As the summer heats up, people look for ways to cool down. This can often present a bit of a challenge to create elevated dishes that excite your diners, but ceviche is one dish that may fit the bill.
The key to ceviche is the acid, which cooks the fish chemically. It’s deceptively simple, and all you need is citrus. Lime is traditional but many chefs these days use a combination of lemon and lime to get the balanced taste they desire. The flavors can be further tweaked by adding blood orange or grapefruit to the mix, and while you can use juice from concentrate to achieve bold flavors, fresh is often the best way to go. Just make sure to use enough acidic liquid to allow all the ingredients to float freely—not enough and the pieces may stick together and result in an uneven and incomplete chemical cooking reaction.
Firm, white fish is often the best. Think cod, pollock, red snapper, or even a mahi-mahi. Make sure it’s the freshest possible, sushi grade if possible, and ensure that the pieces are cut as uniformly as possible to avoid overcooked or undercooked pieces in your ceviche. Be sure to remove the bloodline area completely—even a small amount left behind can adversely affect the taste of the entire batch. Avoid oily fishes like tuna or mackerel. Tuna is a better choice for poke, a Hawaiian dish marinated in soy sauce and sesame oil with perhaps a bit of mirin. Mackerel, on the other hand, can be great pickled
Scandinavian style. Most freshwater fishes should be avoided as the acidic cooking process can lead to a mushy and unappetizing final product.
To be fair, a pile of diced fish marinated in citric acid isn’t all that appealing, either visually or to your taste buds. What really brings it all together is a vibrant array of fresh diced vegetables—tomatoes, cucumbers, perhaps even a bit of daikon radish— to elevate both the visual and flavor aspects of the dish. Finely diced peppers can add a little or a lot of heat depending on the variety. Another choice would be thin slices of fennel for a distinctive, licorice taste. Meanwhile, paper thin slices of red onion will add a nice bite to contrast with the citrus. Some grated ginger could even make the bright flavor of the lime even more brilliant. Most vegetables you will want to marinate in the citrus, but a few should be left out and added while plating. For example, both chopped cilantro and sliced avocado can help bring the dish together but don’t hold up well in the marinade.
Some fish is denser to others, leading to longer or shorter cooking times. Depending on the fish, you can properly marinate it for around 20 minutes. In a busy kitchen on a packed night, that might not be optimal—especially since you’re working with raw fish that should be maintained at a cold temperature until it hits the table. To save time, prepare it earlier in the day. Toss the citrus and the fish together for a nice soak of 30-60 minutes, then drain the juice to halt the cooking process. Leaving it too long can lead to an overcooking of the fish, breaking down the cell walls and creating a mushy texture where it should be firm. You don’t want to combine the vegetables and the fish if you are holding the dish for service, but you can use the drained juice to marinate the diced vegetables. The vegetables will hold up fine in the citric acid and even add more flavors to the mix. This way you’ll avoid excessive interaction between the vegetables and the fish which can throw off the dish both visually and flavor-wise. When ready to serve, just toss the two parts together.
Not The Fish
Ceviche can be more than just fish. Chopped or sliced scallop, freshly shucked clams, oysters, or cockles can all be prepared nearly the same way as the fish. The same for calamari— although marinating times should be longer here; the squid can even take an overnight bath in it if you’d like. Some, though, require pre-cooking. Shrimp make for a great ceviche but should be lightly poached then cooled in an ice bath before hitting the marinade. Small, sweet bay shrimp can be served whole while larger shrimp should be cut into bite size pieces prior to marinating. Likewise, octopus needs a gentle slow braise, with a nice bouquet of fresh herbs to impart more flavor, or a good char on the grill then chill thoroughly before hitting the juice. For a vegetarian option, try mushrooms or heart of palm. Their meaty texture makes for a great seafood substitute.
Traditionally, a slotted spoon to scoop the serving into a bowl is all you really need—some of the marinade is desired but avoid it being sent it out swimming in the citrus. There are other options though…Try serving it wrapped up in a soft taco with a drizzle of crema or crumbled queso fresco. Or, top a crispy tostada with fresh ceviche and a layer of guacamole. While it’s great on freshly made tortilla chips or crostini, people avoiding carbs will enjoy it atop a bed of fresh lettuces—no real need for a dressing. And don’t forget, let your waitstaff know that ceviche pairs well with a crisply chilled glass of sauvignon blanc, a perfect match to enjoy on a hot summer day.