Patricia Mulvey discovered her favorite taste of summer during a disastrous trip to Mexico in 1995. The bright moment of that trip was the Ensenada Slaw. She describes it as "a lightly dressed, crisp vegetable salad with a touch of heat from hot sauce and a touch of acidity from lime juice."
Mulvey — who now lives in Madison, Wis., and runs a farmers market menu planning service — was on the trip with her husband. They had borrowed a Ford Escort from a friend in San Diego and were cruising down the Mexican coast when a large rock appeared in the road. It was being used by a construction crew in lieu of a safety cone. Mulvey had to act fast.
"Well, if I swerve left, I'm going to hit 60 mph oncoming traffic. If I swerve to the right, I'm going off a cliff," she says.
She elected to stay the course and drive over it. Mulvey's husband got out to survey the damage, which didn't seem too bad — but when she tried to start the car, she says there was "a hideous, shredding, shrieking, awful sound. [It] threw me into a tizzy and I just spazzed out."
Mulvey jumped out of the car and ran toward the construction crew. She waved down the man on the road roller and said, "Hay un gran pierna in la calle." Translation: "There is a big leg in the street." He ignored her. She then waved down the next car on the road and hitched a ride to nearby Ensenada.
Once in town, they called a tow truck and went back to the car. When they arrived, Mulvey was alarmed to see the area "teeming" with machine gun-wielding federales with drug-sniffing dogs.
"My stomach's doing flips as the guys come up to us with their guns and tell us we can go," she says. "And we so wanted to go."
When the tow truck driver examined the car, he found the entire oil pan had been torn out, and there wouldn't be a quick fix.
"We decide to just call it a night — find a restaurant, have a margarita, and we order the fish tacos, which are topped with this amazing slaw. It was a revelation to me. It was bright; it was crisp; it had just the right hint of heat," she says.
Mulvey nearly swooned — and it didn't hurt that the mariachi band was playing "Besame Mucho" (or "Kiss Me a Lot"). "The taste of the slaw and this music made it seem like our luck was turning around," she says.
Not quite. By the next morning the garage found that the timing belt was also shredded. "We just bailed," she says. "We couldn't stay."
The pair hitched a ride across the border and back to San Diego. They told their friend, Dave, that they had abandoned his broken-down car in Mexico and braced for his reaction.
"He looked at me and said, 'Are you OK? Did anyone get hurt?' And I started crying because I was so relieved that he wasn't freaking out," she says. "And he said, 'You guys are my best friends; why would it matter about a crappy car?' "
Mulvey describes the slaw as "the one bright, shining moment in that crazy Mexico adventure," but didn't attempt to re-create the recipe until a few years later when she went to culinary school.
"Now every time I make that slaw, I smile because I have a really great friend, and I'm still friends with him to this day even though I left his car in Mexico," she says.
Recipe: Ensenada Slaw With Fish Tacos
Mulvey says you can substitute other flaky white fish for the halibut. The spice rub for the fish is inspired by a recipe that appeared in Gourmet Magazine from June 2007.
1/2 head cabbage, cored and shredded (about 4-6 cups)
2 cups peeled and shredded broccoli stems
2-4 tablespoons cilantro, chopped (optional)
1/2 cup mayonnaise
4 teaspoons lime juice
Tabasco, to taste
Salt and pepper
Mix veggies together in a bowl. In separate bowl whisk together mayo, lime juice and Tabasco. Toss with veggies and sprinkle to taste with salt and pepper. Put in fridge while you prep the fish tacos.
2 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons paprika
1 1/2 tablespoons dried oregano
1 tablespoon garlic, minced
1 1/2 teaspoons cumin
1 1/2 teaspoons red pepper flakes
1 1/2 teaspoons lime zest
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 pound halibut fillets
Tortillas and additional condiments for serving
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Make a spice rub by combining olive oil, paprika, oregano, garlic, cumin, red pepper flakes, lime zest, kosher salt and pepper, then rub it all over the fish.
Heat a nonstick pan over high heat until very hot. Dab a little oil in the pan and pan sear the fish, flesh side down until browned. Turn fish to other side, and place in oven and cook until fish reaches an internal temperature of 145 degrees, about 6-7 minutes. Remove, cover and allow to rest at least 5 minutes. Serve on a tortilla, with a heaping pile of slaw and other condiments of your choice — salsa, guacamole, sour cream, etc.