Penny’s Broiled Swordfish and Cilantro Pesto

I was a very naïve eater before I moved to New York. (Actually, I was just naïve but that’s a different matter…and I still can be.) As I’ve said before, my mother with whom I spent most of my upbringing, just wasn’t a cook. From her, it was “here’s the Kraft Macaroni” or being handed the can-opener to expose aluminum-clad franks and beans.

When I moved to New York City, I had the great opportunity of waiting tables and a whole new world opened up to me. It wasn’t just about food, it was about living. I wasn’t more than 21 years old, finished school and was working at a Cajun/Creole restaurant in Tribeca called How’s Bayou, (meaning “how are you”from New Orleans creole). It was an open air restaurant with sliding French doors on its two sides which allowed cool Hudson River air in the summer.

This is the corner of Harrison & Greenwich even before Hows Bayou.

Then, I remember thinking the blackened catfish and Cajun fried chicken, served with collard greens flecked with bacon, mashed potatoes with skins left on, a flaky buttermilk biscuit and honeyed sweet potato were the best things. And to drink, which we drank while working, we served up strong, frozen margaritas or Hurricanes topped with 151 proof rum. It was one helluva a place to work and I loved it.

I met some a few of the most important people in my life during this time such as Penny. Penny is a loveable art historian on paper, a self-taught gourmand and to me, a national treasure. We worked together during the day shifts and sometimes, nights. She was a career waitress (when the term didn’t imply anything) and hated the food at Hows Bayou.  Hated it. She often complained that what we served was almost inedible by boasting about her annual European as proof she knew what was good. Not only did I envy her for her worldliness, but besides the cooks where I worked and my father’s family cuisine (Filipino), she was and is my greatest cooking inspiration.

I always told Penny that she resembled the silent screen movie-star Louise Brooks with her jet black, bobbed hair and bangs. She loves to talk about food as much as she loves to cook it. When Penny finds a food delicious or she crinkles her nose and face up, exclaiming, “This is so yummy!”

Louise Brooks

Funny thing, even though was in her early forties, she never been to a gay bar so she proposed that she cook dinner one evening and we could go to a happy hour. Her and Tim, her husband, lived in the West Village, close to The Monster, one of New York City’s landmark watering holes, on the corner of Sheridan Square and Christopher Street. It not only had a piano …and a player…but a disco in the basement. (Talk about an identity crisis: In one corner, queens were croaking out Broadway show tunes; in another, some were slinging back gin and tonics at 2-4-1s and downstairs, vogue contests were performed.) We shouted at each other above the antics and got drunk. The two for ones really should be called 12 for 6 because that’s what we wound up drinking…each. We started at 4 o’clock and left at around 8. With four hours of drinking, Penny still had to make dinner.

With our liquor soaked steps, we walked the two blocks to her apartment at Bleecker and Grove. Once inside her pillbox-sized studio, lined with history books instead of wallpaper, I opened the first bottle of wine. She put the swordfish steaks in the oven rubbed with olive oil, salt and pepper. We chatted.  Tim at the time wasn’t home from teaching at Queen’s College and he was to join us so we chatted and drank so more while waiting.  She made the cilantro pesto. We continued chatting and drank some more. I opened the second bottle of wine. We starting slurrying our chat.  Tim came home. Introductions were made and by this point, it was just slurring. Huge lovers of opera, we listened to a recording of La Traviata, featuring soprano Angela Gheorghiu as Violetta so that we could listen over the third bottle of vino.

“Oh my God!” Penny exclaimed in an anguished fury. “The swordfish!!!” The wine-soaked chatting had gotten the better of us. Our dinner was ruined.

But as luck and Penny’s cooking prowess will attest, it was not. On floral plates with lacy golden edges, beautiful browned slabs of Broiled Swordfish, smeared with Cilantro Pesto was served and a friendship was born.

Broiled Swordfish with Cilantro Pesto:


  • 1 – 2 pounds Swordfish Steaks cut into servings of 2 to 4
  • 2 bunches cilantro
  • Jalapeno: chopped and seeded
  • Olive Oil
  • Juice of 1 limes.
  • Cotija cheese or manchego
  • Almonds

Let’s make this puppy:

  1. Line broiler pan with foil.
  2. Arrange boiler pan about 6 inches from flame. Turn on high.
  3. Salt and pepper swordfish steaks on each side
  4. Broil one side for 5 minutes. Flip. Repeat.
  5. Remove from heat and smear cilantro pesto on fish. Serve with wedges of lime.

To Make Pesto:

  1. Place cilantro leaves, jalapeno and lime juice into food processor. Pulse into a paste.
  2. Add cheese in small bits for flavor and coloring, such as 3 ounces (or more depending on taste.)
  3. Drizzle, through the feed tube, olive oil until emulsified or slightly creamy.
  4. Add a handful of almonds or walnuts until chopped.
  5. Smear onto any fish.