Eric Akis: A Mexican patio meal for two

Eric Akis

If I were a waiter in a restaurant I would describe today’s recipes as a sunny and bright tasting Mexican/Caribbean-style dinner for two. The kind of meal nice to enjoy on a patio while sipping a cocktail, perhaps a margarita, mojito or rum punch.

The main dish is mojo prawns. “Mojo” is a reference to the Cuban/Caribbean-style citrusy mixture you marinate, cook and sauce the prawns with. Also flavouring the prawns are garlic, a touch of butter, which adds richness to the dish, honey, which balances the tanginess of the citrus, and aromatic spices, namely cumin and chipotle chili powder.

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Chipotle chili powder is made from ground, dried smoked jalapeño peppers. It’s sold in the bottled herb and spice aisle of supermarkets and has pleasing smoky, earthy, slightly sweet taste with a medium spice level. It’s fairly intense, so you don’t need to add a lot of it to give the mojo prawns a nice chili flavour.

Citrus also flavours the two side dishes I served with the prawns, lime cilantro rice, and Mexican-style street corn salsa.

The rice is easy to make and starts by lightly toasting the grains in hot oil.Water and flavourings are added, including lime zest and juice, and the rice is cooked until tender. You then fluff the rice with a fork and mix in chopped fresh cilantro.

The salsa is inspired by the crema slathered, cheese topped grilled corn on the cob sold by street vendors in Mexico. In this case, though, the corn is cut off the cob, charred in a hot skillet, and then mixed with the style of ingredients that street corn might be flavoured with.

For an even more filing meal, you could serve the prawns, rice and salsa with warm corn tortillas or tortilla chips, for scooping things up.

Note: All of today’s recipes do have cilantro in them, not just the rice. It’s a pungent herb that people either seem to love or loathe. If you’re in the latter camp, although the flavour of the dishes won’t be the same, you could replace it with an equal amount of mild tasting, chopped fresh, flat leaf (Italian) parsley.

Mojo Prawns

Quickly marinated, seared prawns are flavoured with a palate-awakening mixture of citrus zest and juice, garlic, spices, honey, butter and cilantro.

Preparation time: 25 minutes, plus marinating time

Cooking time: about three minutes

Makes: two servings

12 to 16 large, wild prawns (or shrimp), peeled and deveined (see Note)

1 Tbsp olive oil

1 large garlic clove, minced

1/2 tsp finely grated lime zest

1/2 tsp finely grated orange zest

1/4 tsp ground chipotle chili powder

1/4 tsp ground cumin

* pinch or two salt

1/4 cup orange juice

1 Tbsp lime juice

2 tsp honey

1 Tbsp butter, at room temperature

2 to 3 Tbsp chopped cilantro

4, 1/2 lime slices, for squeezing

Place prawns, oil, garlic, zests, chipotle chile powder, cumin and salt in a bowl and toss to combine. Let prawns marinate 20 minutes. While they marinate, combine the juices and honey in second, smaller bowl.

When prawns have marinated, set a large non-stick skillet over medium-high heat. When skillet is very hot, add the prawns and cook and sear them about one minute. Turn prawns over and cook about 30 to 60 seconds on the other side.

Pour juice mixture into the skillet, along with the butter and cilantro. Cook until the butter is melted and prawns are cooked through, about 30 to 60 seconds more.

Divide prawns and its sauce between two serving plates or dishes. Garnish with lime slices and serve.

Note: To peel a prawn (or shrimp), hold the end of the tail in one hand and use your other hand to grab onto its swimmerets, the little legs under the shell. Pull off the shell, leaving the very bottom portion of the tail intact. If the prawn was not sold deveined, now use a small paring knife to make a lengthwise slit along the back of the prawn. Pull out, or rinse out with cold water, the dark vein, if there is one, pat the prawn dry, and it’s ready to cook.

Lime Cilantro Rice

Lightly toasted rice steamed and flavoured with bright-tasting lime juice and zest, aromatic, emerald green cilantro and a hint of ground cumin and garlic.

Preparation time: 10 minutes

Cooking time: About 20 minutes

Makes: two to three servings

2 tsp olive oil

3/4 cup long grain white rice

1 small garlic clove, minced

1/4 tsp ground cumin

1 cup + 2 Tbsp water

1/2 finely grated lime zest

1 Tbsp + 1 1/2 tsp lime juice

1/4 tsp salt

1/3 cup chopped cilantro

Heat oil in a small pot set over medium to medium-high heat. Add rice and cook, stirring occasionally, for three to four minutes, until rice is lightly toasted. Mix in the garlic and cumin and cook 30 seconds more.

Add water, zest, juice and salt to the pot and bring to a boil. Cover rice, reduce heat to its lowest setting, and steam 15 minutes, or until tender. Fluff rice with a fork, mix in cilantro, and serve.

Mexican-style Street Corn Salsa

Smoky-tasting, skillet charred corn is featured in this salsa richly flavoured with such things as sour cream, tangy cheese, lime and cilantro.This recipe could be doubled or further expanded, if you wanted to serve a larger bowl of the salsa with tortilla chips.

Preparation time: 15 minutes

Cooking time: three minutes

Makes: about two, 1/2 cup servings

1 Tbsp olive oil

1 cup fresh corn kernels (see Note)

1/4 to 1/2 tsp minced garlic

1 Tbsp sour cream

1 Tbsp mayonnaise

2 Tbsp chopped cilantro

1/8 tsp ground chipotle pepper powder

1/2 tsp finely grated lime zest

1 Tbsp lime juice

2 Tbsp finely crumbled feta cheese

Place oil in a 10-inch cast iron or other heavy skillet set over medium-heat.When oil is hot, add corn and cook and stir until lightly charred, about three minutes. Mix in garlic and cook 30 seconds more.

Transfer corn to a shallow bowl and cool to room temperature. Add remaining ingredients and mix to combine.Cover and refrigerate salsa until ready to serve. It can be made many hours before needed.

Note: One medium to large cob of corn, after shucking and cutting the kernels off the cob, should yield the one cup needed here.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.

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