Monday, March 10, 2008

The wonder of making ceviche

Sometimes it seems like I approach cooking the way I do juggling. I get interested in recipes when there's something of a party trick or magic trick to them. For example, I got interested in making Paneer because the idea of making cheese from milk, for dinner, on the spot, fascinated me.

Ceviche is a little like that. Ceviche is basically a salsa dish made from fish. Gee, that sounds gross to me, even now, and I love ceviche. I finally got around to making some because of the way I've scarfed it down every time I've encountered it. But then fish tacos sounded gross to me at first too. Okay, apparently I have a certain problem with fish in the abstract.

But not at all in the flesh. So, what's magic or tricky about ceviche? Well, there are two things. One is that you cook the fish without ever heating it. And two, that some recipes allow you to do that in 30 minutes or even less (here's a recipe that calls for only 15 minutes of marination)...which puts me in mind of having a party, chopping the ingredients while talking to friends, and then having an appetizer ready before you know it.

Well, I haven't tried the second option yet. For my first outing, I chose the easiest ceviche recipe I could quickly locate, and I picked the one I did mainly because it called for tilapia, a fish that is relatively inexpensive and easy to procure in landlocked Texas.

The Peruvian ceviche recipe I used from was quite simple. It was a lot like a salsa recipe, if you substituted fish for the tomatoes. The main difference is that you use a lot of lime juice.

And that's the ceviche secret: you marinate the fish in citric acid, and the acid actually cooks the fish. It's not about raw fish: it's fish cooked cold. Cooking with heat, after all, isn't about heat as an end....heat is used because it causes proteins to uncoil, and proteins don't return to the same state afterward, so the texture of the food is changed. It just so happens that you can do the same thing with acid.

The other part of this that's neat is you could be out on a boat, catch a fish, and prepare a nice dish from it without running a stove or a fire (here's a chef's story about doing exactly that).

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