by Brittany Avila
Even though this month marks the beginning of fall, I wanted to continue to the healthy eating lifestyle most people take up in the summer with this delicious fish recipe based on California missions’ cooking. Fishing was an important part of the native Chumash culture as a seaside community, so I’m excited to finally cook a recipe that is so closely related to Santa Barbara. Not only is this recipe light and healthy, but also quick and simple!
1 fish (2 to 3 lbs—this is what the recipe calls for, but I bought two fish fillets which were a combined total of 18 oz. since I was only cooking for two)
Bay Laurel leaves, soaked in wine (white)
Begin by cleaning the fish and wiping it dry. I used Rock Cod for my fish, since rock fish are a common local fish in Santa Barbara water. If you have a whole, fresh fish that you caught straight from the sea, you’re on your own on that cleaning process. But since I bought my fish pre-cleaned from the market, I simply washed it off for good measure and used paper towel to pat it dry.
Begin soaking your Bay Laurel leaves in wine. These leaves were used by California Native Americans for a number of medical reasons, but also served the purpose as a flea repellent in their hot houses.
Since we are cooking fish, I used a cheap white wine for cooking.
Make a grill sauce of salt, pepper, lemon juice, and olive oil. This recipe did not provide any measurements, so it will be up to your natural taste and cooking abilities to decide how much of each ingredient is appropriate. I personally mixed in twice as much olive oil as the lemon juice, and did not hold back on the pepper.
When the missions began producing a surplus of olive oil, they were able to make their own holy oil for services. But before it was allowed to be used in a service, the oil first had to be sent to Mexico City to be blessed by a bishop.
Brush the fish with your grill sauce and then place the fish in foil, and onto the grill. Californios would not have used a propane grill as I did, but instead would have probably used a bracero, which was heated by coal in stow holes beneath a ladrillo tile top counter. The fish may have then been placed on a comal, or type of iron pan to cook on.
Throw the soaked Bay Laurel leaves on the heat source from time to time so that the fish receives smoke. I’ve mentioned the practice of placing Bay Laurel leaves on the forehead to cure headaches, but in Early California they would also be binded to the stomach for days in order to cure stomach ailments. Turn the fish frequently, brushing with the grill sauce, so that it is golden.
Once it is ready, serve with parsley and scallions on top. Parsley was an introduced herb commonly used in Early California.
Garriga, Andrew, and Francis J. Weber. Andrew Garriga’s Compilation of Herbs & Remedies Used by the Indians & Spanish Californians: Together with Some Remedies of His Own Experience. S. 1978. 22, 25.
Hardwick, Michael R. Changes in Landscape: The Beginnings of Horticulture in the California Missions. Orange, CA: Paragon Agency, 2005. 8-64.
Preston, Mark. California Mission Cookery: A Vanished Cuisine-Rediscovered. Albuquerque, NM: Border Books, 1994. 116.
Timbrook, J. Chumash Ethnobotany:Plant Knowledge Among the Chumash People of Southern California. Berkeley, CA: Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, Heyday Books, 2007. 26.
Mike Imwalle, SBTHP Archaeologist and Master Gardener, also provided historical information about local Santa Barbara fish.
Brittany Avila is SBTHP’s Office Manager and is enjoying pursuing her dream to be a maestro de la cocina