March 28th, 2011

Coconut-Lime Beurre Blanc, for Fish


My recent trip to Costa Rica has left me longing for the flavors of the tropics. Passionfruit. Mangos. Pineapples.


We would see them, fallen with abandon to the sandy floor of beachside groves. We would also see people gather them in pick-up truckloads, either scavanged from the fallen or cut from on-high, to be arranged alongside bananas and melons on roadside fruitstands.

“Pipas Frias”

Hand-lettered signs would advertise the immature “green” coconuts and their pure, nutrient-rich water. For under a dollar, you could purchase one of these foraged delectables, drilled with a small hole and inserted with a sipping straw.

Cool, barely sweet coconut water was so refreshing.


The coconut has remarkable versatility. From husk to coir to palm frond to trunk, there are no less than 46 documented general uses for it! Of course, we are familiar with coconut milk, the key ingredient in lush curries, or Tom Ka Kai soup. And, in Costa Rica, I found that milk in an unexpected place–cloaking a piece of sea bass at a French-styled bistro.


One day, we drove down the coastal highway to explore the neighboring town, Ojochal. We’d heard there was a farmer’s market going on, and several interesting eateries worth visiting. To our surprise, we discovered a strong French-Canadian community there.

The farmer’s market was small, held in the airy lobby of a hotel/restaurant called Citrus. What a treat! One local farmer was selling ripe tomatoes, slender green beans, and bunches of Lacinato kale. Another had fat bundles of green onions, arugula, and genovese basil. And, a vendor was selling gorgeous artisan bread. Some loaves of rustic wheat had undulating waves and a star drawn and baked into the crust. (with a taste that matched the beauty!) These had been baked by a French man further down the Ojochal main dirt road. His breads were in high demand, available only by special order, or at these markets.

After making a few purchases, we stopped at a little panaderia–a bakery/coffeehouse run by another French couple–for a cup of dark roast and croissant. We snacked under the tin roof porch and laughed every time a coconut fell with a startling crash. Here, we learned about Exotica, the long-standing and possibly best restaurant in Puntarenas province. After giving directions, the bakery owners called ahead for us too, in case we needed reservations.


Exotica is a festive little enclave–thatched hut, breezy covered patio with tables made from tree trunks, charming forged lanterns suspended from the ceiling, and flowers-flowers-flowers, all surrounded by natural bamboo and wrought iron fencing.

We were greeted by hostess and co-owner Lucy, a tall, handsome woman who radiated hospitality. She and her husband, Robert, who is the chef, have run Exotica since the 1990’s—in the early years, without electricity.

Their menu wove French and Costa Rican influences, belonging to neither cuisine, but a happy fusion of the two. We each enjoyed a salad of local lettuces in a bright citrusy vinaigrette, garnished with a huge salmon-colored hibiscus bloom. Bill had a cheese plate with camembert, boursin, and a locally crafted tomme. I chose the sea bass in garlic beurre blanc.

My fish had a delicate pan-seared crust, bathed in a beurre blanc sauce that deviated from the expected French manner. Instead of the traditional lemon-garlic-white wine reduction swirled with a heap of butter, this beurre blanc got its acid note from lime, and its buttery mouthfeel from coconut milk. There was a balance of butter and coconut milk, neither overpowering the other, with nuanced layering of garlic and lime. Served with a timbale of jasmine rice and steamed local green beans, it was a sublime dish, one that I wanted to recreate.


Simply —and with speed—-done.

Here are some notes:

The coconut milk replaces at least half the butter in a classic beurre blanc recipe, and is faster-easier to work with too. The whole process came together in about fifteen minutes, which is so nice for such elegant results.

I cooked my jasmine rice in brown butter with leeks—hence the darker color, and rich-sweet toasty flavor. Saute a handful of diced leeks in a tablespoon of butter, with a pinch of salt. When the leeks are collapsed and the butter solids golden, stir in the rice. Let the butter-leek mixture coat the grains before adding the water.

Sea bass was unavailable at the market the day I went shopping, so I chose flounder. While not as thick a filet, it was still delicious. Any mild white fish should work well.



6 oz. fresh Sea Bass fillets (or flounder, or other mild white fish)
1 fresh Lime, for zest and juice
1/2 t. each: Sea Salt, Granulated Garlic, Black Pepper
1/4 t. Red Pepper Flakes
4 T. Butter, divided (1 T. for saute, 3 T. for beurre blanc)
1/2 c. Coconut Milk (canned is fine)
Fresh Chives, for garnish

Rinse fish fillets and pat dry. Season with grated lime zest, salt, peppers, and garlic. Snip a couple of chives and sprinkle over the fillets, too.

Heat skillet and melt 1 T. butter. Sear seasoned fillets for a couple of minutes on one side (edges will turn golden) and flip. Cook for another 2-3 minutes. Remove fillets from the skillet, and place on a separate plate or baking dish.

Return skillet to medium heat. Add coconut milk and stir well, scraping up any browned bits. Add the juice squeezed from the lime and continue stirring.
Cut remaining butter (3 T.) into pieces. Turn off heat, and whisk in the butter, one tablespoon at a time. The sauce will get a glossy sheen. Taste for seasoning and adjust.

Pour the sauce over the fillets, garnish with chives and serve.

Serves 2.


Posted in Fish/Seafood, Recipes, Sauces | 23 Comments »

April 13th, 2010

Red Snapper

snapper hero 2

The new seafood vendor at our farmer’s market had red snapper fillets for sale, and it triggered a food memory, my first taste of this fish: a revelation. As a former poster child for Picky Eater’s Anonymous who wouldn’t eat fishsticks let alone something fresh from the sea, I credit red snapper caught in Saint Andrews Bay, Florida and grilled outside, at the nearby piney campgrounds as the first unraveling of years of food fear and loathing.

I was sixteen years old, thrilled to be a guest of my best friend Pat McNellis and her family on a spring break camping trip to a secluded beachtown on the Florida panhandle. It was rare for the McNellis’ to plan such a vacation and Pat’s parents, Martha and Maurice, extended an invite to her friends. Jean and I accepted.

Likely the availability of a neighbor’s pop-up camper sparked the trip. It slept four and was an easy hitch onto the McNellis Bel-Air station wagon. We were told to pack light, shorts and tops, and be sure to bring a towel, bathing suit, and pillow.

Maurice intended to fish; he hadn’t used his reel in years but was certain he’d hook a bucketful of good eating from the Gulf Stream waters. Most of the gear packed up with the camper, luggage strapped onto the Bel-Air roof.

snapper ingredients

Maurice drove, with navigator Martha and youngest McNellis daughter Laura in the front seat. They folded down the back seat, and bedded it with quilts for us four teens. Pat, sister Lynn, Jean and I each placed our pillows on alternating sides, stretched out and settled in for the long drive to the Gulf of Mexico.

Plan was to leave in the early afternoon, but getting the remaining McNellis household, Pa, the dogs, and Aunt Margaret, situated before heading out took longer than expected. Maurice didn’t aim the Bel-Air South until seven pm. “McNellis time,” Pat reminded. “People are bumping.”

No matter. It was my first spring break trip to Florida, my first camping trip too. We were all looking forward to seeing the ocean, and escaping the grind of high school—although we were saddled with English homework—a rare combination of reading absurdist plays and writing the answers, chapter by chapter, to 200 Huckleberry Finn questions.

Of course, we considered ourselves to be cutting-edge cool in 1971.
While Martha pointed out road signs and Maurice considered his casts off a long jetty, we were in our own world, spread out on quilts in the station wagon rear. Discussing the existential nature of life, the bleak vision of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, the stunning long strawberry blonde locks of heartthrob Casey George was our passion, not fishing or camping or the searing tedium of the Huck Finn homework.

Somewhere between Montgomery and Dothan Alabama Pat and I began writing our own play, “Rest Area No Restroom”

What should have taken eight hours to drive took all night. We awoke glazy-eyed on a side road where Maurice had pulled over to give his eyes a rest, about an hour from our destination.

After unpacking, we spent a lazy day on the beach. Martha set up her camp-kitchen and Maurice headed off to the jetty, tackle box in tow.

It was rough go for the man; he’d lose footing, slip on slick stones, the irregular jetty rocks more treacherous than he’d remembered. His legs got banged up pretty bad.

By early evening, Maurice emerged, knees and shins jagged rock-cut and bloody, but ruddy face beaming as he held up a string of beautiful red snapper.

prepped for the grill

We learned later that it was a bit of a ruse. Poor Maurice never caught a thing. Battered but determined, he bought some off of some other fishermen and strung ’em up on his line.

Martha had a grill ready, along with foil packets of sliced potatoes and onions. She cleaned and prepped with fish simply with salt, black pepper, paprika, and lemon, then wrapped them in foil too. After placing all pieces strategically on the grill, she joined Maurice for a Salty Dog cocktail: vodka, grapefruit juice, and little salt. Surely that would salve his wounds.

Some time later, we were called to supper, set out on a long picnic table beneath tall pines, the night sky twinkly.

both off the grill

I was hesitant, but hungry, and so took a forkful. Wow. The snapper was delicate yet firm, sweet, almost nutlike. There was light smokiness from the grill, delicious, with bits of lemon cooked onto the fish added surprising tang. It felt good to be eating something so fresh, so immediate. The potatoes and onions had charred up brown and smoky in their foil packets, too. It was a great beginning to our camping adventure.

The grueling 200 Huckleberry Finn questions were left for the ride home.

Grilled Red Snapper with Lemon and Chives
1 lb. Red Snapper fillets, boned, with skin on
Olive Oil
1 large Lemon, sliced into rings
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
6 long strands of fresh Chives
Sea Salt
Black Pepper

Rinse off the fish and pat dry. Lightly rub the whole piece with olive oil. Over the flesh side of the fillet, rub in the minced garlic and sprinkle with salt, pepper, and paprika. Lay out the lemon rings and use the chives as strings to secure, tying them like you would a package around the lemon.

This can be done in advance.

Prepare your grill or smoker. If you are grilling foil packets of potatoes and onions—do those first. The potatoes take time–about 45 minutes.

The snapper fillets can be laid out directly onto the grill and with lid lowered, cooked for 10 minutes. Placed in foil, they will take longer.
These are thin fillets and you don’t want to overcook them.

snapper hero 1

Posted in Fish/Seafood, Recipes | 18 Comments »