Chillo al Ajillo (Pan Fried Red Snapper in Garlic Sauce) Recipe

  • on 5 July 2020
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Puerto Rican red snapper with garlic sauce—or chillo al ajillo (CHEE-yo ahl ah-HEE-yo)—is traditionally served as a pan-fried whole fish with the garlic sauce either poured over the top or served on the side for dipping. The finished dish is a textural combo of crisp skin and tender, juicy meat. Dipping it in the al ajillo sauce coats it all in a robe of tart, garlicky goodness.

Regardless of which language you use to say it, this dinner dish is rich with flavor. And don’t get me wrong, salmon is great, but don’t be afraid to try something outside of your regular fish dish.

Traditional for Lent, but Delicious Any Time of Year

While many people of Puerto Rican descent eat chillo al ajillo on Fridays during the Lenten season (and most holidays where a fast from meat is appropriate), my husband’s grandfather began a Three Kings Day (Epiphany) ritual of eating chillo.

Most years, everyone in the family treks to a beachside restaurant in the town of Salinas, Puerto Rico, called Ladí’s Place. Abuelo Toño would treat the entire family to chillo al ajillo. After his death, the tradition still continues, only now everyone pays their own way (booo!).

There really isn’t a set time of the year or day to eat chillo, though. The diaspora of Puerto Ricans are serving and enjoying it throughout the year in their new homelands, and so should you.

Overhead view of a platter of homemade red snapper fillets layered on lettuce. A small jar of garlic sauce has a spoon inside. A large bowl of rice and black beans is in the upper right corner.

HOW THIS RECIPE DIFFERS FROM THE TRADITIONAL VERSION

Typically, chillo is served in restaurants whole, on the bone, with fins and everything. I had the crazy notion to stay as authentic to the traditional preparation in this recipe. That is, until I was reminded of how much work it is to find snapper that’s small enough to pan-fry in my city.

Besides the difficulty I had with locating an appropriately sized snapper, the pain in the neck it was to prep and eat the whole snapper made me abandon the whole plan. I remembered why I prefer to eat it at restaurants and not at home. I would never subject you to that.

Leave the work of prepping the whole fish to restaurant cooks, and use red snapper fillets when you make it at home. I promise you, it’ll taste much better without the cursing and eye-rolling that preparing a whole fish is likely to involve.

WHAT IS RED SNAPPER?

Red snapper (also called American or Northern red snapper) is the only one of its kind in the snapper family, as it’s the only true red snapper. Red snapper is a round, bottom-feeding saltwater fish.

You can find snapper sold whole or as skin-on fillets (the skin is left on, so you know it’s red snapper you’re paying for). A whole red snapper can weigh up to 35 pounds, but for this recipe, look for fillets that are half pound to one pound. Red snapper’s flesh is lean and pink, which turns white as it cooks.

This fish is also low in calories and fat, but high in vitamins (like D, which I seem to need more and more of these days).

WHAT DOES RED SNAPPER TASTE LIKE?

Red snapper tastes mild and sweet, which is great because it assumes the flavors of any marinade or sauce in which it’s cooked. It’s a versatile fish in that it can be prepared using almost any cooking method out there.

A platter of red snapper with garlic sauce is sitting vertically on a white table. Four crispy skinned snapper fillets are on top of a bed of frilly lettuce. Sliced red and orange peppers are on each fillet. A large pot of rice and black beans is in partial view to the left. A small jar of garlic sauce is in the bottom right corner.

SUGGESTIONS AND SUBSTITUTIONS

Any saltwater round fish may be used in place of red snapper, but to stay true to the “Puerto Rican-ness” of this dish, I recommend:

  • Dorado (mahi-mahi)
  • Monkfish
  • Grouper
  • Sea bass

All of these fish are common to Puerto Rico and frequently used in preparations like this one.

TIPS FOR BUYING AND COOKING RED SNAPPER

The most important tip I can give about cooking red snapper begins at the seafood counter. Knowing how to buy your fish is just as important (if not more so) than knowing how to cook your fish.

When shopping for your fish look for:

  • Clear, full eyes (if buying whole fish).
  • Flesh that is firm and springs back when pressed with your finger. It shouldn’t be mushy.
  • A smell of the sea, not fishy or like ammonia.
  • Moist and shiny appearance, without dark blemishes or bruises.

When cooking fish, it’s important not to overcook the meat. A surefire indication that your chillo is finished cooking is when the flesh goes from a pink, translucent color to flaky and opaque white in appearance.

  • For the fillets, dredge them in a light flour coating to seal in the garlic-lime marinade. This coating also helps to protect the flesh from overcooking in the hot oil.
  • The frying oil should be 365°F before adding the red snapper to the pan. The fillets cook quickly, and you want the oil to have time to brown and crisp up the skin, without overcooking the flesh.

Homemade red snapper is on a white plate with a blue strip around it. A fork is holding a piece of the fillet and a green salad with red and orange peppers is on the plate behind the lenten fish with garlic sauce.

WAYS TO ADAPT THIS RECIPE 

If you don’t want to fry your fish, go ahead and grill or broil it in the oven instead of frying it! Skip the breading, and instead lay your fish on an oiled grill or sheet pan. Grill or broil it for three minutes on each side, or until the flesh turns white and opaque.

WHAT TO SERVE WITH RED SNAPPER?

To remain faithful to its Puerto Rican roots, serve chillo al ajillo with a side of rice and beans, air fryer tostones, and a garden salad.

FISH IS BEST SERVED MADE TO ORDER

Because fish is easily overcooked, it’s best to pan-fry the red snapper and serve it right away. I also recommend marinating only for the time called for, as the acid in the lime juice will begin to “cook” the flesh as it marinates. The al ajillo (garlic sauce), however, may be prepared a day in advance and either warmed or served chilled.

More Favorite Puerto Rican Recipes


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Article Categories:
COURSE · DINNER · FISH · SALAD · SIDE DISH

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