When Jacques Pépin gets ready to cook a meal at his vacation home in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, he's as laid-back as the other residents of this beach town, less than an hour south of Cancún. Strolling the aisles of the market, contemplating a mound of plump avocados or sniffing a leaf of the herb epazote, he has no shopping list in hand, no classic recipes in mind.
"It is harder if you try to make a specific dish," he says in the French accent he hasn't lost in nearly 50 years of living in the United States. The best plan in Playa del Carmen, where he and his wife, Gloria, bought an apartment two years ago, is to avoid planning altogether. "I go to the market, I see what comes knocking, and then I buy," he says.
Today, a glossy pile of poblano chiles catches his attention. "Last week when Jean-Claude was in town, we cooked these with fish, it was incredible," he says, piling them into his basket. Jean-Claude Szurdak, Jacques's best friend and fellow chef, and Jean-Claude's wife, Geneviève, often join the Pépins on vacation. "I like to add the chiles to a bed of diced jicama to simmer fish, just a little, so the fish gets tender. Then I serve the fish and vegetables on a very thick sauce, really a puree, of black beans and cilantro. Ever since I started coming to Mexico, I use a lot more cilantro," he says, grabbing a large leafy bunch.
Having a kitchen in which he can prepare dishes like these is one of the reasons the Pépins bought a vacation home overlooking the Caribbean Sea in booming Playa del Carmen, which locals claim is the fastest-growing town in the world. "It was love at first sight," Jacques says of the town. "We adored the exciting atmosphere. It's a fantastic walking town, bustling with shops and restaurants, most of them lining the main street, Quinta Avenida, or Fifth Avenue."
The Pépins spend at least two months a year in Playa (they rent out the apartment to vacationers when they're away). Given Jacques's intense work schedule, the time he spends in Playa is nearly his only chance to paint (his naturalistic watercolors, acrylics and drawings line the living room walls), play (especially boules near the beach and snorkeling around the region's famed coral reefs), rest (napping with his poodle, Paco, on the terrace), and cook for himself and for friends, just for fun.
"It is the friendliness of the people that brings us back, along with the food, of course," he says. Jacques's vacation meals in the terra-cotta-tiled kitchen are neither strictly French nor Mexican, but a delicious amalgam of the two. Along with the poblano-spiked fish, he might prepare a garlic and pasilla-chile soup mellowed with crème fraîche. Or he might make braised chicken legs and chayote with a sauce of mulato chiles and diced chorizo.
The inspiration for this chicken dish, Jacques tells me, was a beautiful basket of taut-skinned, pale green, squashlike chayote at the market. The chayote reminded him of a dish he'd made before with squab; because he couldn't find squab in Playa he substituted chicken and added chorizo for a stronger, more robust flavor that evokes squab's rich gaminess. The idea to serve this dish alongside ruddy-red achiote rice flavored with the chicken drippings came straight from his childhood memories. "You know, you're walking in woods and you smell something and all of a sudden you're five years old?" he asks as we leave the market and climb into his red Volkswagen Beetle. "That's what that rice dish is like for me. It's like what my mother would do when I was a kid. When she made a chicken, she scooped out the fat and used that to sauté the onions for a pilaf. It is called riz au gras, rice with fat. So I thought of that. But I added some of the spice achiote, which they use in Mexico and in Puerto Rico, which reminds me of my wife, because she is half Puerto Rican. So it's all these associations that build a dish. You start with one thing, it reminds you of something else, and so on."
Jacques wants to prepare his fish with poblanos and jicama for dinner, so we drive out to the beach, hoping to find a fisherman who got lucky. But when we arrive, the scene is unpromising: a dozen or so small wooden boats bob on the water, tied up and empty. "Maybe the water is too choppy, so they didn't want to go out," Jacques muses, squinting into the distance to make sure there isn't just one small boat on the horizon with our meal in tow. "Usually you find someone, but I guess not today," he says, disappointed. The week before, he and Jean-Claude had scored a 16-pound grouper for which, after some pro forma haggling, they paid about $25. "It seemed cheap to us, but the fisherman made the sign of the cross, he was so happy with the price."
Instead, we decide to stick to the unplanned, Mexican-vacation approach, and figure out what to eat for dinner while we're having lunch. It's almost 1 p.m., time to pick up Gloria at the apartment, a three-minute walk away. When we arrive, Gloria, elegant and tanned, is perched on the sofa facing the Caribbean Sea, feeding Paco shards of her chicharrones (pork rinds). "Paco loves crunchy things," she coos, caressing the poodle's black curling fur, "and I love chicharrones—it's my Puerto Rican heritage—so we're both happy." "When Paco is happy, I am too," Jacques jokes, kissing his much-adored pooch squarely on the nose. Gloria pours three glasses of chilled French rosé for us, and takes a sip. "I like this wine, where did you find it?" she asks Jacques, fending off Paco, who is intent on getting at the bowl of chicharrones. "Sam's Club, with Jean-Claude," Jacques says. "Last week, we saw ibérico ham there! You can't get that in the States, it's really hard to import there. And it was so cheap, I think no one else here knew what it was."
At Dr. Taco, Jacques and Gloria's favorite taco stand, we eat squid tacos and something called a shrimp burger, made with melted Manchego cheese and served on a bun, then mull over the problem of where to find fish for dinner. We guess that if the fishermen on the beach didn't go out in the rough waters, neither did the fishermen who supply the market. We talk about this for a while, leisurely ordering yet another taco, as the afternoon wanes and Paco falls asleep on Jacques's lap. Gloria peers at her watch and sighs. It is nearly time to go back to the apartment for cocktail hour. At dusk, Gloria tells me, monkeys regularly come out to play in the trees just below their terrace, a sight we definitely shouldn't miss. Plus, it really was getting too late to start thinking about cooking.
We finish our beers. Jacques and Gloria decide that we'll have dinner at a local restaurant they like, La Bamba Jarocha, post-monkeys. And we all agree to contemplate finding fish—or whatever else comes knocking—tomorrow. After all, that's what nice long vacations are for.
Hibiscus Tequila Cocktails
When Jacques Pépin was new to Playa del Carmen, local friends taught him how to turn the dried hibiscus flowers from the market into a tart and aromatic tea that's popular in the Yucatán. To make a refreshing cocktail, he mixes the bright red tea with tequila, lime juice, jarabe (bottled sugar syrup) and a splash of hot sauce.
2 1/2 cups water
1/2 cup dried hibiscus flowers (see Note)
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 cup tequila
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
4 dashes of habanero hot sauce
In a medium saucepan, bring the water to a boil. Add the hibiscus flowers and boil for 1 minute. Cover and remove from the heat. Let steep for 15 minutes. Strain the tea into a bowl and stir in the sugar until dissolved. Refrigerate until well chilled. Stir the tequila, lime juice and hot sauce into the tea. Pour into ice-filled highball glasses and serve.
MAKE AHEAD The hibiscus tea can be refrigerated for up to 3 days.
NOTES Dried hibiscus flowers, also called flor de Jamaica, can be found at Latin and Caribbean markets and at health food stores. In a pinch, Red Zinger tea bags can be substituted.
Garlic and Pasilla Chile Soup
Jacques's best friend, Jean-Claude Szurdak, came up with this version of a favorite local dish. The soup can be made with anchos or even guajillo chiles, but Jean-Claude prefers pasillas for their complex, earthy flavor and aromatic notes of chocolate and tobacco. The avocado and crème fraîche toppings here are key to mellowing the intense pure chile taste.
3 large dried pasilla chiles
1 quart hot water
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
1 head garlic, cloves peeled and coarsely chopped
1 large tomato, cut into 1-inch dice
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano, preferably Mexican Salt
1 cup 1/2-inch dice of country bread or baguette
1/4 cup crème fraîche or sour cream
1 Hass avocado, cut into 1/2-inch dice
1/4 cup cilantro leaves
In a large bowl, cover the chiles with the hot water; set a small plate over the chiles to keep them submerged. Let soak until softened, about 20 minutes. Strain and reserve the soaking liquid. Stem, seed and coarsely chop the chiles. Preheat the oven to 400°. In a large saucepan, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil. Add the onion and garlic and cook over moderate heat until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the chopped chiles and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Add the tomato, oregano, a pinch of salt and the strained chile soaking liquid and bring to a boil. Cover the soup and simmer gently over low heat for 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a cake pan, toss the diced baguette with the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil and spread in an even layer. Bake until golden brown, about 8 minutes.
Working in batches, puree the soup in a blender. Return the soup to the saucepan, bring to a simmer and season with salt. Ladle the soup into bowls. Top with the crème fraîche, avocado, cilantro leaves and croutons and serve.
Dried purple-black pasillas give this soup a chocolaty note, ideal with a rich, mocha-inflected red from the south of France. The Costières de Nîmes region, just south of the Rhône Valley, is known for its robust red blends in wines like the sweet, plummy, Syrah-based 2001 Château Lamargue Grande Réserve or the spicy 2001 Château de Campuget Tradition, a blend of Syrah and Grenache.
Grouper with Jicama and Black Bean Sauce
This dish was inspired by the delicious local grouper Jacques picks up at the beach when the fishermen return with their catch. Here, the skinned fillets are steamed over a bed of simmering local vegetables, including a dice of juicy jicama, which Jacques usually adds raw to salads for a cool crunch.
1 cup cooked black beans with some of their liquid (fresh or canned)
2 tablespoons cilantro leaves
1 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons fresh lime juice
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup dry white wine
2 scallions, thinly sliced crosswise
1 1/2 cups diced peeled jicama (1/2-inch dice)
1 medium tomato, cut into 1-inch dice
1/2 poblano chile, seeded and cut into 1/2-inch dice
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Four 6-ounce skinless grouper, striped bass or red snapper fillets
1/4 cup cilantro leaves
MAKE THE SAUCE:
In a food processor, combine the black beans, cilantro, olive oil and lime juice and process until pureed. Scrape the puree into a small saucepan and bring to a simmer. Season with salt and pepper and remove from the heat.
PREPARE THE FISH:
In a large skillet, combine the olive oil with the wine, scallions, jicama, tomato and poblano and season with salt and pepper. Boil for 1 minute. Season the grouper fillets with salt and pepper and arrange them in the skillet, skinned side down. Cover and simmer over moderate heat until the fish is just cooked, 5 to 6 minutes. Reheat the black bean sauce. Transfer the grouper to a platter. Strain the cooking liquid into the sauce, reserving the vegetables. Spoon the sauce onto plates and top with the grouper and reserved vegetables. Garnish with the cilantro and serve.
The poblanos in this fish dish have an earthy, vegetal character that finds an echo in a fresh, minerally white with an herbal note, such as a French Sauvignon Blanc. Various regions in the Loire Valley make wines from Sauvignon Blanc; try the citrusy 2004 Domaine du Tremblay, from Quincy, or the racy 2004 François Cazin Le Petit Chambord, from Cheverny.
Chicken with Mulato Chile Sauce
Jacques's take on chicken and rice is made with sweet, pungent and richly flavored dried mulato chiles. He uses the chile soaking liquid to braise the seared chicken with chayote, chorizo and ultrafragrant Mexican oregano. Then he serves the dish over ruddy red rice that's colored and flavored with achiote paste.
2 large dried mulato or ancho chiles
3 cups hot water
4 chicken drumsticks
4 chicken thighs
Salt and freshly ground pepper
3 large scallions, coarsely chopped
2 large garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
1 ounce firm chorizo, cut into 1/2-inch dice (1/4 cup)
1/4 cup dry white wine
1 large tomato, cut into 1-inch dice (1 1/4 cups)
1 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
2 small chayote—peeled, quartered lengthwise and pitted Achiote Rice, for serving
Put the mulato chiles in a medium bowl and cover with the hot water; cover them with an inverted small plate to keep them submerged. Let the chiles soak until softened, about 30 minutes.
Drain the chiles, reserving 1/2 cup of the soaking liquid. Stem, seed and coarsely chop the chiles.
Heat a large nonstick skillet. Season the chicken with salt and pepper and add the pieces to the skillet, skin side down. Cover partially and cook over moderately high heat until well browned on both sides, about 15 minutes.
Transfer the chicken to a plate. Pour off all but 1 tablespoon of fat from the skillet and reserve for cooking the rice (optional). Add the scallions, garlic, onion and chorizo to the remaining fat in the skillet and cook, stirring, until softened, about 4 minutes. Add the chopped chiles, wine, tomato, oregano and the reserved 1/2 cup of chile soaking liquid and simmer for 1 minute. Arrange the chicken in the skillet, skin side up. Tuck the chayote in between the pieces of chicken. Cover and cook over low heat until the chayote is tender and the chicken is cooked through, about 30 minutes.
Transfer the chicken and chayote to plates. Boil the sauce over high heat until reduced, about 4 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Spoon the sauce around the chicken and serve with Achiote Rice.
The recipe can be prepared through Step 3 and refrigerated overnight. The mulato chiles in this dish have a smoky-sweet aromatic quality that makes them terrific with Beaujolais, which is produced from the light, fragrant Gamay grape. One good choice is the 2004 Georges Duboeuf Domaine des Rosiers Moulin-à-Vent, full of peppery cherry flavor.
2 teaspoons achiote paste (see Note)
2 cups water
2 tablespoons reserved chicken fat or vegetable oil
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped (1 cup)
1 cup short grain rice
1 teaspoon kosher salt
In a small bowl, dissolve the achiote paste in the water. In a medium saucepan, heat the chicken fat or oil. Add the onion and cook over low heat until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the rice and stir well. Add the achiote water and the salt and bring to a boil. Cover the saucepan and cook over low heat until the water has been absorbed and the rice is tender, about 20 minutes. Remove from the heat and let steam, covered, for 5 minutes. Fluff the rice and serve right away.
Achiote or annatto seed paste (recado rojo) is available at Latin markets and at specialty food shops.
Grapefruit Granite with Mangoes and White Rum Mojito
Unlike traditional granita, which is stirred frequently as it freezes so that light ice flakes form, Jacques freezes his granité in a block until it is completely firm, then softens it in the fridge until it's slightly slushy before scooping it into bowls. The sauce for his light, tropical dessert is a riff on the mojito, the minty cocktail.
2 1/4 cups fresh pink grapefruit juice (from 2 large grapefruits)
3 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon grenadine
1/2 cup mint leaves, plus 4 mint sprigs for garnish
3 tablespoons sugar
1/4 cup white rum
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 ripe mangoes, peeled and cut into 4 halves
MAKE THE GRANITÉ:
In an 8-inch square glass dish, stir together the grapefruit juice, honey and grenadine. Freeze the mixture until solid, at least 3 hours. Meanwhile, in a food processor, combine the mint leaves, sugar, rum and lime juice and puree. Refrigerate the mojito. About 30 minutes before serving, transfer the granité to the refrigerator to soften. Cut each mango half lengthwise into thin slices. Pour the mojito into shallow bowls. Fan out the mango slices in the bowls and top with large scoops of the granité. Garnish with the mint sprigs and serve.
The granité can be frozen for up to 1 week.