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The thing I can say best in Spanish is “Mi Espanol es muy mal,” which means, “My Spanish is very bad.” I have practiced saying it so many times that I pronounce it perfectly and the Mexicans in Oaxaca, where my sister, Janet, and I recently spent much of this past February and March, didn’t believe me. “No, no, es muy bueno!” they would exclaim. In my perfect-sounding Spanish, I had to admit that I didn’t understand anything. “No entiendo nada,” I responded sheepishly. I could ask any question I wanted, but god forbid I needed to know the answer.
My birthday falls in late February, and Janet and I decided to return to Pitiona, an exceptional restaurant we had been to on a former trip. We were led up to a newly constructed rooftop terrace, which afforded us a stunning view of the surrounding mountains and the nearby cathedral of Santo Domingo. I had no recollection that the menu was entirely in Spanish, but it was no surprise that the waiter spoke no English, which is often the case in Oaxaca. Usually, I can make out a good chunk of the words on any given menu, but because this restaurant was known for its innovative preparations, many of the words were foreign to me. The three words that popped out were risotto, ceviche and lechon, the latter I knew to be pork. The number tres was in the description, so I took that to mean the pork was served three ways. Janet and I briefly conferred and then, throwing caution to the wind, we ordered the creamy rice dish, the raw fish concoction and the pig.
As each dish was presented to us, our waiter went into a lengthy description we presumed to be about the ingredients and preparation. I found it interesting that he felt obliged to try to enlighten us as to what we’d be eating despite our indicating limited knowledge of Spanish. We nodded our heads appreciatively. We understood nada, but didn’t really care, as the food looked beautiful on each handmade plate and bowl (by a local ceramicist) on which it was served.
The luscious risotto was made with both rice and corn. It was studded with crispy bits of duck skin and topped with purslane, squash blossom flower petals, cilantro and small pieces of zucchini. It was terrific. The ceviche of dorado (or mahi-mahi) was sensational. Unlike other ceviches we’d had in Oaxaca, this one was all fish: chunky, fresh-tasting pieces garnished with little dabs of guacamole mousse, tiny halved green tomatoes and wee morsels of a crunchy meat of some sort. Finally, we were brought the lechon. On the bottom of the platter was a rich hash of tender pork into which were stuck shards of dark, nearly black, lacy chips that were flavored and colored with pig’s blood. (I think I discovered this when later I found a translation of the menu on the internet). The dish was finished with succulent chunks of pork in the shape of little blocks; their tops were crisp pork skin.
When Janet had made the reservation online, she had been asked whether the meal was for a special occasion. She’d replied that it was my birthday, then promptly forgot about it. So, we were both delightedly surprised when I was brought a beautiful platter with a small chocolate glazed cake; a scoop of homemade vanilla ice cream nestled in a little pile of finely grated cocoa powder; and Felicidades (congratulations) written in caramel laced with liqueur.
I felt a certain amount of pride that we had been willing to try whatever was put before us. The weirdest element, but only after I’d discovered what it had been, was the cracker tinted with pig’s blood. It hadn’t tasted strange; it was delicious. As good as the grasshoppers we had tucked into warm tortillas (along with guacamole and black beans) the day before.
Ceviche is a seafood dish made with raw fish marinated and cured in citrus juices, then mixed with other ingredients, such as tomato, onion and cilantro. It is particularly nice served on crunchy tortilla or plantain chips.
1 pound snapper, sea bass, tilapia, or flounder (or a mix of two)
1 1/4 cups fresh lime juice (about eight limes)
2 plum tomatoes, seeded and diced, about 3/4 to 1 cup
3 tablespoons minced sweet white onion, preferably Vidalia
1/3 cup finely chopped cilantro, plus 1 teaspoon for avocado
1 avocado cut into small cubes
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 serrano or jalapeno pepper, seeded and minced (optional)
Tortilla chips for serving
Cut the fish into bite-size cubes, about half-inch in size. Place the fish in a glass bowl and cover with lime juice, but reserve one tablespoon of it. Refrigerate for at least half an hour and up to two hours. Fish should be opaque. In a large bowl, gently mix together the tomatoes, cilantro, white onion and chilies. Add one tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil. Put the cubed avocado in a small bowl and season with sea salt. Add the reserved tablespoon of lime juice to the avocado and mix gently. Drain the fish well in a colander and add it to the big bowl of tomatoes, onions and cilantro. Stir to combine. Season lightly with sea salt. Spoon into an attractive serving bowl. Mound the cubed avocado in the center of the ceviche and garnish it with one teaspoon of cilantro. Serve with tortilla chips.