I learn words in many ways, but the best may be in eating. The words on the menus and in the cookbooks I have from around the world have helped me conquer at least ‘parts’ of foreign languages.
I have a good knowledge of French, Italian and even some Japanese, if you allow that food is the central most important aspect of understanding a people’s tongue. My vocabulary was broadened by at least seven new words in Little Havana just the other day at a place blandly named, “Viva Mexico.”
To Spanish speakers of Mexican origin these words may not seem like much. They are ordinary nouns. Oreja, buche, maciza, cuerito, lengua are common to those who also know them in English as ear, stomach, leg, skin and tongue.
But as a person discovering most of these words for the first time, at least now they would stick in my memory because I was eating these anatomical parts. I am not a Hannibal Lecter! But I am a carnivore. You may also label me a pig eater too. It won’t make me mad. I invite you to join me in fact. All of these words and parts are found on the menu at Viva Mexico.
A small woman walked up 12th Avenue and came straight toward our table. She was holding a cooler in the crook of one arm. With her free hand she bore clear plastic containers. One held a wobbling flan and the other a kind of multi-colored fruit cocktail. Her face was deeply tanned from working in the sunlit skies of Miami. She did not speak but more mimed her offerings. She didn't seem to have a thing to do with the humble restaurant we were patronizing. Our waitress smiled at her with familiarity and did not stop her efforts to ply her trade. As we sat down, the timing was wrong for sweet things so we politely declined her offer and waited for our tacos. I’d need some lengua in my buche before I could give her my orejas after all.
I learned another word at Viva Mexico. Surtida. It means ‘mixed.’ This porky presentation picks up where many other carnitas cooks quit. Most carnitas are pork butt compilations. But the lusty "Surtida" is a mix of tongue, ears, skin, ribs, rind slowly cooked in pork fat for a leisurely period of time.
When I bit into the first Surtida taco, I was taken back to a time eating with Chef Daniel Boulud in his kitchen in New York and experiencing classic ‘Lyonnais Confit of Porc.’ Boulud was raised amidst a family that farmed and cooked. The clarity of his confit was pitch perfect. The Surtida was also, though I will bring some flaky Maldon salt my next visit.
I nodded at Janet, my wife, who was a tad less dive right in than me but willing to take a taste if I seemed to be doing well. I was doing great! I eyed the four salsas placed on the table in what is normally a tray that bartenders use for olives, cherries, lemon curls and other cocktail garnishes. Our server told me the heat level was hottest on the left and moved down the "fiery" scale as one moved to the right so I went far left and added a few carefully distributed drops from the plastic spoon provided. I took another bite and my memories of Chef Boulud were relocated to the Mexican state of Michoacán. The owner of this taco place hails from there and he’s determined to bring the real deal to our lucky town.
A few years ago I had the pleasure of doing a cooking class that “Silence of the Lambs” author Thomas Harris was in.
I wonder if he would like Surtida?
Or is he more of an "Ear Man?”
RECIPE FOR SNAPPER TACOS WITH TROPICAL FRUIT SALSA
There are many kinds of Florida snapper. I like the delicate "yellowtail" variety for this taco. Note that the yellowtail is a somewhat thin snapper compared to some varieties such as "American red" or "mutton" and will cook in a shorter period of time. But naturally you want to always choose the freshest.
Yield: 10 Tacos
1 to 1 ¼ Pounds, boneless, skinless snapper fillets
Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper, to taste
2 Tablespoons of peanut or canola oil to sear the fish in
4 Cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
3/4 Cup red onion, peeled and thinly sliced
½ Cup cilantro leaves, washed and torn
3 oz. Gold tequila
2 oz. Spanish sherry wine vinegar
2 oz. Fresh lime juice
2 oz. Fresh orange juice
2 oz. Virgin olive oil
10 Corn tortillas taco shells
1 Recipe “Tropical Fruit Salsa” (recipe follows)
Lay the fish filets on a flat dish. Season with salt and pepper.
Heat a non-stick or well-seasoned black cast iron pan on high, add the canola or peanut oil. When the pan is very hot, sear the fish fillets on both sides, shaking the pan so the fish does not stick (about 40 seconds on each side). Remove to a plate and allow them to cool.
Mix together garlic, onion, cilantro, tequila, vinegar, lime and orange juice and oil in a non-reactive bowl.
Now slide the seared fish into the marinade. Refrigerate, covered. (The "cooking time" will vary depending on the thickness of the fish. (Check it periodically, but it will generally take from between one to three hours.)
Remove the fish from the marinade and lightly brush off the fillet. Slice the fish into nicely shaped "fingers." Mound the fish, lettuces and salsa into each tortilla.
Directions for the Tropical Fruit Salsa:
1 ½ Tablespoons Spanish sherry wine vinegar
1/3 Cup olive oil
1 Tablespoon orange juice
¾ teaspoon kosher salt
1 ¼ teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
4 handfuls mixed lettuces
½ Cup papaya, diced small
½ Cup pineapple, diced small
½ Cup mango, diced small
1 Cup avocado, diced small
¼ Cup red onion, minced
To make the dressing, get a small bowl then whisk the vinegar, olive oil, orange juice, salt and pepper together. In another bowl, put the lettuces and pour enough dressing on to coat. In a third bowl, combine the papaya, pineapple, mango, avocado and onion and pour the rest of the dressing.