Friday, August 24, 2007

El Sabor de Ceviche

I ventured to Peru at the beginning of August. The journey was primarily to see the country’s famed Incan ruins, and to observe economic conditions – but I certainly harbored culinary ambitions as well.

As most of you have likely heard, however, a devastating 8.0-magnitude earthquake rocked southern Peru
just a few days after I returned, on August 15. It doesn’t feel right writing about fanciful food experiences in a country where so many are without access to emergency healthcare, supplies or shelter. Not to mention, more than half of Peruvians live in poverty. So let me first encourage you to help the cause, keep monitoring news reports from the region, and donate or volunteer as you can. A few websites to help Peruvian victims -



CRIMSON SOLIDARITY (started by friends of mine)

How can anyone write about the highlights of Peruvian cuisine without mentioning ceviche (unless, of course, you’re a vegetarian)? I’ve been in love with the dish since I first tried an interpretation of it, with trout and lots of lime and peppers, in Nicaragua in 2002. Two months later I was surprised to see another version – but this time in the thick of New York’s high dining scene, with scallops and grouper and blood orange marinade, at the then-called Bouley Bakery.

Ceviche was coming “into fashion” on the haute-cuisine stage at that point. The dish immigrated from its Peruvian home, where it was already migrating to other parts of the region (like Nica), all the way to New York. I loved it because, whether at a simple café in Central America or a fancy joint in the Big Apple, it is a great summer dish, light and refreshing, melding two of the season’s best flavors – fresh fish and fruit.

So what is it exactly? Ceviche (sometimes called cebiche) is a dish of raw fish marinated, or “cooked,” in citrus juice. It was originally eaten by the Inca. In Peru, the dish’s home, that citrus juice is typically from Peruvian limes. It’s traditionally marinated in chilies as well, and accompanied by boiled sweet potato, fresh boiled maize and thinly sliced sweet red onions to balance the heat and acidity. The fish is often a white sea fish (given Peru’s massive Pacific coastline), sea bass or grouper. But there are certainly variants on the theme – in northern regions of Peru, you can find more exotic seafoods used such as white and black conch.

The “secret” of ceviche, though, is that the fish are not actually raw. They’re not quite “cooked,” either, since that term implies the use of heat. Rather, the acidity of the citrus juice chemically denatures proteins in the fish used for ceviche. The process renders the meat an opaque color, which can give it the appearance of having been cooked. But the texture of the meat remains raw, almost like sashimi.

There are two important tricks to preparing ceviche. Both involve maintaining a fine balance in the fish, so as to avoid undercooking it without overcooking. One is in the cut of the fish. Select the freshest fish you can find, and make sure that you slice it into thin, bit-size pieces. This increases the surface area that’s exposed to the citrus juices, allowing them to work best. The second trick is to not over-marinade your fish – too much exposure to the citrus can give it a tough, leathery texture. Your seafood will determine length of exposure. Generally, a flakier fillet, like flounder or snapper, or tender shellfish like scallops may only need to marinate for about 15 minutes. Denser fish, such as mahi mahi, can take closer to 50 minutes or an hour to “cook.”

Remember though, citrus juice cannot kill bacteria in the same way that heat can. So it’s very important to pick fresh fish, free of bacteria and parasites, to prepare this dish. Where this is not possible, some advise picking deep-frozen fin fish, which has been at -4F for at least a week.

And now, without further ado, a recipe for basic ceviche –

2 lbs of fresh red snapper fillets (no bones), cut into thin ½ inch pieces
½ cup of fresh squeezed lime juice
½ cup of fresh squeezed lemon juice
½ red onion, very finely diced
1 cup of fresh peeled, seeded, and chopped tomatoes
1 serrano or other hot chili, seeded and finely diced
1 sweet potato, boiled until soft, peeled and cut into big slices
1 ear of boiled sweet corn, kernels removed
2 teaspoons of salt
dash of ground oregano
sprinkle of cayenne pepper

1. In a casserole dish, preferably ceramic, place the fish, onion, tomatoes, chili, salt, oregano and cayenne pepper.
2. Cover with lime and lemon juice.
3. Let mixture sit covered in the refrigerator for an hour, then stir, making sure more of the fish gets exposed to the acidic lime and lemon juices.
4. Let sit for two more hours, giving time for the flavors to blend.
5. Serve accompanied with boiled, peeled sweet potato and corn, garnish with red onions.

You can use shrimp or scallops, or another flaky white fish instead of the snapper. You can also add key lime juice or grapefruit juice (freshly squeezes, no sugar added) instead of regular lime juice to add additional flavor.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Chef Pankhurst Shares a Recipe

With my rave review of Savoy Cabbage, you can imagine how excited I was when Peter Pankhurst, the restaurant's head chef, agreed to share a recipe. I had a delightful amuse bouche at his restaurant during my visit in early July, a light sweet corn mini-pancake, topped with smoked salmon and a creme fraiche sauce.

Many thanks to Chef Pankhurst for sharing the recipe, which I'm including in this post - and I hope you try it for yourselves! This light, pretty finger food would be perfect for a cocktail party or appetizer. It's easy to make if you can handle making pancakes, offers a classic flavor combination, and looks so elegant!

1 cup cake flour
1/2 cup corn meal or polenta
1 tablespoon baking powder
100ml cream
75ml milk
3 eggs
Salt and pepper to taste
1 ear sweetcorn, boiled till tender and kernels removed
Smoked salmon, thinly sliced
Crème fraiche
Chive tips, to garnish

1. Mix together flour, cornmeal, baking powder and salt and pepper in a large bowl. Make a well in the centre and add the wet ingredients. Mix with a whisk to make a batter somewhat thicker than normal pancake batter. If too thick add more milk. Fold the sweetcorn kernels into the batter just before using.

2. To cook, drop teaspoonfuls of batter into a lightly greased frying pan. Flip cakes after approximately 45 seconds andcook on the opposite side for about 25 seconds.

3. Taste 5 or 6 cakes to see if they are OK. This can be difficult, so taste as many more as you need to ensure top quality. If necessary, start over, but try to save some for your guests.

4. Garnish with thinly sliced smoked salmon and top with crème fraiche. Garnish with chive tips.