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Recipe: Bass in Tomatillo Salsa and Acuyo, Wrapped in Banana Leaves

(adapted from Sylvia Lagunes Troncoso)

Fish fillets, cooked in tomatillo salsa with acuyo leaves, is a classic Veracruz dish. At the Pescadoria Gandara, the big indoor fish market next to the municipal fish stalls, we saw a recipe for Pescado en Salsa Verde y Acuyo al Vapor (Steamed Fish in Green Sauce and Acuyo) written on a blackboard–a useful prompt for cooks who might wonder what to do with the beautiful seafood displayed in the tiled bins.

This version is adapted from one of Sylvia’s family recipes. Although she uses negrillo, a type of sea bass, Susana suggested that we try it at home with striped bass fillets—a great idea since the tomatillo salsa adds a deliciously tart edge to the flavorful, meaty fish.

Acuyo or hoja santa (literally “holy leaf”) is a large heart-shaped leaf with an aromatic, anise-like taste that is widely used in Mexican cooking. Sylvia’s family grows acuyo in their backyard, but in the US the fresh leaves are hard to find. The dried leaf, sold as hoja santa, is widely available at Hispanic food markets and that is what we used.

I noticed that when we were served the negrillo, Sylvia’s mother carefully removed the hoja santa leaves and set them aside. As Diana Kennedy explains in From My Mexican Kitchen, there is some concern that hoja santa may be toxic. It contains “about 70 percent safrole and caphoradione A&B, two aporphine-type alkaloids of unknown physiological properties,” according to Arthur O. Tucker and Michael J. Maciarello of Delaware State University. Kennedy suggests that those who are highly allergic avoid hoja santa, although the leaves are usually not eaten in “concentrated form.” Still, if in doubt, leave them out.

To serve 4

Ingredients:

2 pounds striped bass fillets, skin removed
1 large lime
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 tablespoon garlic, finely chopped
2 pounds tomatillos (see note)
1 large jalapeno pepper, stem removed
3 fresh hoja santa leaves, finely chopped (or 1 tablespoon dried hoja santa, crumbled ) (see note)
1 cup fresh cilantro leaves
2 tablespoons olive oil
4-6 fresh or dried whole hoja santa leaves (see note)
1 large banana leaf (see note)
Aluminum foil

Method:

1. Set the oven to 350 degrees.

2. Place the striped bass fillets in a glass pan and squeeze the juice of one lime all over them. Sprinkle with garlic, and salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.

3. For the sauce: Peel the papery husks off the tomatillos, wash well and core them. If they are very large, cut them in half.

Put the tomatillos and the whole jalapeno pepper in a medium saucepan with 1/2 cup water over medium heat. Bring to a simmer, then cover and reduce the heat to low. Simmer until the tomatillos are cooked through. They will be soft and greenish yellow in color.

Remove the jalapeno pepper, cut it in half, scoop out the seeds and discard them. Place the pepper in a blender along with the cooked tomatillos and cover. Blend until the sauce is very smooth.

Heat the olive oil in a medium saucepan. Return the tomatillo sauce to the pan, along with the fresh hoja santa leaves (or one tablespoon of the dried hoja santa) and cilantro. Add salt to taste. Simmer for 5 to 10 minutes over medium low heat. The sauce should be fairly thick. Remove from the heat and allow to cool slightly.

4. For the fish: Take a glass pan, 9 X 14 inches and line it with sheets of aluminum foil, so that there are six inches of foil extending over the edges of both the long and short sides.

Rinse and dry the banana leaf. Cut or tear into large pieces and place them shiny side down, over the aluminum foil, leaving enough of the leaf on all sides to wrap the fish.

If using dried hoja santa, dip 4 to 6 whole leaves into a bowl of warm water to soften slightly. Place 2 or 3 leaves on top of the banana leaf. Pour in a little tomatillo sauce, then add the fish fillets, layering with more of the sauce. Finish by placing 2 or 3 more hoja santa leaves on top of the fish and pouring the rest of the sauce over everything.

Fold the banana leaves over the fish, then fold and seal the aluminum foil by crimping the edges, so that the fish is contained in a neat packet of banana leaves and an outer layer of foil.

Cook in a 350 degree oven for 40 minutes, or until the fish is cooked through.

5. To serve, open the aluminum foil and the banana leaf. Remove the hoja santa leaves from the top of the fish and discard. Lift a portion of the fish with a spatula onto each plate and spoon the tomatillo sauce over it. Serve with white rice that has been sautéed until golden in a little oil and cooked with chicken broth.
Note: Fresh tomatillos are available in the produce section of most supermarkets. Dried hoja santa leaves can be found at Hispanic grocery stores. We discovered fresh banana leaves at our local Whole Foods; they are often available frozen at Asian markets.

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