

Salsa Cruda

3 medium ripe but firm tomatoes, chopped

1 or 2 jalapeño peppers, seeded, ribs removed and finely chopped

1 medium red, green or yellow pepper, seeded, ribs removed and finely chopped

1/2 cup cilantro leaves, finely chopped

1 medium white onion, finely chopped

Juice of 1 lime

Salt to taste

In a medium bowl, combine all ingredients. Mix well and serve at room temperature. Makes about 2 1/2 cups.

(Published: March 5, 2003)