May it Please the Palate: Just leave me alone til dinner is done

I have a terrible reputation as an unfriendly chef. And that's just within my own family. I get brutally tense when guests track in and out of the kitchen while I am cooking. Why do they do this? I am taking care of all needs: all the vegans, vegetarians, kids' meals, low blood sugars, gluten-frees, and soy-frees. I will take care of it all.

Please don't ask me when dinner will be ready. "When it's done," I usually bark. Have some more appetizers! Have another drink!"

I recognize this is a flaw. But as a Greek, I cannot control my emotions. For example, just last week, in a settlement conference, opposing counsel was really pushing my buttons. He was lecturing me about some point of law, smugly telling me that I obviously didn't know as much as he did. I just had to respond.

The problem was, the judge began talking just as I was sarcastically telling opposing counsel, "Fine. You're the expert." I did not stop talking my nonsense until the judge yelled, "Hey! Stop!"

That got my attention.

If I can't control myself with a federal district court judge, how can I possibly do so with my own family?

At one family reunion, I hit on a solution. I would cook all by myself in my own cabin, shielding everyone else from my black moods. When the dish was all done, I would go to the main cabin where everyone else was, present it with a flourish, and happily join everyone for dinner. (I'm really very relaxed and a lot of fun once the meal is served. Honest. Just not before.)

So I assembled my ingredients, put on some Greek music, and started preparing my contribution to dinner. It was "Huachinango a la Veracruzana" or Red Snapper Veracruz, a traditional Mexican seafood dish.

All was well until my sisters came in.

"Nick! Come on to the main cabin--everyone else is there!" They worked on me. They guilt-tripped me. They persuaded me. I grumbled, gathered up my ingredients, pots, pans, and knives, and went to the main cabin. It was chaos. I wedged myself into a small space in the kitchen. Greek adults were shouting. Greek kids were underfoot. I wanted my own cabin back.

That was more than 15 years ago. Tonight I called each of my sisters to ask what they recalled of that incident. They vaguely remembered it. Each one then reminded me that they always let me into their own kitchens, without complaint.

My sister Fran said, "When you are at my house, you are welcome in my kitchen. When you ask me if I have pear chutney, I tell you yes, I have pear chutney, and give it to you. When you ask me for olives, I tell you yes, I have three kinds, and give them to you."

My sister Elaine said, "When you are at my house you are welcome in my kitchen. You are welcome even though that one time you baked those plastic shrinky-dinks in my oven for the kids, and my oven smelled like plastic for the next five years. You are welcome even though you spilled an entire roasting pan full of lamb broth on the floor, and my floor smelled like lamb broth until I replaced the tile."

I told them each, "That's funny, because you are not welcome in my kitchen. And that is because of the Red Snapper Veracruz incident more than 15 years ago."

My sisters just sighed.

Here's that recipe that caused all the trouble. Traditionally, beautiful, whole red-scaled snapper is used. But you can use fillets for ease of serving. You can also substitute less expensive types of snapper, grouper, or striped bass.

Huachinango a la Veracruzana

(serves 6)

6 red snapper fillets, 6-8 oz.

juice of one lime

1/4 cup olive oil,

kosher salt

1/2 cup olive oil

1 cup chopped onion

4 cloves garlic, minced

2 lbs. fresh or canned diced tomatoes

1/2 cup or more sliced green olives w/ pimento

2 TBS capers

2-3 pickled or fresh yellow guero chilés, chopped (or substitute Anaheim, Hungarian waxed, jalapeno, or Serrano, to taste - go easy and add more if necessary)

1 TBS minced flat leaf parsley

1 tsp. salt

2 bay leaves

1/4 tsp. Mexican oregano

1/2 cup chicken or vegetable stock

1/2 cup dry white wine

1. Marinate 6 snapper fillets in olive oil, lime juice, and kosher salt for at least 30 minutes while you make the Veracruz sauce.

2. Heat 1/2 cup olive oil. Add onions and fry a few minutes, add garlic and cook briefly.

3. Add tomatoes and simmer 10-15 minutes until thickened slightly.

4. Add olives, capers, chilés, salt, and herbs, stir, then add stock and wine. Simmer until sauce is reduced to desired thickness, another 15-20 minutes or so.

5. Preheat oven to 350°. Arrange fish fillets in a roasting pan, skin side down. Cover with sauces and bake 15-20 minutes, until fish flakes easily.

Serve over Mexican-style rice (rice sautéed in olive oil and simmered in broth), with black beans and tortillas on the side.

Conclusions:

1. Red Snapper Veracruz is a delicious and intriguing mélange of flavors.

2. My sisters are far kinder and more patient than I will ever be.

3. As for that judge ... he gave up trying to settle our case, and walked out in frustration. I have no idea why.

Published: Mon, Mar 26, 2012

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