Summer—it’s here! It’s really, really here! Officially! The calendar says so!
In honor of summer, we are going to make the most summer food there is on the whole planet. We are going to make ceviche.
It’s not just because ceviche is a popular food in the coastal areas of equatorial paradise. Ceviche is seafood, “cooked” without heat, served cool, mixed with bright citrus and colorful, aromatic things. Also, it is a popular food in the coastal areas of equatorial paradise—the experience of eating ceviche is like being instantly teleported to such a place, for the desperate, harried working drone who hasn’t had a vacation in goddamn years. Ceviche is right up there with blue crabs and watermelon and ripe tomatoes–it is Summer when you eat these things, and eating them makes the damn point that now is Summer. Let’s quit fucking around and get to it.
Here’s what you’ll need: a bunch of limes; a couple fresh hot peppers; a red onion; a couple cloves of garlic; some cilantro; some good tomatoes; and, of course, some fish.
The steps here are pretty simple: we’re gonna make a brine, then we’re gonna cut our fish into appropriate chunks, then we’re gonna drop our fish into the brine. After the brine has done its thing, we’re gonna stir in some delicious crunchy fresh stuff, dole out servings, garnish the goddamn shit, and get to eating. Here we go.
The brine is mostly gonna be lime juice, but that’s just because I’m a boring, lazy person with a fucking ton of limes sitting in a colander on my kitchen counter. An extraordinarily bitchin’, fun thing about ceviche is that it is really a cooking technique more than it is a recipe, and, as cooking techniques go, this one is hella flexible. What you need is acid. When your fresh, delicious fish comes into contact with our mild acid bath, its proteins will be denatured—the structures of these proteins will change from their native state into something that more resembles their cooked state. Citric acid is a mild acid—unlike, say, the tub of hydrofluoric acid used to dissolve a dead body in Breaking Bad, our acid bath will just sort of gently toughen our seafood, instead of turning it into a rank inedible goo that dissolves its way through your floor and eventually into the center of the earth.
Different fruit or vegetable acids will work more or less quickly to produce the desired texture, which is something short of well-done. So! The acid bath can be lime juice, or it can be grapefruit juice, or it can be passionfruit, or it can be vinegar, or it can be a combination of lime juice and lemon juice and white vinegar and onion and pineapple. It can be anything! Well, almost anything—the use of industrial acids would be a bad idea. Put down the fuckin’ batteries, man. Point is, as long as you have a sense of what “done” means, and you keep a fairly close eye on things, you really can customize this to your taste. Frankly, you should spend all summer, every summer, working on different iterations of ceviche.
We’re gonna go basic, here. Get yourself a big non-metal bowl and a bunch of limes, and get to squeezing. You’re going to eventually need at least a cup of juice. One of those handy citrus squeezers will go a long way towards making this an easier job. Don’t be too careful about seeds—keep them out of the bowl as much as possible, but we’re eventually gonna yank the cured fish out of the juice, so there’s a decent chance no seeds will wind up in the final preparation one way or another. Also, man, just calm down. They’re just seeds.
OK. Now, into your bowl of lime juice, we want to add some lime zest. Zest is cool—it will boost the lime scent and lime flavor, here, without making the ceviche any more tart than it will otherwise already be. Using a microplane or the finest plane on your cheese grater, add a pinch of lime zest to the lime juice. Now, gently smash a couple of cloves of garlic and add them to the brine. Cool. Sock your brine away in the fridge and give it a half-hour for the garlic to do its thing.
What you’ve got, now, is a perfectly adequate ceviche brine. If we want to go full-bore Peruvian, we could continue forward and make leche de tigre, which would involve adding our other non-fish ingredients at this early stage, then blending the mixture in a food processor or blender, then straining out the solids, and then using the liquid to cure the fish. And that’s fine! It’s a lot of extra steps, but it will make a complex brine and a tasty ceviche. For the sake of simplicity and not disrupting the blender from what it’s supposed to be doing this time of year—making piña coladas around the clock, natch—we’re gonna keep things simple, here.
OK. Let’s talk fish. A common seafood used in ceviche is medium pink shrimp. That’s a good, simple choice. There isn’t exactly a bad choice, but, for the best ceviche, you want to adhere pretty closely to the following template: very fresh, good quality, salt-water seafood on the lower-fat side. Don’t bother being as ambitious as, say, sushi- or crudo-grade stuff—after all, it’s not being served raw, exactly, and there’s gonna be quite a lot of citrus flavor bodying up to its essential fishiness. You want it to be very fresh, though, because curing is not quite the same thing as cooking—while the experience of eating cured seafood is similar to that of cooked seafood, curing will not necessarily kill off parasites and bacteria and worms and all the other horrifying alien shit that lurks in the briny deep. It’ll be worth it to tell your fish monger you’re using the fish for ceviche and let him steer you towards what is freshest.
I happen to think fish is better than shellfish for ceviche, and here’s why: almost every fish on earth is as good to eat raw as it is cooked, and that’s how you wind up with more than two basic grades of cooking. Medium-rare salmon and swordfish, for example, or shocked escolar, or tuna tataki. If you want to go shrimp, that’s fine. I think you’re gonna buck if you wind up with medium-rare shrimp, is all, and so the only level of doneness you will accept will be total doneness, which will be just the same as eating fully-cooked shrimp, with a bunch of lime squeezed over it. Delicious, but boring.
I’m gonna recommend that you instead use a manageable ocean fish. Get yourself a couple filets of red snapper or striped bass. “Red snapper” is more a culinary term than a scientific one—the list of fish types that are known as “red snapper” is huge, but so long as the one you’re getting is from the ocean and is fresh, you’re good. Striped bass is an easier one, and is readily available, and is delicious. Take your fish home and sock it away in the coldest part of your refrigerator. You’re gonna be cutting it, soon, and this will be a lot easier to do if it’s firm and cold. Not frozen! Don’t stick it in the freezer. Just give it, say, a half hour in that cold back corner of the fridge.
When you’re ready, yank the fish out of the fridge and onto a cutting board. To cut it, you’re gonna need a sharp knife. If you’ve got a filet knife, great. Congratulations. You have now encountered the one circumstance in which a filet knife is anything other than another weapon to imagine using in The Purge. It will be fine to use a regular-ass chef’s knife for this, or even a pairing knife, if you don’t have anything better. Whatever you’re using, it needs to be sharp enough to take the skin off the fish. Which, hey, we’re gonna take the skin off the fish.
The easiest way to do this is to peel back one end of the skin with your fingers as far as you can get it—probably not more than an inch or so—and then methodically, patiently use your sharp knife to wedge the skin away from the flesh. If your knife is very sharp, this will be an absolute breeze. If your knife is a ragged, chipped, dull replica long-sword you bought at the Renaissance Festival back in ‘97, you can still do it, but it’s gonna be miserable, and slow-going, and your filet is gonna look like it was ripped off the poor fish by a grizzly bear. Sorry.
Once the skin is off, the rest is easy: Cut the dang fish into pieces that are roughly one-inch-cube-shaped, then drop the fish pieces into the brine and sock the whole thing away in the fridge. It’s gonna take a few minutes to cure, and we’re gonna use that time to prep the rest of our ingredients. Slice your red onion into very-thin, translucent quarter-rounds, thinly slice your hot peppers, and roughly chop your cilantro. I like to use Fresno peppers for ceviche—they’re hot without being nuclear hot, and red is a festive color. Use whatever you like.
What kind of tomatoes did you get? Are they really good, really huge heirloom jobs? Are they shitty, mealy, “vine-ripened” red tomatoes? Did you skip the big- and medium-sized tomatoes altogether and get some multicolored grape or cherry tomatoes? Whatever you’ve got, you want the chunks of tomato in the ceviche to be not much bigger than the chunks of fish, so cut them accordingly. Unless you got the shitty, mealy, “vine-ripened” red tomatoes. Throw those at the nearest stand-up comedian as God intended.
Check on the fish! What you’re looking for here is medium-rare. You’ll know it’s still underdone if the exterior of the fish hasn’t changed color or texture at all. You’ll know it’s overdone if the fish cubes are completely firm, like cubes of chicken breast. Literally anything in between those two states is perfect. When the fish is properly cured, drop the onion, peppers, cilantro, and tomatoes into the bowl, and gently toss to distribute it among the fish. If we timed this just right, you should be able to let this mixture go back into the fridge for, say, 90 seconds, without the fish becoming overdone.
When you’re ready, use a colander or slotted spoon or your fingers to gently strain the liquid out of the bowl, leaving you with just a pile of fish and stuff. Awesome. There. What you’ve got in the bowl, right now, is perfectly delicious ceviche. If you want, you can stand right there at the sink and use your fingers to grab up little bites of fish and onion and hot pepper and munch away. So good! So beach-y and summer-y! Munch munch munch.
If you are able to hold off, here’s what I recommend: portion out some ceviche into a nice glass—a margarita glass, or a cocktail glass, or a champagne tulip—and top it with something fun: avocado is classic, but you can also go with sliced radishes, or sliced green olives, or some bright flying fish roe, or even some moderately-priced caviar. The idea with this final garnish is to balance the light and bright and acidic qualities of what you’ve added so far with something rich and fatty (avocado) or something salty (olives or roe or caviar). Go fucking crazy, here. Do your thing.
The best way to eat ceviche is outside, pre-dusk, with wind blowing directly off the ocean and through your hair, with a colorful cocktail or a cold beer, with a narrow fork and a pile of tostones and a fuckin’ palm tree overhead. Say you’re there: each bite of ceviche really hammers it home, right? Cool, super-fresh, citrusy fish, a zing of hot pepper, a welcome fragrant crunch of onion and cilantro stem and juicy tomato...perfect. Soak it up, man. This is the full sensory experience of summer, on a fork, into your mouth.
Maybe, however, you’re like the rest of us and stuck at home, and feeling shitty about it. Grab a chair and a napkin and a beer and head outside, or onto the porch (or even just sit next to an open window), and play some steel-pan calypso on Spotify. Take a bite of ceviche, close your eyes, chew—see if this ritual doesn’t take you most of the way there. Happy summer, everyone.