03 Dec Watercolors
The green torpedo burst into the air, exploding the water around it. It hung in the air, shimmering in the sunlight, flapping wildly, temporarily framing itself into its own watercolor. For one brief moment I was the sole admirer of a painting unlike any I’ve previously revered. The glimmering water, the late day Caribbean sun, the outrageous greens and yellows of the Mahi Mahi fighting for its life, the taut line, and Daniel’s Colgate smile encouraging me to reel.
Back into the water and the Mahi dove, desperately trying to rid herself of the steel hook. Down she went taking line with her, now Jamie is next to me telling me to tug hard on the rod then spin the reel. I know that, but I’m laughing because the reel is on my left and I’m right-handed, and it feels like my left hand is drawing clunky triangles with chalk on a gravel driveway. For just a second, I see my reflection in Jamie’s Polarized sunglasses, and I’m smiling.
I’m old enough to know better, young enough to amuse myself daily with a few dozen pushups. I grew up near the Gulf in south Louisiana, moved as a newlywed to Charleston, SC and somehow missed out on deep sea fishing. Amy and I have fished many times, fresh water and salt. We’ve caught our limit of bass in Lake Moultrie and flounder near Pawley’s Island. Today we’re in very deep water, off the shores of Ambergris Caye, on a 55-foot Hatteras with some folks we’ve known for just a few weeks.
When we decided to go on this year-long adventure, my bride found Tammy Lemus, a local realtor. She manages a rental home here in Belize for good friends of good friends. And she’s been our tour guide, restaurant critic, and hall monitor that’s kept us out of international trouble and up to date on the political mischief. She’s a native of Colorado, moved here fifteen years ago after a short visit.
Tammy has introduced us to people, Americans and Belizians alike. Like Tammy, these are generous people, with their time, their insight, their boats and smiles. They’ve welcomed us to this small island with handshakes and cold beers. Perhaps they admire our moxie for moving here sight unseen? Like good bourbon to writers, kindred spirits tend to attract one another. We’ve already spent an afternoon on one of her catamarans and enjoyed a few beers in her friend’s restaurant. And today we’re with another of her friends, on his boat, making more friends and doing something neither of us have ever done, in a country we’ve lived in for thirty days.
Jamie and Daniel are also friends of Tammy’s and I assumed they’re both professional fishing guides. They’re so knowledgeable and enthusiastic, and of the two, Jamie is the more esoteric. He’s watching all eight lures dance on the water, making sure they don’t catch on grass, imagining himself a proper fish underwater. Daniel is more technical, looking at tension of the lines, adjusting the reels. Earlier Daniel has sought me out and offered me the first fish, not as a prize but to reel in. Perhaps this is a tradition on a deep sea excursion? Doesn’t matter the reason, I’m all in and I thank him.
Thirty minutes later and the sun is low on the horizon. At this time of the year, we have sunset by 5:30 and there’s already a splash of copper on the waves.
It’s Daniel calling to me. He hands me the rod and a seat on an ice chest and “Holy Shit!”, there’s a damn bucking bronco on the other end. I’m sliding around on this ice chest, the rod dancing in my hands. This is a small Mahi Mahi, After landing I’d guess about 15 pounds. The boat is doing about 12 knots, maybe a bit faster and there’s probably 100 feet of 50 pound test line out there. And this 15-pound fish is tugging and pulling me around the tail of this boat like I’d hadn’t expected and of course she’s bit on the only left handed tackle. Well, not much I can do about that. After a few awkward cranks, Daniel wraps a fat belt around me, the end of the rod clicks snugly into the belt. Much better. Soon I get the hang of it. When the fish breaches, I reel hard. Nef, Tammy’s husband is coaching me along the way. Pull on the rod, straighten the tip to 90 degrees, let the rod come down and crank hard on the reel. Now bring the rod back up to 90 degrees. Let it come down and crank. The fish has other ideas and dives down, taking line out. Shit. Pull hard. Ugh. I realize I haven’t worked out in like 45 days and this damn fish is taking advantage of me. Pull hard to 90 degrees, let it ease back down and Nef is right there telling me to crank.
“John, you okay?”
“Yeah Nef. All good.”
I’m not good, though. My left shoulder is burning, my arms are cramping, the ice chest won’t cooperate. Years of cycling taught me to pedal through cramps and breathe deep and I’m not about to let someone else reel in my first big fish. Soon the fish is tiring, I can sense her energy dissipating. Daniel encourages me with “almost there” and a minute later the fish is on board, bleeding everywhere. The hook comes out and after posing for a few photos she goes onto the ice. Earlier I was certain this was a fifty-pound fish and once I held her for the photos, given the fight she put up, I’m almost embarrassed at her size.
Over the years I couldn’t guess how much Mahi Mahi I’ve cleaned. From Charleston to New Orleans, to Greenville. I’ve grilled it, fried it, seared it in numerous cast iron skillets. Most of the time I’ve seen it as a skin-on filet and that skin was grey with little streaks of color. I’ve read how Mahi Mahi lights up when hooked and seen friend’s photos of their catches.
Now that I’ve seen it, felt one fight, watched her break the water on the other end of my rod, cleaned one less than an hour after it left the water, eaten one that I’ve pulled from the sea that day, it’ll never taste the same. About a year ago, I invited some chefs and cooks to our farm to slaughter some chickens. I had four roosters that had to go and the invitation was purposeful. Slaughtering a living animal makes you a better cook. When your restaurant is busy and you’re serving four hundred covers a night, and the cash register is full, a burned steak isn’t a big deal. It should be and yet it usually isn’t. The cook gets an order, she reaches into the low boy and grabs a NY Strip or a filet of Mahi Mahi without considering this was once a living, breathing animal. It’s just an order that has to get cooked, plated, and served and on to the next order, the next piece of meat.
That day at the farm I had five cooks with me and walked them through the first rooster. That’s not an easy thing to do, take a life when you’ve never done it before. Three of these cooks hadn’t. They’d spent years cooking without ever truly understanding where that meat came from. Hold a dying animal in your hands, waiting for its life to ebb away is a tough thing to do. And at the end of that day on the farm, after we’d cleaned up the blood, all of these cooks agreed. They’d remember this for a long time and they’d be better cooks, more careful with their fish, chicken, pork, and beef, and they’d share this lesson with younger, less experienced cooks. If YOU did that once, you’d likely never waste another bite of chicken again. You’d be less likely to send your steak back just because it was a tiny bit overcooked.
As I placed that Mahi Mahi into the ice chest, I thought about those guys on the farm. They left thanking me for making them better cooks, more respectful cooks. I placed my hand on that Mahi Mahi and thanked her for the fight, promised none of her would go to waste.
If you’d like to visit Ambergris Caye, Tammy and Nef Lemus own a charter service, Xsite Belize and we heartily recommend their services. They’ll take you diving, snorkeling, sailing, exploring, or fishing and you will love every minute.
After our dinner of Mahi Mahi, we shared a dessert of fresh coconut pudding fortified with ground cocoa nibs from Belize Chocolate Company.
Belize Coconut Pudding
1 ½ cups Crema Media or (Half n’ Half)
1 cup Coconut Milk (not Coco Lopez)
½ cup sugar
3 egg yolks
3 Tablespoons corn starch
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup freshly grated coconut
2 whole cacao nibs, ground (we use our coffee grinder)
½ teaspoon freshly ground allspice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Toast the coconut to a light brown by placing in a thin layer in a 250° oven for 10 minutes at a time. Set a timer and stir the coconut to toast evenly and return to the oven for another 10-minute period. Repeat until there is a mixture of dark, light and slightly blond flakes. Once cool, the coconut can be stored for three to four days in a Tupperware style container.
Pudding may be made up to three hours to a day in advance.
To make the pudding:
- Mix the sugar, cornstarch and salt and set aside.
- Using a whisk, beat the egg yolks into the sugar mixture.
- Heat the cream, coconut milk and ½ Cup of the flakes in a 2-quart, heavy bottomed saucepan. Bring to a simmer.
- Temper the yolks with about ¼ cup of hot milk and beat generously until foamy, then pour all the warm egg mixture into remaining simmering milk. Turn heat to low. Using a heat proof rubber spatula or wooden spoon, continuously stir the pudding until it thickens to the consistency of thick pancake batter, but not a pudding texture. As the pudding cools, the cornstarch will continue to thicken.
- Remove from the heat and strain through a fine strainer into a clean bowl. Stir the vanilla into the strained pudding and cover with plastic wrap pressing the plastic down upon the top of the pudding surface. Chill until ready to serve.
For serving, garnish with remaining toasted coconut flakes.
Yield: 4 servings
If you’re new to this website, you’re reading the year-long adventures of John & Amy Malik in Belize, Central America. We’re professional chefs, restaurant owners, food & travel writers, adventurers, experienced tent campers, and hikers. We prefer authentic street food over a steakhouse, craft beer over traditional lager, a glass of Spanish Garnacha over California Merlot. Should you feel so inclined, please share this essay with someone you’d take on a rustic adventure, and sign up for our next dispatch from Belize. Just click here.