Now we reach one of my favorite areas of cooking. I have a passion for cooking fish and I have a passion for the amazingly fresh fish that we have access to here on the south Pacific coast of this beautiful country.
We are not alone, however, here in Costa Rica in having fresh fish. Air travel has changed the way the world looks at fresh fish and even if you can’t get your fish straight off the boat as I do here, you can find excellent fresh fish if you know where to look. I strongly recommend developing a good relationship with one of the fishmongers at a fresh fish market and then relying on his suggestions. Many of these recipes are interchangeable and will work with more than one type of fish. It is far better to use the freshest fish than it is to use the specific fish called for in these or any other recipes.
Here at La Cusinga we have access to a number of lovely white fish; pargo, dorado, corvina and robalo that, if you cannot find at your market, are easily replaced in these recipes by striped or sea bass, gulf or Pacific red snapper (rockfish), mahi-mahi, halibut or even swordfish. The recipes calling for tuna are best done only with tuna, but tuna is now available in many, many fish markets, in the US and Europe. As I mentioned earlier, find a fish monger you trust, or be brave enough to trust your own nose. Ask to smell any fish you might have questions about. Fresh fish should have little or no smell.
One of the few things that make me sad here at La Cusinga is that we have no grill, gas or charcoal, in our kitchen, as very few things rival the taste of fresh fish cooked simply over a hot fire. If you choose to grill your fish for any of these recipes (and I would hope that you would!), there are a few guidelines to follow.
Make sure your grill is clean and your fire is hot but not flaming. It is easiest to clean your grill while the fire is hot so it can cook away any grease or flavors that might be lingering from your last time at the grill. Place the grill over the hot coals and let it heat up to the point where the grease is dripping from it. Brush the grill vigorously with a wire brush and wipe it clean with an old towel dipped in a bit of oil. Follow that wipe with another wipe from an old, but dry towel.
Allow the flames to die beneath your grill while it heats and when the coals are glowing red hot, but not flaming, it is time to put your fish on the grill. Using your oiled towel (but using a clean spot) make another pass over the grill to spread oil it. Lightly brush your fish filets with olive oil and sprinkle them with sea salt and a few grinds of black pepper.
Place the fish across the grill grates at an angle (to achieve a nice pattern on the fish) and allow to cook on the first side for 3-4 minutes or until you can sense a crust forming. Using a good metal spatula, give the fish a half turn and cook for another two minutes. Gently ease the spatula under the fish and without moving it much turn it over. The fish will not require as much time on the bottom side and should be ready in just another two or three minutes. Remove it from the grill, plate it and top it with one of our delicious sauces.
Because I do not have a gas or charcoal grilled here at La Cusinga, I have devised a method of first searing and then roasting fish that I find to be a good substitute for the flavors of the grill.
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Heat a non-stick and oven proof sauté pan (or better yet, a cast iron skillet) until it either begins to smoke lightly or water beads off it if you place a few drops on the skillet. Lightly brush the fish filets with a light olive oil and season with a sprinkle of sea salt and a few grinds of black pepper. Place the lightly oiled fish, seasoned side down into the skillet and allow to crisp for two or three minutes. When the fish has crisped and turned a golden brown (you can peek to see), flip it over with a spatula and put the pan and fish into the oven. l have been known, about three or four minutes into this process, to splash a little white wine, stock or water into the pan just to make sure the fish stays moist.
Roast the fish filets for 5-6 minutes, pull the pan from the oven, plate the fish and top it with one of our delicious sauces.
l only cook tuna on the grill or in a cast iron skillet, as l prefer that my tuna be rare. The Yellowfin Tuna that we get here in Costa Rica is a very lean fish and the meat dries out very easily if cooked much past medium rare. l recommend using this method for tuna steaks that are an inch thick or more (two inches is preferable). lf you are using thinner steaks, cut the cooking time substantially.
Heat a cast iron skillet until it either smokes, or the bottom of it turns gray. Season the tuna steaks with a good amount of sea salt and about 1/2 tsp (for each steak) coarsely ground black pepper. Press the salt and pepper into the fish. Use a non-stick oil spray to coat the bottom of the cast iron skillet and put the tuna steaks into the skillet. Allow to cook 2-3 minutes without moving and then using tongs, grasp the steaks and turn them over to sear on the other side. After three minutes on the down side l prefer to remove the tuna from the pan and eat it gloriously rare with a great spicy sauce, but you may wish to put the whole pan into a 450 degree oven for another minute or two to allow the tuna to cook to medium rare.