Friday, March 18, 2011

corvina grilled on banana leaves

So it's Lent, and fresh fish are plentiful and irresistible in the supermarket.  The fish case is full of small corvinas (sea bass) and red snappers stashed in ice.  I grew up on the prairies, and obviously didn't eat a lot of fish (Captain Highliner fish sticks were a rare treat) but adore it.  I'm figuring fish out, everything beyond breaded fillets is an adventure.

We were admiring the fish counter the other day, debating corvina or red snapper, and we finally asked the opinion of a nice man who was looking over the fish himself.  He told us corvina were flavourful enough cooked simply and that the snapper really needs a marinade or sauce.  He was a very enthusiastic advisor, and I totally took his word for it; we bought the corvina.

One of my favorite Panamanian dishes is the whole fried corvina.  It is the simplest thing, but so tasty.  The key is really, fresh fish and the short, hot, cooking time in the deep fryer.  I don't have a deep fryer or even really the will, to attempt deep frying a whole fish at home, but fresh fish and hot, cooking temperatures I can do.   I've been experimenting with grilling.

One of the problems with grilling fish is the sticky mess that can result.  So, to avoid mess I did parchment packets on the grill.  This worked well but I wasn't happy with the parchment--it's really too expensive to be practical.  I also didn't think the texture was as good as it could be, because the fish was steamed--corvina seems to get mushy when cooked like this.  It occurred to me that all kinds of things are cooked in banana leaves, and then I remembered some delicious, grilled arepas we ate on the beach in Colombia years ago--grilled on banana leaves.  A quick internet search revealed that this was a common South Asian technique for grilling fish.

I did some research and decided to stuff the fish with fresh herbs.

I used culantro and basil.  The basil that is widely available here is sweet basil, with a strong anise flavour.  It's important to slash the sides of the fish a couple of times for even cooking.  I stuffed a sprig of a basil, a couple of culantro leaves, and a pinch of salt and pepper into each fish.  I tied the fish closed with twine and brushed them with oil and sprinkled them with course sea salt.

When I had a heap of very hot coals in the barbecue, I covered the the grill with two layers of banana leaves.  I had washed and cut the spine out of the leaves making flat, paper-sized, sheets.
I didn't brush enough oil onto the leaves so I lost some skin when I flipped the fish over (at least it stuck to the leaves and not the grill).  Also I think three layers of leaves would be better.  The fish cooked very quickly 7-8 minutes a side--so make sure the rest of your dinner is ready!
getting a little dark for a photo!
The fish was excellent, the texture was flakey, and the smoky flavour from the banana leaves was very nice.  I served this fish with coconut, brown basmati and a big mixed salad with ginger miso dressing.  We drank cold beer and the kids had icy maracuya juice.

Next time I'll try some snapper in banana leaf packets.

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