Dorado a La Paz. I dedicate this recipe to the city of La Paz in Baja, Mexico, where I caught the fish I used when I first made this dish. Baja California Sur, more than 1,000 miles from the US border, is hot, dry, and loaded with cactus — and fish, in the nearby Sea of Cortez.
So this dish had to feature both. I had made some prickly pear syrup, which I use as the basis for the sauce here. I added to this a nopalitos salad — nopalitos is the Spanish word for the young paddles of the opuntia cactus; we call it beaver tail cactus, and it grows all over the place. Nopalitos are easy to find in any Latin market.
The fish is mahi mahi, or dorado in Spanish. And since corn is king in Mexico, I fried it simply, in a cornmeal crust — masa harina, to be exact. I also fried it in avocado oil, a flavorful oil with a high smoke point that is becoming increasingly popular. You can buy avocado oil online at Earthy Delights, or in some specialty stores. Prickly pear syrup can be hard to find outside the Southwest, so I’d suggest you buy it online.
If you’ve never eaten real Mexican food in Baja, the flavors might be new to you. Most people know what cornmeal-fried fish tastes like, but the masa harina gives it a decidedly Mexican touch. The prickly pear sauce tastes a little like tangy, spicy bubblegum — and I mean that in a good way. The nopalitos salad, with cilantro, Mexican oregano, onion and chile, is a pretty standard flavor, but the texture of nopalitos will be different; the closest thing I can link them to is okra.
Bottom line: This is a great change-of-pace dinner that isn’t very hard to pull off. It’s also a great excuse to visit your local Latino market. There’s a huge world of flavors out there beyond the regular supermarket. Here’s a chance to explore a few!
Mahi Mahi (Dorado) Baja Mexico Style
To really get the impact of this recipe, you do need all the components. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make a few substitutions and still have a great meal. As I mentioned, you can sub olive oil (or even lard!) for the avocado oil and still be very Mexican. If you can’t get good mahi mahi, other good fish substitutes would be striped bass, white seabass, tilefish, cobia, snapper, grouper, a big black seabass or maybe a big largemouth bass.
Regular oregano will work almost as well as Mexican oregano, and if you can’t find nopalitos — very possible, I might add — go a slightly different route and use jicama or chayote squash (alligator pears). Not the same flavor at all, but still in the Latin American ballpark.
Unfortunately there really is no substitute for the prickly pear syrup. If you can’t find it at a Latin market, and you don’t want to buy it online, look at BevMo or some other large liquor store: Prickly pear syrup is often used in margaritas, so you might find it there.
Prep Time: 45 minutes, mostly for letting the nopalitos salad marinate
Cook Time: 20 minutes, including boiling time for the nopalitos
- 1 1/2 to 2 pounds mahi mahi or other fish fillets, cut into serving pieces
- Fine cornmeal (masa harina if you can get it), for dredging
- 1/4 cup avocado oil or olive oil
- 1 avocado
- 1 cup Prickly Pear Syrup
- 1 to 2 dried hot chiles
- 2 cups cooked, chopped nopalitos
- 1/2 red onion, chopped fine
- 1/2 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
- 4 tablespoons lime juice (try to get key limes)
- 1 small fresh chile, such as a rocoto (chile manzano in Mexican markets), or serrano, chopped fine
- 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
- Start by making the nopalitos salad. If you have fresh, uncut nopalitos, put on some stout gloves and get a sharp knife. Slice the outside part of the paddle off, removing all the bumps — they have nasty stickers in them. Most nopales you buy are already cleaned. Boil the nopales in salty water for 10 minutes, then submerge them in ice water to cool fast. Toss the nopalitos with the lime juice, the oregano, onion, hot chile, and about a teaspoon of salt. Add 1 tablespoon of the avocado oil and mix well. Set aside, covered, for an hour or two.
- Salt the mahi mahi and set aside at room temperature while you make the sauce.
- To make the sauce, heat the prickly pear syrup over medium heat in a small pot, then add the dried chile(s). Let this warm gently to a simmer, then turn off the heat. Add some salt and taste: You want it sweet-sour-spicy-salty.
- Cut the avocado in half and slice out three thin slices per person. Coat them in lime juice and set aside. Any extra avocado you can put into the nopalitos salad.
- Dredge the fish in the cornmeal and saute in the remaining oil in a large pan set on medium-high heat. Dorado should need 4 to 5 minutes on the first side, then 2 to 3 on the other. You are looking for a golden brown.
- To assemble the dish, reheat the prickly pear sauce and pour a little on the plate. Mix the cilantro with the nopalito salad and put some in the center of the plate on top of the prickly pear sauce. Top with a piece of fish and arrange the three avocado slices on top. Serve at once.