Puerto Rico has a unique cuisine that comes from what is available on the island with ingredients and techniques that were brought via Spain, Africa and blended with the indigenous people’s influence. The result is a wonderful base of recipes that are beloved but continue to offer a challenge chefs like my friend, Alfredo Ayala who is known as the “godfather” of Puerto Rican cuisine and enjoys playing with traditional and modern methods of cooking. Alfredo invited me to visit his home in Puerto Rico thirty years ago and I’ve been visiting at least once a year ever since. This recipe is inspired by the beautiful ocean culture of the island and also utilizes “sofrito” a blend of ingredients that is the base for almost every traditional Puerto Rican recipe.
Sofrito at its very basic is onions, peppers and cilantro. After that, you can add many things and lots of cooks have their own signature sofrito. The small aji dulce peppers used here are the most commonly used peppers in Puerto Rico. They look like very hot peppers when in fact they are quite mild and sweet but full of flavor. If you can’t find aji dulce, you can substitute green bell peppers.
In a small pot, combine the annatto seeds and 4 tablespoons of the vegetable oil. Set over medium heat until the oil is bright red in color. Strain the oil, discard the annatto seeds and set the oil aside
To make the sofrito, combine the peppers, onions, garlic and cilantro in a food processor and pulse until everything is chopped finely.
Pour the annatto oil into a medium pot and heat over medium heat. Add the sofrito to the pot and sauté over medium heat until the vegetables are tender. Pour in the chicken stock and coconut milk, add a pinch of salt and bring up to a boil and then reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook for 15 minutes then add the corn kernels and cook for another 5 minutes. Keeping the mixture over the warm stove, blend with an immersion blender until smooth. Strain the mixture through a fine sieve, pressing the pulp with a spatuala to get all the liquid out. Season the liquid with a little salt and pepper and set aside.
Heat a medium sized sauté pan over medium-high heat until hot. Add one tablespoon of the vegetable oil to the pan and then place the tomatillo slices in a single layer, flat on the bottom of the pan. Sprinkle them with a little salt and sear quickly to create a golden surface. Flip the slices sear the other side. Remove from the heat and set aside.
Season the fish on both sides with salt and pepper. Heat 2 non-stick sauté pans over high heat. Divide the remaining vegetable oil between the two pans. Once the oil is almost smoking, add 2 pieces of fish to each pan, skin side down. Immediately press the fish down with a spatula, pressing the skin to contact the pan. Press each piece of fish until all of them are flat against the pan. Reduce the heat to medium- high and continue to cook until the skin has become crispy. Flip the fish and turn off the heat. The fish will finish cooking with the residual heat in the pan. Check the doneness of the fish by inserting a metal skewer in the thickest part of the fish, letting stay in for 5 seconds, and then removing it. If the skewer is warm, the fish is done.
To serve, arrange the tomatillos in rings on the bottom of each plates. Place the fish on top of the tomatillos. Reheat the sauce for a moment and whir for a few seconds with the immersion blender to give it a foamy appearance. Spoon the sauce around the circle of tomatillos covering the base of each plate. Finish with a squeeze of lime over the sauce and serve immediately.
2 tablespoons annatto seed (achiote)
½ cup vegetable oil
20 aji dulce peppers, seeds removed (you can sub with 1 green bell pepper, diced)
2 medium white onions, peeled and diced
6 garlic cloves, peeled
½ cup fresh cilantro leaves
3 cups chicken stock
1 ½ cup unsweetened coconut milk
2 ears yellow corn, kernels only
10 small tomatillos, husk and core removed, sliced ¼ inch
4, 6-ounce red snapper filets, skin on and deboned
salt and pepper