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Vacation dreamin'

Story and photos by Angie Sutton


It’s amazing what a long weekend or a vacation will do for you, isn’t it? Recently I was enjoying the last few hours of a short vacation in Puerto Rico sipping a robust cup of coffee and overlooking yet another rainbow in the seemingly endless supply in the rainforest.

We chose an out-of-the-way bed and breakfast in Canovanas on the edge of the El Yonque National Forest, a 28,000 acre tropical forest and the only tropical forest in the U.S. National Forest System. This forest receives nearly 240 inches of rain per year, or about 100 billion gallons of rainwater.

The El Yonque has about 240 species of trees and plants with 26 species found nowhere else. While we did not see the Puerto Rican Parrot, one of the 10 most endangered species of birds in the world, it indeed resides in the rainforest along with about 50 other species of birds.

We shared the bed and breakfast with three other couples and one family, which lead to some great conversations each evening as the sun went down. I looked around one night and couldn’t help but notice how visibly relaxed everyone was. There seemed to be such an ease and joy filling the patio, as if people just wanted to look around and say, “This—we need more of this in our lives.” Life felt simple and carefree and good.

Our nightly chorus from a population of Puerto Rican coqui frogs (pronounced ko-kee), which starts as the sun goes down and lasts until dawn, was like a relaxing song. The coqui is a very small frog about one-inch long and although they seem to be green or brown, they are actually translucent. Their melody is a very simple, “co-qui, co-qui,” and is a mating call only sung by the male.

Mornings were met with one our hosts collecting fresh fruit from the grounds, and I promise you that the taste of the sun-warmed fruits leaves a lasting impression. Our days were spent exploring many locations—one of my favorite being a coffee plantation which I will share about next week.

The cuisine as you can imagine was varied. There were plenty of familiar fast-food mega-chains and creatively-named tourist traps with semi-familiar fare. My recommendation however is to ask the locals where to eat. Of course, we went with the choice of the locals to enjoy during our vacay. These out-of-the-way joints and roadside kiosks provided an amazing food experience!

The kiosks can be lined up like a strip mall with five or six options together and found along the beaches or a simple shack on the side of a random road. Some of these places look terrible, with their peeling paint, dilapidated buildings or just a tent on the side of the road. My favorites are pinchos, marinated meat on a stick prepared barbecue style and pastilillos or pasteles, a turn-over-looking filled and deep-fried pie stuffed with shrimp or lobster. Our favorite meals were in unassuming beach-side restaurants and centered around seafood including chillo frito, or fried red snapper, salmon, halibut and, well, you get the idea.

Of course, Mondays always come, along with the to-do lists and let’s-get-back-on-with-real-life-ness that I ridiculously am too good at cramming into my schedule. But if nothing else, I feel that with each vacation, each long weekend, each extended period of time off, I get just a tiny bit better and recognizing how much I just love that feeling of being totally checked out and relaxed. How much I need it. How (I’m pretty sure) we were all designed for it.

A little reminder of the relaxed, happy self that I was is food-based and can be found in a few easy recipes. With the Lent season upon us, there’s no better time to find seafood in the inarguably most land-locked spot in the United States. Go out on a limb and try some of these!

Grilled Salmon with Avocado Salsa

2 lbs. salmon, cut into 4 pieces

1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. paprika powder
1 tsp. onion powder
1/2 tsp. ancho chili powder
1 tsp. black pepper

Avocado salsa:

1 avocado, sliced
1/2 small red onion, sliced
Juice from 2 limes
1 to 2 Tbsp. finely chopped cilantro
Salt to taste

Mix the salt, chili powder, cumin, paprika, onion and black pepper together, and rub the salmon fillets with olive oil and this seasoning mix. Then refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. Pre-heat the grill. Combine the avocado, onion, cilantro, lime juice and salt in a bowl and mix well. Chill until ready to use. Grill the salmon to desired doneness. (I grilled for about 5 minutes.) Top with avocado salsa and enjoy!

Pan-Seared Halibut with Lemon Dill Sauce

Source: Jessica Gavin

Pan Seared Halibut:

2 (8 oz.) halibut fillets (about 2 inch thick)
Kosher salt, to season fillets
Black pepper, to season fillets
Grapeseed oil, enough for cooking the halibut

Lemon Dill Sauce:

1 c. chicken stock or dry white wine
1/3 c. minced shallots
1/2 c. unsalted butter, cut into 1/2 inch cubes, chilled
3 Tbsp. chopped fresh dill
2 tsp. lemon zest
3 tsp. lemon juice
Kosher salt, to taste

Lemon Dill Sauce: In a small sauce pan, heat wine and shallots over medium high heat, until reduced to 2 tablespoons, about 12 to 15 minutes. Turn off the heat. Gradually add each cube of butter into the reduction, whisking each piece to create a thicker emulsified sauce. Add the chopped dill, lemon zest and lemon juice into the sauce, whisking to combine. Taste the sauce and season with salt as needed. Set sauce aside.

Pan Seared Halibut: Remove the fish from the refrigerator and let stand for 15 minutes. Season each side of the halibut fillets generously with salt and pepper. In a large saute pan, add enough grapeseed oil until it reaches about 1/8-inch of the side of the pan. Heat over high heat until oil starts to shimmer and pan is hot. Carefully add each halibut fillet to the pan presentation side down, pressing down the flesh with a spatula to create direct contact with the oil to create a golden crust. Reduce heat to medium high and cook for 4 to 5 minutes. When the bottom of the fish is golden brown, carefully flip to the other side. Reduce heat to medium low and heat until cooked through, making sure not to overcook the fillets, about 2 to 4 minutes. Transfer to plate with a paper towel to remove some of the excess cooking oil. Gently reheat the lemon dill sauce, whisking to combine making sure not to overheat which will cause the sauce to separate. Serve each fillet with a 1/4 cup of sauce.

Cilantro-Lime Halibut

2 (6 oz.) fresh halibut filets
Salt and pepper to taste
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1/2 c. white wine or chicken stock
1 Tbsp. fresh cilantro, chopped
Juice of 1 lime
1 tsp. lime zest
2 Tbsp. olive oil

Season halibut with salt and pepper one hour before cooking. Place in refrigerator. Lightly oil a non-stick pan with canola or vegetable oil. Over high heat, sear each side of the halibut filets for 5 seconds each. Searing the filets will cook a fine layer on the outside of the fish so that it will not stick to the barbecue. Because of the moistness and flakiness of halibut, this will prevent the halibut from sticking and falling through the grates of your barbecue grill. This is a great tip when barbecuing all types of fish, but works especially well with halibut. Remove halibut from pan and turn heat down to medium. Add olive oil and garlic to pan and cook for 2 minutes. Add wine or chicken stock, cilantro, lime juice , lime zest and olive oil to the sauté pan and heat until hot but not boiling. Remove sauce from heat and baste fish on both sides. Cook on barbecue grill for 3 minutes per side, basting constantly while cooking. Serve immediately.

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