At Churrangas, a no-frills, family-owned restaurant near Playa Marsella in Nicaragua, there are three options: fish, chicken, and lobster tail. While the lobster may seem like the first obvious choice, we were more interested in the fish. Fried whole and smothered in an aromatic tomato sauce called Tipitapa, it's the kind of dish that makes you instantly feel like you're on vacation — especially when served with a few other favorite tropical classics: fried plantains, fresh avocado, beans, and rice.
While this isn't a dish we'd recommend making for dinner guests you don't know well (some people get weird about whole fishes), it does make an excellent family-style meal to share with close friends. Our version of the Nicaraguan classic has a slight kick, thanks to the addition of garlic and red pepper. Serve it with strong rum or tequila cocktails, turn up the surf tunes, and pretend you're a nice warm beach somewhere. Not a bad way to spend a chilly fall night, as far as we're concerned.
1 1/2 pound sea bass, rainbow bass, or red snapper (ask your fish monger to debone the fish but leave it whole)
1 whole tomato, thinly sliced
4 oz tomato paste
1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1/2 red bell pepper, thinly sliced
3 garlic gloves, finely chopped
1 tsp agave syrup
1/4 cup white table wine
1 pinch red pepper flakes (or more to taste)
1 bay leaf
1 lime, quartered
2-4 tbsp cornmeal, sprinkled on large plate
2 tbsp olive oil
vegetable oil for frying
salt and pepper to taste
To prep the fish: Sprinkle with salt, pepper, and the juice from 1/2 a lime. Set aside to marinate.
To make the Tipitapa sauce: Heat olive oil in a large sauce pan, then add garlic and bay leaf. Cook until fragrant, then add onion, red pepper flakes and red bell pepper and cook until just soft. Add tomato, tomato sauce, Worcestershire, wine, and agave and let simmer on very low heat to thicken, about 10 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.
To fry fish: While sauce simmers, heat vegetable oil in a large frying pan. Roll fish through cornmeal to coat both sides evenly. When oil is hot, fry the fish for five minutes on each side, flipping once with tongs. Remove from pan and place on paper towels to drain; When slightly cooled, sprinkle withe remaining lime juice.
To plate: Place fish on large dish, then spoon Tipitapa sauce over fish. Serve warm with white rice, black beans, freshly sliced avocado, and — if you're feeling ambitious — fried plantains.