During college, and for a few years after, I worked for a fashion designer. In general I did not fit in well in the fashion world, partly because I talked to much about food and upset my dieting co-workers. I did work with one very clever manager for a spell, who realized that the best way to motivate me was food. It turns out that I can sell A LOT of very expensive dresses if you give me very expensive chocolate as a reward. This same manager was a foody herself, although not the cooking kind…the eating out kind. She was married to a stock broker and this was during an economic boom, so she had the means to support her excellent taste. One year she took all of us out to her favourite Mexican restaurant as an end of the year bonus. You know, you can get some decent Mexican in NYC now, but in the 90’s the choices were the fresh taco fast food chain or a handful of rather pricey fancy Mexican restaurants. The restaurant that our foody manager took us to was the most reasonably priced of the fancy ones. It was called Zarela, and was run by a woman of the same name.
Zarela was an extremely creative home cook who managed to successfully translate her quirky and loving interpretation of regional Mexican cuisine into a successful restaurant menu. She would walk around the dining room and personally check in with each guest. The food was amazing, homey and unexpected.
Well I am sad to say that Zarela closed a while back. I did not know it until just recently when I needed to choose somewhere to eat with a friend between the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Grand Central. For years Zarela has been the only good restaurant that I knew of in Midtown East and I went there whenever I was in that neighborhood which was, I admit, not that often.
There is a little ray of sunshine in this sad tale, well two rays…I heard that Zarela had to close because of exorbitant rent but she is looking to open another restaurant. Everyone visualize this woman finding the perfect, inexpensive space in Brooklyn! The other good news is that I bought Zarela Martinez’cookbook years ago. Food From My Heart (Cuisines of Mexico Remembered and Reimagined) is a wonderful book, filled with anecdotes about the author’s family history in Mexico and passion for food. She was also unusually generous in including many of the dishes that the restaurant was famous for, such as Creamy Rice Casserole with Poblano Chiles, Pork Loin Stuffed with Fruit, Chipotle Shrimp and of course Red Snapper Hash.
I made Red Snapper Hash in honor or Zarela this week. I have more or less given up on cooking fish in recent years…it is just too confusing to keep track of what is overfished or being farmed in good or bad ways or whatever…I just don’t eat it very often. When I do eat it I want to make it count! This is a great dish for a dinner party as it can be mostly completed in advance. The hash can be refried and plated at the last-minute.
Zarela’s Red Snapper hash
- 1/2 cup butter
- 6 large cloves garlic, minced
- 6 or 7 scallion, minced
- 3 medium ripe tomatoes, chopped
- 3 fresh chilies, not seeded, chopped
- 1/4 cup fresh chopped cilantro
- 1 and 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp ground cloves
- 2 tsp ground cumin
- 1 tsp salt
- 2 and 1/2 pounds snapper fillets, skinned (I sometimes use less fish, but keep all of the other amounts the same)
- A bit more oil or butter
- Heat the butter in a very large heavy bottomed skillet
- When the butter foams, add the garlic and cook one minute
- Add the scallions and cook for one more minute.
- Add everything else, except the fish, a let it cook for 5 minutes
- Lay the fish in the sauce in a single layer. Let it poach for 1 minute on one side then flip it and poach for 1 minute on the other side.
- Let it cool a bit and shred the fish mixing it with the sauce. If you like, this much can be completed in advance. The fish can be refrigerated for up to a day before completing the dish. I think that the flavour actually improves!
- When you are ready to serve the hash, heat up some oil or butter until it is very hot in a large skillet and fry the hash in it. I like to let it brown a bit on one side and then flip it and just let it warm for a second before serving.
The hash has a very soft texture so I like to serve it with fried tortillas for crunch with avocado on top. Some some sort of crunchy slaw would be nice in the side. Fennel, Apple and Red Cabbage slaw could be good (maybe add a bit of cilantro and some radishes?). Jicama slaw would be great! Oh! It would also be great as a fancy brunch dish with a poached egg and some swiss chard….yeah!