There’s a lot of fuss in the food and wine community about flavor pairings, and even a “science” to it, if you feel like you need a scientific reason for something to taste good. Those of us who love cooking for the sake of cooking and eating because we need to do it anyway so it might as well taste good, the amount of attention given to flavor pairings can seem a little silly.
It seems silly not because we don’t want to know why things taste good together. Knowledge is still power, and we like knowing things. But we also enjoy the spontaneity of cooking. Or, in other words, using your noggin. For instance, maybe you love beef bourguignon, and because you know that beef bourguignon is delicious, you know that the particular combination of flavors in beef bourguignon is also delicious--flavorful beef, red wine, thyme, onions, mushrooms. So, by extension, you know that those flavors will work together in other contexts.
In French cuisine and most European cuisines, dishes feature complimentary ingredients, or ingredients that share flavor compounds. There’s not much to really rock the boat in the flavor department in French cuisine--there are just all these yummy, complimentary layers of flavor that build on each other to create a richly flavored dish.
But in some cuisines, this is not the case. In Indian cuisine, for instance (and we know that India is a huge place with lots of regional cuisines, but bear with us), many dishes rely upon contrast. So instead of building up one multi-layered flavor out of complimentary ingredients, many Indian dishes contain ingredients that do not necessarily have much, if anything, in common with the other ingredients called for. And yet we would argue that Indian cuisine is objectively just as delicious as French cuisine, and in our household we probably eat more Indian food than French food even though we were both brought up in white bread America.
There are other great examples of this in various parts of the world (Thai cuisine also comes to mind with its combination of sour, hot, salty, funky, and sweet flavors), but my point is that flavor pairing is not something that can be easily pinned down, which is where your noggin comes in.
And so I give you salsa Veracruz. This sauce is a flavor adventure, but a completely delicious one, not a “boy, that sure was something” one (which, now that I pause to consider it, is probably the most euphemistic of euphemisms). It’s tomato-based, with lots of herbs, briny olives and capers, spicy and sour pickled jalapenos, and cinnamon for good measure. It’s a little like Spain and Mexico met in the Caribbean to get down, and the result is something that is absolutely delicious served over white fish.
This dish calls for a few different fresh herbs. You can substitute dried herbs in a pinch (½ teaspoon of each should suffice), but you will get more flavor from fresh. For the fish, red snapper is traditional, but here in the Pacific Northwest we have access to really great halibut, so we used that. Pretty much any white fish will work--cod would be great, or even tilapia if you’re really on a budget (buy domestic tilapia if possible, as much of the tilapia coming from Asia and South America is raised using questionable practices). Heck, you could even use catfish if that’s what makes sense for you, or substitute chicken for the fish. Or you could just eat the sauce with a spoon, which is pretty much what happened to our leftovers.
Use “true” cinnamon (Ceylon, or canela) for the best result. If you prefer to grill or broil your fish, just warm the sauce and serve alongside as a condiment.
Heat in a medium saucepan over medium heat:
¼ cup olive oil
Add and cook, stirring, until softened, about 5 minutes:
1 medium onion, chopped
Add and cook 1 minute more:
4 garlic cloves, chopped
2 pounds ripe tomatoes, chopped, or one 28-ounce can whole tomatoes, chopped, with their juice
Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until slightly thickened, about 10 minutes. Tie together tightly into a bundle:
2 sprigs fresh thyme
2 sprigs fresh marjoram
2 sprigs fresh oregano
8 sprigs fresh Italian parsley
Add to the pan, along with:
½ cup dry white wine
12 pimiento-stuffed green olives, sliced
(3 pickled jalapeños, seeded and sliced lengthwise)
1 teaspoon drained capers
1 teaspoon salt
1 bay leaf
One 2-inch cinnamon stick
Bring to a simmer and cook 15 to 20 minutes or until sauce reaches the desired consistency. Taste and add salt if needed. Discard the bay leaf, cinnamon, and herb bundle.
While the sauce cooks, prepare the fish. Heat a large heavy skillet over medium-high heat for 3 minutes. Meanwhile, lightly brush:
1½ pounds skin-on halibut, black cod, salmon or other fish steaks or fillets (2 large or 4 small), rinsed and patted dry
Lay the fish skin side down in the skillet and cook, undisturbed, until the skin is brown and the flesh is firm and opaque throughout, 4 to 5 minutes. Sprinkle with:
Salt and black pepper
Turn the fish and cook for 1 to 2 minutes for medium-rare, 3 to 4 minutes for almost cooked through, or 5 minutes or more for well-done. For the last minute or so of cooking, carefully add the tomato sauce. Plate the fish fillets, spoon a generous portion of sauce on each one, and sprinkle each plate with a healthy pinch of:
Italian parsley, finely chopped
Serve with rice, roasted potatoes, or toasted bread and a simple green salad.