Jose Enrique On Cooking The Sea
A love letter to fish.
June 27, 2017 ● 3 min read
As told to Cassandra Landry by Jose Enrique | Image iStock
There are so many different varieties of fish in Puerto Rico. For me, that's a turn-on.
Variety is the key to life, in everything. I feel like fish is always seen as a second choice or a substitute. But it's that variety that moves me.
I went to cooking school and everything, but I especially love using that fish knife and feeling the bones click next to each other and knowing exactly where that knife is. That whole love for that came from one of my mentors, Christopher Ballo. He really had a feel for it. That's how I really got into butchering fish.
When you go into my restaurant, everything's on a board, in marker. There are four things that are usually there; the beef stew is usually there because I can get it, the grilled chicken, and local salads. But for the fish, most of the time I'm waiting on a call from the fishermen. "This is what we have," they'll say, "I've got 10 pounds of the snapper, 10 pounds of this grouper. We've got a little bit of swordfish, some needlefish."I'll take 10 of that and whatever of this, and it'll make up the whole menu. That'll be fish for that day, and the next day we'll do it all over again.
The snapper I'll usually have on the menu is either a red snapper, yellow snapper, mutton snapper—whatever they catch. I filet it from the inside out, and pull all the pin bones, but I keep the bones from the back fin, the dorsal fin, so you have fillets that are clinging onto the head and the tail. It makes for a beautiful presentation, with no bones. They come in when they come in; if the guy comes in with needlefish, and it's 7 pm, I'll put them on the menu in 10 minutes. I'll just squeeze tons of lime juice, put some cilantro, put some hot sauce on there. Or I'll just deep-fry them. This will be grilled, that'll be fried. The fattier the fish, the better sauté. If it's not fatty, maybe better to steam it.
Sometimes there's 15 fish on the board, sometimes there's six, but I'd rather have six solid fish and have them all be amazing. We struggle for that. Lionfish are kind of taking over; they're growing in huge amounts right now in the Caribbean, and they have no predators, so they're eating every other fish off. I just started to mess with it—it won't sauté well at all, but it'll fry well so that probably means it'll steam well...I tell the guys to just bring me the lionfish and I'll put it on the menu. It's a small way of helping out nature because we messed it up to begin with. That's something I think about a lot now.
The hard thing about fish is how fast it turns after being caught, after being butchered, after all those steps. I talk to the fishermen about draining their ice and putting new ice in, not slamming all the fish into the cooler, taking care of it throughout the whole process. If you fail at just one of those things, it affects the fish so much throughout the day or two it's in your restaurant. You can smell it, feel it. A lot of cooks and customers don't notice it, but there's something there. I can't serve that. Once you cut into a fish, it smells of nothing, really. Nothing at all. It's hardly there. Then, there's a hint. Once it smells like fish, you're beyond it. I'm maniacal about it.
I was raised on the beach. Fish was everywhere. My mom never really cooked it, but my grandparents would do codfish, salted bacalao. You get into it over time, because you're not born into loving that smell. The codfish itself grows on you, basically. Fish was hard for me as a kid, but I still remember the day I went out fishing with my cousin, and we fried the fish right there and ate it.