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Thursday, January 17, 2008

Yellowtail ceviche and Punta Lobos revisited


This post could be called, à la Friends, The One In Which Pim Drives A Hummer And Bargains For Dead Fish.

Punta Lobos is a beach just south of Todos Santos, near the tip of the Baja Peninsula, where day-boat fishermen come in to sell their very freshly caught fish to local restaurants and villagers nearby. I'd been dreaming about getting back to Punta Lobos since Paolo took me there two years ago.

Day two of our Mexico trip, I was so itching to get to Punta Lobos to see what they've got but I just couldn't seem to get any of the boys to drive me. David conveniently disappeared with his surfboard somewhere on the beach in front of the house we rented – ok, this was his annual surfing trip so I let him off. Our friend Daniel had his nose so far buried in a book he pretended not to hear my plea altogether. Not nice.

Nevermind, I thought. I knew this town well enough - been here like twice already - I was going to figure this out myself. The house we rented was just ten-fifteen minutes south of the town of Todos Santos, and I knew that Punta Lobos was somewhere between the house and town. How hard could that be? I just have to find the dirt road leading to that beach somewhere on the stretch of ten kilos between our house and the town. I'd figure it out somehow!

Then there was the problem with the car. Well, calling it - that thing we rented from the airport in Cabo - a car would have been an understatement - a monumental one. We rented a Hummer. Yes we did. Sorry mommy earth. We didn't intend to, really. There were five of us, plus multiple bags and two surfboards. Basically all they had that would fit all of us and our stuff was that Hummer and a gawdawful-looking van that would fit twelve! So the Hummer it was. And it proved to be quite handy when we found that the road leading into the luxury house we rented wasn't so much a road as a dried up riverbed, an arroyo as they call it down there.


So there I was, all five feet and three inches (on a good day) of me, staring at this metal monstrosity. Somehow my friend Stellah –bless her heart and her courage- agreed to be my partner in this car-stealing and fish-buying crime. I climbed in, Stellah, also all of five feet and not that much more than me, got in next to me. The two of us could see about three inches above the steering wheel! Luckily I eventually found a hydrolic lift, no, that thing to lift up the seat so I could see a bit farther along.

It was like driving a boat, I said. I was more right than I knew. The minute the Hummer began to move down the tire tracks along the arroyo. The top layer of sandy soil was quite loose, so it felt more like steering a boat rudder than holding on to a steering wheel of a car. But I got used to it quickly enough, and with just a wrong turn or two we found ourselves on the Mexico Highway 1, heading north toward Todos Santos.

Look for a turn-off into Punta Lobos, I told Stellah. I kept driving, keeping my eyes on the tiny two lane road masquerading as a national highway. Tell me when it's time to turn, I told her. Fifteen minutes later, I saw a tall sign of an ice-making factory and beer store on the southern edge of Todos. Hmm....that wasn't a good sign. We clearly missed Punta Lobos – this was tougher than I thought.

Undaunted, we stopped at a Super Pollo, a surprisingly good fast food chain selling charcoal-grilled chickens. We picked up two the first day in town for a quick meal at the house, and made friends with a very nice English speaking cashier there. We'd just ask our friend at the Super Pollo for directions, we decided.

As with other things in Mexico, this proved just a bit more complicated than we first thought. "What do you girls want to do in Punta Lobos", the chicken lady inquired. Well, buy fish, of course, we replied. We want to cook them. For dinner. She seemed a bit crushed that we didn't want more of her chicken for dinner. "Punta Lobos is just a bit out of town", she said. "You get out here in front of the store, and you make a u-turn and get out of town, ok?", she continued. "Then, you look for....", and she stopped to think for a minute. "You'll see...", she began again. "Well, there's this....", and she paused one more time, turning to her colleagues and fired off something rapidly in Spanish. They discussed for a minute, then she turned to us, looking a bit glum. "Well", she said, "there's no sign, no markings, no road sign, no nothing." "You just go, watch your car and go 2 kilos out of town and you see a dirt road, take it and keep going, it ends at the beach in Punta Lobos, ok?" Brilliant. Just brilliant. I can see us driving the ten-kilo stretch up and down, over and over again, looking for that darn turn off.

Realizing that would probably be the best directions we could get, I thanked her and heading back to the car. Just before I stepped out the door, turning to her, I said, "the chickens yesterday were fantastic!" "I know", she said, beaming.

Back in the car, Stellah and I headed out of town, passing the beer shop and the ice factory, going down Highway 1. There it is, Stellah said, pointing to a bare stretch of shoulder, maybe that's the turnoff. It didn't even look like a road, frankly, but I guess we didn't have much of a choice. I got off the highway and on to that barren "road". As we got a bit farther off the highway it began to look more like a road, a paved one even. We kept on going, passing a dodgy looking gate and an abandoned stone building. The road was taking us the right direction at least, getting closer to the beach as we went along, and, finally, there it was, Punta Lobos.


I saw the familiar sights I remember from two years ago, fishermen standing around tiny little boats perched right on the beach. One of the men was in the process of cleaning and cutting a large Marlin, with a chorus of pelicans quacking and fighting for attention and bits of the fish flesh. They were behaving more like house pets than wild birds, strangely enough.


"This is it", I said, excited. I jumped off the car and headed down the beach with Stellah in tow. She stopped immediately at the Marlin, you can take a girl out of Oz, you know. She was determined to get some. The guy cutting up the fish was waving us off, saying it's all sold. I walked on to another boat, leaving Stellah in awe of the Marlin.

A boat had just surfed right up with a wave on to the beach. I ran over to see what he's got. He immediately pulled out two large, gorgeous Yellowtail, posing for my camera. I had a big Canon DSLR with me. Obliged, I took a few shots, and then asked if I could buy them. Well, in my fake Spanish made up of a few French words and furious hand-waving, I managed to make myself understood.

He seemed surprised that I wanted to buy the fish, and not content with simply taking photographs like other tourists. Opening the cooler built into the bottom of his boat, he pulled out a meager snapper. You have others, I asked. He seemed confused. Other, autres, I tried French. Autres, I said, a bit louder, and pronouncing all the syllables as though it would make it easier to understand. Otros, another fisherman chimed in. Otros, he said, waving at the first guy to show me more. He pulled out a bunch more, a silver dorado, more beautiful yellowtails, and a handsome grouper. I decided to on a yellowtail, a big 4-5 pounds baby, and a few snapper he pulled out first, and a nice looking grouper.


Stellah was back to join me by then so I turned to her and told her, authoritatively, that we must, simply must bargain for the fish. Combien - I mean - cuanto, I said. He said something back to me in Spanish. Four hundred peso. No, no, no, two hundred, I said, showing him two fingers. I wasn't going to be ripped off by some fishermen, I was indignant. He looked a bit confused, or perhaps unhappy. I was a bit worried he wouldn't sell to me at all so I relented, "ok, three hundred", I proposed, showing him three fingers. Then, finally, one of the men took pity on me and said, in pretty darn clear English, he just wanted one hundred pesos! Everyone had a good laugh at my blond moment, even I did too.

I paid my one hundred pesos, the men put our assorted fish into two plastic shopping bags and sent us on our way. Before we got to the car we made a quick stop by the guy cutting up the Marlin. Somehow Stellah had managed to convince him to sell her a chunk for fifty pesos. I'm not entirely sure what we'd do with Marlin but I'm sure one of the chef-y type at home could figure something out.

We did quite a few things with the fish acquisition. But we'll just talk about the ceviche for now. The yellowtail we got was so fresh the fish didn't get into rigor mortis until it made it all the way back home into our fridge. It would have been ashamed not to try to eat it as quickly as possible, and what would be a better preparation for supremely fresh fish than a ceviche?
Before anyone got on our case about authenticity, we should just say we didn't follow any particular recipe or even tried to make it particularly authentic. We just made it with what we had around the kitchen already.


Yellowtail ceviche with avocado and tomatillo sauce

For the ceviche
1.5 to 2 pounds of yellowtail filet, cut into bite-size chunks
2 cups of lime juice
salt to taste
1/2 medium red onion, finely diced
a handful of cilantro, chopped
one or two jalapeno, finely chopped

for the tomatillo salsa
6-7 tomatillos, husk removed and washed well
1 large medium-hot chili (optional)

2-3 ripe avocados

plus a bit of extra virgin olive oil to finish


Marinade the yellowtail in the lime juice for about 1/2 hour, until the fish meat is opaque.

While the fish is marinating, char the tomatillos and chili over the flame or on a pan. When the tomatillos are brown in patches on the outside, add them to a blender and blend until smooth. Add salt to taste. You can also char the chili, remove the burnt skin, and add it into the salsa if you want to make it hot.

When the fish is ready, the meat should be slightly opaque and the texture should be somewhere between cooked fish and sashimi. Drain out the lime juice and discard the juice. Mix the fish with the red onion, add salt, and perhaps a bit more lime juice to taste. You can add some of the chopped jalapeno if you want to make it spicy. Add the cilantro and mix well right before serving.

To serve, line a large serving plate with peeled avocado slices, top the slices generously with the tomatillo salsa, then spoon the ceviche on top of the avocado and salsa. (If you like olive oil as much as we do, you can pour a bit of extra virgin olive oil on everything like we did.) Serve immediately.


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