Salmon Veracruz will transport you (at least in your kitchen) to Mexico’s eastern coast

May 19th, 2020

Ever since I was told that the origin of French fries isn’t France (it’s Belgium, and because I’m half Belgian, this was joy), I’ve been interested in the many proper names associated with foods.

We know, of course, that there aren’t any ladies in the ladyfingers or Johnny in the Johnnycake, but how much “Lyon, France” is in potatoes Lyonnaise? Or where’s the “Anna” in pommes Anna? And why do spuds get all the cool names?

salmon veracruz
Transport yourself to the Mexican coast with Salmon Veracruz. Photo by Bill St. John.

You’d think that Bologna, Italy, would figure significantly in ragú Bolognese (it doesn’t). Or that Germany must have played a large part in the development of German chocolate cake (it didn’t).

But at least I’m safe with the famed snapper Veracruz (there called, in Mexican Spanish, huachinango a la Veracruzana) and a turn on which I give you here using salmon filets instead of whole red snapper. (It’s just easier, plus the Veracruzanos prepare the dish all the time using salmon and other fish, even chicken.)

Nothing more Veracruz-y than the sauce used to nap these proteins. You legitimately couldn’t use what goes into this sauce and not call it “Veracruz.” The thing is the definition of itself.

Plus, it’s delicious. Plus, it’s healthy.

The state of Veracruz hugs a 500 mile-long crescent-shaped strip of Mexico’s eastern coastline, sort of a satellite dish facing the Caribbean—hence, the rest of the world East.

Largely because it was just there, in that way, the first Spaniard after Columbus to arrive there landed there. His name was Hernán Cortés and, when not conquering Aztecs, he built the city of Veracruz into Mexico’s first and largest.

To this day, the cooking of Veracruz is a perfect example of its geography, both in situ and in time.

What was there before the Spanish perdures in the indigenous cooking components of corn, squash and beans (the ‘holy trinity” of native Mexican foods); seafood, of course, due to the lengthy coastline; tropical fruits such as papaya; and those well-known foods that Mesoamerica gave to the entire globe in the Columbian Exchange: chiles, tomatoes, and avocadoes.

More recipes from Bill St. John.

Veracruz cooking is the most Spanish of Mexico’s cooking. From Spain, it received — and uses in abundance to this day (check out the recipe) — olive oil, olives, garlic, capers, and many herbs not native to the Americas, such as parsley, oregano, and saffron.

The third, and nearly baleful, influence of its facing East toward Africa (from where the Spanish brought slaves to Mexico) and also the Caribbean, gives the cooking of Veracruz a sweet dose of sugarcane and some tropical fruits.

This recipe for Salmon Veracruz is nearly all-Spanish; its base is a fish, of course, which is its Mesoamerican root. Add a smidge of sugar to the sauce (a delicious lagniappe) and you can sneak in a whisper of Africa.

With the sugar, you’ll be preparing a semblance of an agrodolce sauce, combining the requisite spine of acidity of Veracruzan cooking (found most often in its marinades) with the “African” sugar. Agrodolce is a deliciously electric seasoning for food. Its roots are African, too, along the Arab north.

One dish; three continents. Not bad.

Salmon Veracruz

You’ll prepare the salmon filets as you wish: grilled, sautéed, pan-fried, poached, and so on. For a truly authentic Veracruz note, marinate the filets in lime juice for an hour before cooking them. Serve them with the sauce (for all intents and purposes, all the other ingredients cooked and combined) and, for even more Spanish flavor, alongside saffron rice. Makes 2 servings.

Ingredients for Salmon Veracruz

2 filets skin-on salmon, each about 1-inch thick

3 tablespoons Spanish extra virgin olive oil

1 medium white onion, peeled and thinly sliced

4 cloves garlic, sliced as thinly as possible

1 28-ounce can or jar peeled whole tomatoes

12 assorted green and black marinated olives, pitted or unpitted

2 small bay leaves

2 tablespoons capers, salted or in vinegar, drained, rinsed, and squeezed

2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley

1 teaspoon Mexican oregano, lightly crushed

3 pickled hot chile peppers (such as jalapeño or pepperoncini), undrained

1 teaspoon turbinado (or other light brown) sugar

1/2 lime, squeezed of its juice 

Directions for Salmon Veracruz

In a large skillet, over medium heat, warm the olive oil, then add the onions and sauté until translucent and beginning to take on color, 5-7 minutes. Add the garlic slices and cook, stirring, for 1 minute more.

Then add the tomatoes and their jar juices, crushing them lightly with your hand as you do (or use a potato masher after they are in the skillet). Mix everything together, letting the tomatoes give off their juices a bit.

Add the olives, bay leaves, capers, parsley, oregano, peppers, the turbinado sugar, and lime juice; mix well again, place a cover ajar on the skillet, and let the sauce simmer for 10-15 minutes, until slightly thickened, stirring a couple of times. Serve alongside or atop the cooked salmon, with saffron rice.

You may reach Bill St John at billstjohn@gmail.com

About the author

For more than 40 years, Bill St. John’s specialties have been as varied as they are cultured. He writes and teaches about restaurants, wine, food & wine, the history of the cuisines of several countries (France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, and the USA), about religion and its nexus with food, culture, history, or philosophy, and on books, travel, food writing, op-ed, and language.

Bill has lent (and lends) his subject matter expertise to such outlets as The Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post, The Chicago Tribune, 5280 Magazine, and for various entities such as food markets, wine shops, schools & hospitals, and, for its brief life, Microsoft’s sidewalk.com. In 2001 he was nominated for a James Beard Award in Journalism for his 12 years of writing for Wine & Spirits Magazine.

Bill's experience also includes teaching at Regis University and the University of Chicago and in classrooms of his own devising; working as on-air talent with Denver's KCNC-TV, where he scripted and presented a travel & lifestyle program called "Wine at 45"; a one-week stint as a Trappist monk; and offering his shoulder as a headrest for Julia Child for 20 minutes.

Bill has also visited 54 countries, 42 of the United States, and all 10 Canadian provinces.