I had this dish many years ago while traveling, it was served as part a a “big dinner” by our hosts. The only fish soup I had tasted before was bouillabaisse (I hated it), and when our host Rolando announced that our second course was to be a fish stew my heart sank. I had to be polite, as my business – and perhaps my safety – depended upon this man’s good graces but I was not looking forward to fish in a bowl. I was proven wrong, much to my surprise. Our server brought a wide bowl to the table that had a bed of white rice, filled with coconut milk and brilliant peppers, with big chunks of white fish, scallions and a bright orange oil drizzled over it all. It smelled like something sweet and spicy, not fishy at all. After the first bite I was a fan, and although I had it a few more times on my trip I never looked for it when I came back home.
A few months ago I had some big fillets of ocean fish and was looking for a new recipe as an alternative to the obligatory deep-frying or baking with breading. Then I remembered: rewind twenty-five years or so, back to a tropical locale and the amazing fish stew I discovered: My Brazilian hosts called it Moqueca. Since I prepared it that first time it has become one of those indulgences that I make every few months. It’s tangy, creamy and spicy all at the same time with big chunks of fish marinated in lime to complement the peppers and coconut milk. I always make enough so it can be enjoyed as leftovers the next day, after the flavors have mingled overnight.
Moqueca by Mister C
2-3 Lbs White Fish Steaks (Cod, Halibut, Plaice, Sea Bass, etc)
1 Tsp Annatto Seeds
3 Tbsp Canola Oil
3 Tbsp Olive Oil
4 Cloves Garlic, minced (4 Tbsp)
3 Tbsp Lime Juice
1 Tsp Coarse Kosher or Sea Salt
1 Large Sweet Onion, diced
3 Tbsp Scallions, chopped
4 Medium Tomatoes, seeded and chopped
2 Medium Sweet Bell Peppers, chopped (pick your favorite colors)
1/2 Medium Green Bell Pepper, chopped
14oz Coconut Milk (equivalent 1 can)
Black Pepper and Hot Sauce to Taste
Serve over rice in wide shallow bowls. Suggested serving portion is 1 cup of rice per bowl.
Heat the canola oil in a small saucepan over medium-low heat, add the annatto seeds and cook for 10 minutes until the oil turns bright orange. Strain and discard the seeds, then pour the oil into a small dish and set aside for plating. Start your rice and other sides you wish to serve with the stew.
Cut the fish into large pieces and put into a large bowl or dish. Add the lime juice, garlic and salt to the bowl and toss to coat the fish thoroughly. Set the bowl aside (countertop or refrigerator) to marinate while the rest of the dish is prepared.
In a large, deep skillet or saucepan heat the olive oil over medium heat and add the onion and peppers. Sautee 3-5 minutes, until the onions begin to soften and turn translucent. Add the tomatoes and cook another 3 minutes, then add the hot sauce and black pepper to taste. Reduce the heat to low and add the fish in a single layer. Pour the coconut milk over the fish, shaking the pan gently to make sure the liquids mingle and the fish doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan. Cover the pan and simmer on low heat for 20 minutes. Give it a gentle shake occasionally to keep things from sticking.
Plate the rice, then place a generous amount of the stew over the rice – I usually add a few spoonfuls of the coconut milk from the pan for extra goodness. Drizzle some of the annatto oil over the dish and garnish with a generous pinch of chopped scallions.
I consider this a complete meal, but it may also be served as a main entree with bread and salad. Although this is a fish dish, a hearty red wine complements the heaviness of the coconut milk and provides an interesting mix of tannins to the meal.