In this episode of Chefs at Home, the executive chef of Suerte shows how to use (almost) all of a snapper to make two different recipes.

By Bridget Hallinan
September 14, 2020
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In the debut episode of our new series, Chefs at Home, Fermín Nuñez, executive chef of Suerte in East Austin, Texas, shows us how to make not one, but two dishes with just one fish—his take on ceviche, as well as a twist on the traditional dish huachinango a la Veracruzana, both using vermillion snapper. He also provides several helpful tips along the way, including a chef trick you can use to see if your dish needs more salt and suggestions for ingredient swaps, too. We’ve outlined his step-by-step process below, and you can follow along in the video above.

Butcher the Fish

You’ll be using the whole fish for these recipes (except for the fins, of course), and Nuñez demonstrates how to break it down. If you’d rather not butcher it yourself, you can ask a fishmonger to fillet it for you—you’ll need one skin-on fillet and a second with the skin off. When checking for freshness, a fresh fish won’t smell fishy and will have clear eyes and “shiny, firm skin.”

Get the Stock Going...

As for how you’ll be using the parts of the fish? The bones and head will be used to make the stock for the veracruzana sauce, and you’ll be creating two fillets from the rest of the fish. After cutting off the head and dividing the fish into two fillets, Nuñez starts the stock using cold water and brings it to a simmer—it should take just 30 to 45 minutes to cook, he says. If you didn’t butcher your fish and brought it home already filleted, you can use bottled clam juice as a substitute for the stock.

...And Prep the Fish for Ceviche

While Nuñez uses the skin-on fillet to go with the veracruzana sauce, for the ceviche, he says to take the skin off the fillet (you won’t want it on there, it will be chewy, he notes). You can also use shrimp for the ceviche, or “any type of sea bass, any type of white fish,” he says. In the video, he takes the snapper fillet and cuts it into 1.5-inch pieces, and sticks it in the refrigerator for 15-20 minutes.

Assemble Your Veracruzana Sauce Ingredients

As the fish for the ceviche chills, Nuñez preps ingredients for the Veracruzana sauce. It traditionally features tomatoes, onion, garlic, jalapeños, olives, herbs, and capers, as noted in the video—but Nuñez includes bacon in his version, saying it’s not traditional at all but that “everybody knows that tomatoes and bacon go really well together.” He renders the bacon in a cast iron skillet over low heat while grabbing the other ingredients. You’ll need onions, garlic, spring onions, Serrano peppers, tomato paste, charred tomato salsa (Nuñez uses one he made at the restaurant, but you can also use store-bought roasted salsa), green olives, capers, and “maybe some salt,” he says. 

Make the Sauce

He cuts up the onion (he tosses scraps in the fish stock pot) and slices the garlic very thin. Nuñez notes that while you’d traditionally put everything in one pot for veracruzana sauce and let it stew, he likes to layer the flavors as he goes. Next, he slices the green onions (again, tops go in the stock), and cuts up the olives as well. You can use any green olive if you can’t find Cerignola, he notes—just make sure they’re pitted to save yourself some time.

With the bacon rendered, you’re all set to make the sauce. Nuñez turns off the heat under the stock and lets it sit, and simultaneously adds the garlic to the skillet he cooked the bacon in, turning the heat to medium-high. You want the garlic to get toasty and get some color—if it still smells raw and pungent, it’s not ready, he notes. Next comes the onions, followed by the green onions. Then, he pushes the onion-garlic mixture to one side of the pan, adds more oil, and drops in the tomato paste on the other side. Frying it will intensify the flavor.

Once the tomato paste is darker in color and tastes more like “roasted, charred tomatoes,” he combines it with the onion-garlic mixture in the skillet, and then adds in the charred tomato salsa, followed by the fish stock. You can use whatever stock you have on hand, he notes, but he wouldn’t recommend water because it won’t bring a lot of flavor. Cook it until it has a “nice, thick consistency,” about 5 to 10 minutes.

Get Ready to Cook Your Fish

Nuñez grabs the skin-on fish fillet from the fridge, takes out the pin bones (fishbone tweezers are best, but you can use clean needle-nose pliers if you don’t have them), and cooks the fish on a comal he rigged “to now become a plancha.” If you don’t have a comal or flat griddle, use a cast-iron pan. Be sure to oil the surface, and make sure the pan is hot when you cook the fish.

Sear the Fish Fillet

Nuñez lightly seasons the fish before cooking, and notes to lay it on the pan (skin-side down) in the direction facing away from you. When it hits the hot pan, he says the fish will curl up. Instead of pushing it down with a fish spatula, he instead uses a spoon that was sitting in ice water and uses it to lightly touch the surface of the fish so it will relax and lay flat. He also says to lightly dab a towel with the spoon—not to the point where it’s not cold enough, but enough so that you don’t cause a lot of cold particles to hit the hot oil and cause a flare-up.

Assemble the Ceviche

Now, it’s time to prepare the ceviche. Nuñez cuts up avocado pieces to “mimic the size of the fish,” and adds it to the bowl with the fish, seasoning the mixture. After that, he adds in some sliced Serrano pepper, chopped spring onions, and some tomatillos, cut up small. While it’s “not very usual” to add raw tomatillos to ceviche, he thinks it adds a nice touch of acid to the dish. He also adds celery because it tastes like salt to him, and allows him to add salty flavor to the ceviche without using more salt. Crushed pistachios go in the mix as well.

Tweak the Ceviche Flavors

Next comes the fresh lime juice—the video notes that while marinating raw fish in citrus juice can kill bacteria, you want to use “only the freshest, most sustainably sourced fish.” Nuñez squeezes the juice over the ingredients and mixes it all together. For the best texture, let it marinate for “at least five minutes,” or up to 30 minutes. He also adds oil, tastes the mixture, and adds a little more salt and pistachios, re-tasting.

Finish the Veracruzana Sauce

If you’re wondering if your dish needs more salt, Nuñez has a helpful chef’s trick. Take a small amount of your dish (he puts it on a spoon) and season it with a little salt—if it tastes good, salt the dish.

Nuñez adds the bacon to the Veracruzana sauce, and adds in the olives and capers as well. He uses the spoon trick again to check if it needs more salt.

Garnish Your Two Dishes, and Serve

Nuñez finishes the ceviche with fresh cilantro, mint, and oregano—you can do just cilantro or oregano, but he wouldn’t recommend doing just mint—and pairs it with tortilla chips. He also plates the cooked snapper fillet over the Veracruzana sauce and garnishes it with sliced Serrano pepper and cilantro, too, saying you can serve it with lime. 

There you have it—two delicious dishes made from a single fish. Come back next Monday as we release our second episode of Chefs at Home featuring Jing Gao of Fly By Jing.