Peter Meehan's Sinaloan-Style Grilled Fish
2 to 3 servings
About 1 hour
Last year, after Lucky Peach closed, I told Jonathan Gold that I was coming out to his city and I wanted him to show me some live-fire foods that we didn’t have in New York, he said, “I’m sure you’ve been to CONI’Seafood, you know that Sinaloan snook…” and he trailed off to list other foods that, much like Sinaloan snook, I didn’t know, or take for granted.
The menu at CONI’Seafood—the place that put this dish on the map for Angelenos and Americans not previously acquainted with the grilling traditions of Nayarit, in Sinaloa, a state south of Baja along Mexico’s Pacific coast—tells you it will be a 30-minute wait before your pescado Zarandeado is ready.
That pescado is a snook—a long, narrow, silverskinned fish that the restaurant has brought up from Mexico specifically for this dish—and, once you’ve ordered, it is dressed in a secret marinade (as the telling goes, it’s an odd mixture of bottled umami products and mayonnaise that I have done what I can to recreate), clamped into a grill basket, and grilled slowly for a half hour, rendering the fish fully but not overcooked (there are no wiggly bits at the bones).
Served with a basket of piping-hot tortillas and a bowl of onions cooked in Maggi down to sweet softness, it speaks to the transmutative work of the cooks in Nayarit who devised it. It is hard to guess at why this fish and that sauce were combined—it seems to speak of not the inspiration of the bounty of the land or sea but a “hey let's make something delicious with all this bottled crap”—but the end product is unassailable, a wonderful example of fish cookery that I immediately knew I wanted to replicate at home.
For the Fish
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/4 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons butter, melted
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon Maggi sauce
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
Juice of half a lime
Freshly ground black pepper
1 large firm-fleshed fish, split open (see the note below)
Maggi Onions (see below)
A pile of warm tortillas
1 red onion, sliced into rings
1 cucumber, sliced
A large-ish grilling basket
For the Maggi Onions
3 red onions, sliced thinly into rings
2 tablespoons Maggi
For the Fish
1. Stir together the garlic, mayonnaise, butter, soy sauce, Maggi sauce, Worcestershire sauce, and lime juice. Taste and feel free to tune it in to your preferences: more umami, more acid, etc. You can do this before or after you get the fire going—the fire needs to die down a bit but the sauce, made from almost entirely shelf-stable ingredients, isn’t wilting if you make it first, and may actually improve.
2. For the fire, heap a chimney with lump charcoal and burn it down until it becomes ashed-over coals, then spread it in an even layer under an area roughly equivalent to the size of your grilling basket. Grab some ash from underneath your grill and spread it over the coals—this is a trick I picked up in Thailand, and what it does is lightly mute the heat of the fire, while also insulating and preserving it to burn evenly a little longer.
3. Put the fish in the grilling basket, and season it with salt and pepper, then use a spoon to apply a thickish coat of sauce to the flesh side, slathering it like you would a pale-skinned two-year old going on a picnic in the desert. Clamp the basket shut. Start the fish skin-side down and let it go a few minutes so you can gauge how hot or not the fire is: you don't want it sizzling ‘n’ searing like fajitas rushing through a dining room but you do want it cooking. If it feels like it’s cooking a little slowly, that’s just right, otherwise, add or subtract coals. Flip it every three to five minutes, cooking it for 25 minutes, until both sides are well-browned, but only mottled with darker spots. I often find myself cooking it covered, for the last 10 minutes, with the grill basket handle jutting out from the grill, as the fire dies down.
4. While the fish is cooking, get the stuff you’re serving this fish with—the Maggi Onions, tortillas, etc.—together. You’ve got maybe 30 minutes at the grill but you don’t want the fish sitting around for long before eating it.
5. When the fish is done cooking, bring it up to your kitchen, unclamp it, and place it on a platter. Arrange some rings of red onion and discs of cucumbers around it in a fashion you find appealing, and serve with hot tortillas, the Maggi Onions, and a bottle of your favorite hot sauce.
1. Heat a big glug of oil in a large pot or skillet over medium-low heat. Add the onions and stir to coat in the oil. Add a big pinch or two of salt, and stir to combine. Sweat the onions, adjusting the heat as needed to keep them from browning, for around 10 minutes, or until they’ve started to soften and collapse. Stir in the Maggi and continue to cook for another 15 to 20 minutes, until the onions are completely soft and have started to melt. Set aside until ready to serve.
A Note on Buying and Preparing the Fish
You are probably not cooking snook. Snook (rabolo in Spanish) does swim in US waters; it’s a popular game fish in Florida, but it is illegal to buy or sell it there. Snooks are bass-like in their behavior and feeding patterns, so bass are a more-than-reasonable fish to swap in for them. Snapper, common in the same waters, is good too, though generally snappers are smaller, so you may need to cook a couple to serve as many people.
To cook the fish properly, you want a fish that’s had the spine cut completely out of it and opened up flat like a book. If you have an emotionally available fishmonger who is sensitive to your needs, show her a picture of this dish and say you want your fish prepped like that. Otherwise get a scaled, gutted, and de-finned whole fish and bring it home to do it yourself.
My approach was this: follow the slit in the belly (where the guts once were) with your knife and open the fish tip to tail. With the fish flat on its side, lift the top filet, and, with the tip of your knife parallel to the cutting board, start just behind the head to separate the fillet from the spine and ribs. Do not cut all the way through the topside of the fish—that’s the seam that will hold the opened-book fish together. Work your way toward the tail to release the fillet from the bones. Flip the fish over and repeat for the other side, then flay back both fillets like wings, laying the spine and ribs flat on the cutting board, and cut them out of the fish. (This required an inelegant amount of force, but got the job done.) Boom. Ready for the mayonnaise-ing.