It’s always an adventure renting a new place for a week or two in a resort-y town. Even if you’ve checked it out in advance there will always be surprises. Cy and I are in a shabby/comfortable rental condo in Provincetown that we got to see last year, a move we thought would protect us from some of the vagaries. And by and large we’re happy with the place. I think I can say that ours is the only rental in town with a baby grand piano in the living room. (We like it, even if our neighbors don’t). But the bedspread hid the dip in the middle of the mattress (great for togetherness, not so great for the back the next morning). And there’s a large, creepy portrait print of George Washington over the headboard that we didn’t notice last year. There are also a bunch of light switches that don’t seem to control anything placed where you’d think they’d actually turn something on. But the most bizarre thing is the supply of food left in the kitchen by previous renters.
When there’s the threat of a storm, people run to the grocery store to buy milk, bread, eggs, and toilet paper without thinking about it. In this vacation house, people stocked up on Worcestershire sauce, red pepper flakes, hot sauce, pancake syrup, and get this — cider vinegar. I kid you not, there are two big bottles of the stuff in the kitchen here. Hard to imagine why they thought they’d need so much, or even more than one. Even my most die-hard eco friends who clean with vinegar don’t use cider vinegar, and they certainly wouldn’t keep the cleaning stuff in the cupboard with their food.
I’d like to think that nostalgia might have played a role in all that vinegar. Provincetown’s carnival has a retro 1960s theme this year, but maybe the other renters were reaching further back. Provincetown was a fishing village for most of its U.S.-based history. The town’s mostly Portuguese fishermen took advantage of the region’s abundant fish stocks and prepared the fish with vinegar and garlic. Even back in the late1970s, you could still get Portuguese-style fish dishes in the restaurants on Commercial Street. (These days, it’s more sushi and designer pizzas.) They weren’t ceviches, but fish that was left to sit in a hot mixture of vinegar, garlic, and onions to marinate after it was cooked and served either warm or at room temperature.
Preparing fish that way – called Escabeche – isn’t exclusively Portuguese, and you can find recipes that are Caribbean (with allspice and scotch-bonnet chiles) and Greek-inspired (with oregano and olives) as well, and they’re all pretty easy to make. But some of you have asked for recipes that are more complex than the ones Dare and I have been giving you lately, and so I thought I’d stick to the vinegary theme and write about food prepared a la Veracruzana – from the Mexican city of Veracruz. Veracruzana refers to fish or chicken served with a sauce of tomatoes and various pickled delights: jalapeños, capers, and olives. Half of these are cooked with the tomatoes and the rest are sprinkled on before serving.
It makes a great vacation dish because it’s simple but elegant enough to serve to guests. You cook the sauce, cook the fish or chicken and put them on the serving platter, spoon the warm sauce over, and let it cool for an hour, two at the most. The flavors meld together and you have a dish you can get done before company arrives. Since it’s a natural for grilled fish or chicken, you don’t have to heat up the kitchen, and you can even do the whole dish a day ahead and refrigerate it, then let it come to room temperature before you serve it.
As you might expect, the keys to a good Veracruzana sauce are fresh tomatoes and really good pickled jalapeños. It’s not always easy to find good pickled jalapeños, but they’re simple to make yourself. Not to mention tastier, too. Fresh jalapeños are available in almost every grocery store, even the more remote ones. Just pickle them at least a day before you want to use them. And while it’s tough to pickle fewer than six jalapeños, you can leave the rest of them in the fridge with a note for the next renters – they’ll keep in there for a month. (If you really can’t find fresh jalapeños, look for an authentic Mexican brand of whole peppers, not the slices. I like a brand called La Morena, they’re pretty good and the label has a great drawing of a woman with an imperious scowl on her face).
Cider vinegar is traditional in Mexican food, so it works perfectly in this rental kitchen. I stole pretty liberally from Rick Bayless here, but added the corn because it’s in season now. Not every grocery store will have capers, so if you can’t find them (or even if you can), just cut one of the carrots you used in pickling the jalapeños into small pieces and add it to the sauce at the very end. Also, while white onions are used in Mexican cooking, go ahead and use regular yellow or red onions if that’s what you can find. The point is to make it easier while you’re on vacation, not more difficult.
I think the dish works best with salmon steaks or with skin-on, bone-in chicken pieces. And both of those cry out for a light- to medium-bodied red wine. The Château de Clapier Calligrappe red is 75% Grenache, 25% Syrah, and because it’s earthy rather than fruity it won’t clash with the vinegary taste of the food. And at $11 a bottle, it’s easy on your vacation-stretched wallet, too. Try this meal and you’ll definitely be looking forward to your next beach rental!
Chicken or Salmon a la Veracruzana
1/3 cup vegetable oil
8 garlic cloves, peeled
2 large carrots, peeled and sliced into ¼-inch slices
6-12 fresh jalapeño chiles
1 large onion, sliced
1-1/2 cups cider vinegar
4 bay leaves (optional)
½ teaspoon dried thyme, or 2 large sprigs fresh thyme
1 teaspoon salt
Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook until it starts to brown. Add the carrots, chiles, and onion and cook until the onion is translucent, stirring frequently. Stir in the vinegar, bay leaves, herbs, a teaspoon of salt, and 1-1/2 cups of water. Bring it to a simmer, partially cover, and cook for 10-15 minutes, until the carrots are just tender. Set aside to cool. Pour the mixture into a glass or plastic container with a lid. There should be enough liquid to cover the chiles, if not, add a mixture of half vinegar and half water with a little more salt. Store in the refrigerator at least one day, and up to a month.
¼ cup olive oil
1 large onion, thinly sliced
4 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
3 pounds ripe tomatoes (about 6 large-ish round tomatoes), chopped into ½-inch pieces
½ teaspoon dried thyme or 2 teaspoons fresh thyme
Zest of one lemon, removed with a vegetable peeler and chopped pretty finely
Kernels from 3 ears of corn
1 cup pitted, roughly chopped green olives
¼ cup capers, drained and rinsed
1 carrot from the pickled jalapeños recipe, cut into small pieces (optional)
3 pickled jalapeño chiles, cut in half lengthwise, stem, seeds, and large ribs removed, then thinly sliced
6 8-ounce salmon steaks, or 6 medium-sized chicken breast halves (skin on and on the bone), or 12 chicken thighs (skin on and on the bone)
Heat the olive oil in a 4- or 5-quart pot. Add the onion and stir and cook until just browning, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for a minute more. Turn the heat to high and add the tomatoes, thyme, lemon zest, and half of the olives, capers, and chiles. Simmer for 5 minutes, stirring often, to evaporate some of the liquid. Reduce the heat to medium-low, stir in a cup of water, and simmer for 15 minutes. Taste for salt, and add the corn and the carrots if you’re using them. Set the sauce aside to cool a bit.
Lightly oil and salt the fish or chicken, and grill until they’re just cooked. You can also broil or bake them, but outdoor grilling keeps the kitchen cool!
Spoon most of the sauce into a deep platter or large, flat bowl. Nestle the cooked fish or chicken in the sauce, top with the remaining sauce, and let it cool for an hour. Just before serving, sprinkle the dish with the remaining olives, capers, and jalapeños.