A Mexican-American craftsman, Carlos, has been doing a lot of work at my house lately. He is kind about my embryonic Spanish, and answers questions cheerfully and without laughing at me ... too much.
One day, I pointed at my Chemex coffeepot. “Que es esto? Una olla de café?” I asked him. I had thought this through carefully. “Olla” means pot, and “café” means coffee. Logically, a coffee pot could be “una olla de café,” right?
He grinned before he managed to get his face under control. “No, mija. Una olla es mucho más grande, para cocinar. Esto es una cafeterra” — essentially explaining that an “olla” is much bigger and used for cooking.
In the course of such abbreviated conversations, I began to understand that Carlos loves to cook, and little by little, he told me about dishes that he likes to prepare for his family. Sometimes he had photos of the finished dishes on his phone to show me.
Here was the beautiful white sangria, bedazzled with berries, that he’d served at a family fiesta the week before.
And here was the ceviche he’d made, chock-full of shrimp, octopus and other gifts of the sea. There was a platter of oysters — “ostiones,” he said, grilled in the half shell and topped with garlic and butter.
Holy smoke. This guy wasn’t kidding. He does love to cook.
One picture he showed me puzzled me, because I hadn’t seen a dish that looked like that. “Que es esto?” I said, again using my all-purpose question.
“Ah, es aguachile,” Carlos said.
I pondered that. “Water chile?”
Carlos grinned again. No, he said. It’s just the name of the dish. And then he began to tell me how to make it.
“Someday, mija, you come to my house to eat? I will make it for you.”
I look forward to that day, but in the meantime, this is how I made my first batch of aguachile, following Carlos’s directions.
Makes 2 servings
This dish is meant to be spicy. If you use red chiles, you’ll get a red aguachile, but I like the green version. I find serrano chiles to be more reliably hot than jalapeños, but use what you can find. This dish isn’t a prep-ahead dish – it’s quick and it’s best the day you make it.
1 ¼ cups fresh squeezed lime juice, from 6 to 8 limes
4 fresh serrano chiles
½ cup chopped fresh cilantro, including stems (reserve a little for garnishing the finished dish)
1 ½ teaspoons salt, divided, or to taste
1 pound large raw shrimp, peeled, deveined and butterflied
1 cucumber, sliced
1 small red onion, thinly sliced
1 avocado, pitted and sliced or diced
Combine lime juice, chiles, cilantro, and 1 teaspoon salt in a blender; blend until smooth.
Place shrimp on a shallow platter or in a shallow bowl.
Pour chile-lime mixture evenly over the shrimp. Place in the refrigerator and marinate until the shrimp turn opaque and white, 25 minutes to an hour.
While the shrimp marinates, seed the cucumber by peeling it, then cutting it in half lengthwise. Use a spoon to scoop out the seeds and discard them. Cut the cucumber halves once again lengthwise, then cut crosswise into slices about one-half inch wide. Set aside.
When the shrimp is done marinating — it will be pink and white — add the cucumber, red onion, and avocado to shrimp. Stir to combine well, then divide the shrimp between two plates. Dress each plate with a little chopped cilantro and serve.
Robin Mather is a longtime food journalist and the author of “The Feast Nearby.” Follow her blog as she writes her third book, “The Feast of the Dove,” at thefeastofthedove.com.