Juaco-Style Red Snapper Braised in Tomato Sauce

(Pescado Boca de Jauco)


Author Maricel Presilla's relatives in Cañas make this dish with red snapper, yellowtail, or grouper. To obtain those ocean fish, Nelson Ferrer—considered one of the most talented cooks in the clan—walks or rides a horse miles to the coast, where he keeps a small boat, then goes fishing to catch them. Sometimes he speeds up the trip by driving the family tractor, nicknamed "Tamarindo" because it is usually parked under a tamarind tree.

1 4-5-lb. whole red snapper, cleaned
8 cloves garlic, peeled
1/4 cup fresh bitter orange juice or 2 tbsp. fresh lime juice and
2 tbsp. fresh orange juice
12 tbsp. olive oil
1 large yellow onion, peeled, halved lengthwise, and sliced crosswise
12 ajies dulces (Caribbean peppers) or 1 Italian frying pepper,
stemmed, seeded, and coarsely chopped
1 small red bell pepper, stemmed, seeded, and sliced
1 bunch chives, finely chopped
Leaves from 2 sprigs oregano, chopped
8 ripe plum tomatoes, cored and quartered
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup flour

1. Put fish into a glass or ceramic dish big enough to hold it flat, and set aside. Crush 3 of the garlic cloves and 2 tsp. salt together with a mortar and pestle to a smooth paste, then stir in bitter orange juice. Pour marinade over fish, rubbing it onto both sides of fish and inside cavity. Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, chop the remaining 5 cloves garlic and set aside. Heat 4 tbsp. of the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and cook until golden, about 30 seconds. Add onions, peppers, bell peppers, chives, and oregano and cook, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon, until onions are translucent, 8-10 minutes. Add tomatoes and cook, stirring occasionally, until tomatoes begin to soften, about 10 minutes. Add 1/3 cup water, season to taste with salt and pepper, and cook until vegetables are very soft, about 5 minutes more. Adjust seasonings. Keep tomato sauce warm over lowest heat.

3. Scrape marinade off fish, discard marinade, and set fish aside. Heat the remaining 8 tbsp. oil in a wide deep heavy-bottomed pan, big enough to hold the fish flat, over medium-high heat. Dredge both sides of fish in flour, gently shaking off excess. Fry fish until underside is golden, about 2 minutes, then carefully turn fish and fry second side until golden, about 2 minutes more.

4. Spoon the reserved tomato sauce over and around fish in pan, cover tightly, reduce heat to medium-low, and gently simmer, basting occasionally, until fish is completely cooked through, 30-40 minutes. Transfer fish to a large platter and spoon sauce on top.

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