If you’ve read my previous post, Ceviche: King of Peru, you know the most important rule when making ceviche… It’s a very easy dish to prepare, just fish plus 4 or 5 ingredients: lime, salt, hot pepper/chilli, red onion, maybe a bit of chopped parsley & cilantro. The more you make ceviche, the more you’ll find the perfect balance among the ingredients.
Even if you don’t live close to the ocean, you can still find fresh fish (not previously frozen) through your local fishmonger. I’ve also bought excellent fish at Whole Foods in the U.S.
Some describe ceviche as “fish marinated in lime juice,” which may have been technically correct in the past. But with Japanese culinary influence becoming more popular in recent years, ceviche is now served 10 – 15 minutes after the lime juice has been added. The longer the fish soaks in the lime juice, the whiter it will be. When fish is “overcooked,” it will begin to get mushy and break down into pieces. Avoid overcooking your fish.
It’s easy to get fresh fish in Lima. My nephew, Raul, hooked me up with the freshest fish, without actually going out to sea. He works at his grandfather’s legendary restaurant, the Costa Verde. It was the first restaurant to open right on the beach, with a magnificent view of the Pacific Ocean. That was 42 years ago. So, I think my nephew knows a little about making ceviche and where to get the freshest fish in Lima 😉
Raul told me that to get the best seafood, you have to get up early. “No problem!” I said. “I get up early all the time!” “Ok, I’ll pick you up at 3 a.m.” Huh? In my best nonchalant tone, I said, “Cool!”
Raul picked me up at exactly 3 a.m. He sped down city roads that are usually clogged with traffic during normal waking hours. The streets were also deserted, except for those people stumbling out of bars and falling into the expectant taxis. I was barely awake, but excited. We were headed to Lima’s most important commercial fish market, the Terminal Pesquero de Villa Maria del Triunfo. This is where trucks deliver thousands of pounds of fish daily that have been caught just a few hours before by fishermen from the northern and southern oceans of Peru.
This is not a picturesque fish market, yet it’s an exciting place. All the action happens inside a hangar that looks big enough to store a few 737s.
Trucks pull in every few minutes, they park, and men open the back doors revealing crates stacked up high with fish and packed with ice. Without much fanfare, they begin unloading the hundreds of crates of fish and shellfish. Before the goods can be unloaded, though, there are already groups of people (restaurant purveyors, seafood brokers) gathering at the foot of the trucks waiting for the bidding to start.
Raul gave me the tour, showing me where he buys the seafood for the restaurant, teaching me how to distinguish fresh fish from not-so fresh fish, and pointing out interesting catches, like giant squid!
I tried to stay out of the way while taking pictures – at the same time trying not to slip on the fishy floors. On this day (Monday), the seafood choices were limited. Mondays are generally considered a rest day (after heavy partying Sunday night), but Raul still goes out there because there are some fishermen who fish every day.
On this particular Monday, the few people that were there moved around like zombies. A young guy was sweeping mountains of empty plastic cups off of the floor; there was even a mutilated bull piñata, defeated among the debris.
As Raul negotiated the price for some swordfish, I walked around with my iPhone. I asked a taciturn guy cleaning a fish if there had been a party the night before 😉 He looked up at me with a weird look on his face. Uh-oh. I shouldn’t have interrupted a man brandishing a sharp knife…
He smirked and said, “Yeah…? (It sounded like, “Yeah, helloooo, you nitwit”). “Yesterday was San Pedro and San Pablo!” At my blank stare, he said, “San Pedro is the saint patron of all fishermen? We were celebrating our holiday??” Oh.
Too bad I missed those festivities. I learned that boats all along the Peruvian coast go out to sea each June 29, accompanied by musicians, loads of flowers and decorations, transporting their wooden saint on their boats. So, I happened to go to a commercial fish market on the Monday after the biggest and most important holiday for all fishermen in Peru – a holiday that has been celebrated for the last 80 years! Like I said, my nephew knows where to get fresh fish, and he wouldn’t let that little detail deter him from scoring some pescado fresco for his grandpa’s restaurant. And he did!
Raul recommended I get dolphin/mahi-mahi (known as “perico” in Peru) for the ceviche I was preparing that afternoon. I watched as my fillets were expertly cut.
I also got a couple of fresh squid, heads and all, for awesome lightly breaded and fried calamari with a lemony ají amarillo sauce for dipping. I had never seen a whole squid before, but Raul gave me a lesson on the spot on how to clean it.
My other score was a bag of fresh scallops on their shells for baking conchitas a la parmesana (buttery baked scallops on their shell, covered by melted parmesan cheese). I will share the recipe for that on the next post.
Here’s the recipe for traditional ceviche:
INGREDIENTS: (2-3 portions)
1.5 lbs White, fresh fish (corvina, grouper, snapper, flounder, or sole. Avoid fish high in oil, like swordfish)
3-4 teaspoons of sea salt (very fine grind – you’ll modify with more or less, according to your liking, when you make ceviche the next time)
1/2 Ají limo if you are in Peru, but the Mexican Habanero, its cousin, is a great substitute. If you don’t want/like hot peppers, don’t add them.
Cilantro & Parsley, a few leaves, finely chopped
1/2 medium red onion, finely julienned
Juice of 20 limes, approx. If you’re not in Peru, use key limes. If you can’t get those, use Mexican limes – or the limes you can get at your grocery store. (You’ll need enough juice to cover the fish, once you’ve cut it in cubes)
PREPARATION & TECHNIQUES:
1. Keep your fish refrigerated until you’re ready to use it. You want to use cold fish.
2. Julienne the onion; set aside in a bowl filled with cold water.
3. Cut all limes in half; set aside in a bowl filled with cold water. Technique: This is to avoid the contaminating the juice with the bitter taste of the lime’s skin oils, which remain on your fingertips every time you squeeze the lime).
4. Squeeze limes and set juice aside. Technique: Avoid using anything but one hand to squeeze limes, and don’t squeeze till the end, so as to avoid the bitterness of the white inside part of the lime).
5. Chop parsley & cilantro, very fine.
6. Wash hot pepper/chilli, remove seeds and veins, wash again and cut in brunoise.
7. Make sure fish is clean, no scales, no bones. Cut in cubes, 3/4″ each. Season with salt, add hot peppers, cilantro & parsley. Mix in bowl. Refrigerate and let rest for 10 minutes.
8. Add lime juice to the seasoned fish cubes; combine using a spoon or fork, never your hands. Add drained onions and gently combine again.
Technique: Did I mention it is crucial you keep the fish cold? World-famous Peruvian chef, Gaston Acurio, recommends adding one or two large ice cubes during preparation, which you’ll remove upon plating.
9. Let seasoned fish, with the lime and onions, rest in the refrigerator for 10-15 minutes. If it’s too pink for your taste, let it sit a bit longer, until fish starts getting whiter.
10. Present fish on a shallow dish and people can serve their own portions. If I was in Peru, I would add yams/sweet potatoes, together with Peruvian corn, maybe garnish with some fresh lettuce. Since I can’t get Peruvian corn, I just serve it plain.
Buen provecho – and cheers,