Thursday, August 20, 2009

Seaside sublime and the pace of Mexican cooking

Oaxaca is a large, fertile state in central-south-west Mexico. The city of Oaxaca is nestled among low mountain ranges, which reach down to a gorgeous rugged coastline - great for surfing and fishing. To get from the city of Oaxaca to the coast, you can drive 150 miles and 15,000 sharp curves over the mountains (about six hours), or you skirt the mountains and make it ten relatively smooth hours navigable by large vehicles. There's also one airline that makes one-two trips a day, with one four-seater and one eight-seater. In other words, while Oaxaca's coast abounds in fantastic fresh fish, Oaxaca city does not. Luckily, we went to the fish. In open restaurants with palm rooves, we ate some of the most delicious fresh whole fish I've ever had - al diablo, en ajo, and empapelado. I've yet to try any of these at home, but I'll be sure to put out the recipes once I perfect them. We also had my very favorite seafood dish in the universe: ceviche. This is something I do make.

Many people shy away from ceviche for the same reason they're nervous about sushi: the fish is "raw." First, as the long tradition of sushi-eating in Japan and now the US shows, as long as it is well selected, raw fish is quite safe. Second, the fish in ceviche isn't totally raw; it's "cooked" in lime juice. Still, you must absolutely use only truly fresh fish for ceviche (I hear you can also use "fresh frozen" but I've never tried that). Any firm white-fleshed non-oily saltwater fish works for ceviche, so use whatever is in season. Scallops also go wonderfully in it, as does (cooked) octopus. Many people like to put in shrimp as well, but honestly I find that shrimp looks pretty in a ceviche butdoes not yield the best flavor combination. If you are using octopus, which is really delicious, buy a small one, boil it for about 30 minutes, then proceed as with other fish.

The really complicated thing about ceviche, as with many Mexican dishes, is that it must be made in stages. There's not much actual work time involved in ceviche, but you have to start it a day or two before you plan to eat it.

Traditional Ceviche
serves 4 as an appetizer

1 cup fish (or combination of fish, scallops, and octopus), cut into one-inch squares
Lime juice to cover fish
salt and pepper

chop fish, cover in lime juice, add salt and pepper, and place in a glass or plastic (NOT metal) bowl, well covered, in the refrigerator for 36-48 hours.

1 onion, finely chopped
2 tomatoes, diced
1 jalapeno pepper, seeds removed and diced
1/2 cup roughly chopped cilantro
salt and pepper to taste

Mix these with the fish. Can be served immediately, but tastes even better if it sits in the fridge for another several hours (up to 24).

Mango-Lime Ceviche

Follow directions for fish as with traditional ceviche. Stick to just fish. Then in place of readitional add-ins, use:

1-2 mangoes, chopped into one-inch squares
1 red onion, finely diced
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and finely diced
1/3 cup finely chopped mint

Serve this one immediately, as mango soaked in lime gets mushy.

Other Variations

In the Mango-Mint Ceviche you can substitute a few other fruits for the mangoes: nectarines and peaches are particularly good (and local and seasonal in New England just about now!), but oranges or sweet grapefruit are also interesting, and pomegranate is quite nice.

In any ceviche, you can use a little lime and/or orange juice to change the base flavor, but the majority of your "cooking" juice should be lime.

You can add tomatillos, or substitute them for the tomatoes entirely.

Some people add red, green, or yellow peppers. I prefer fewer ingredients, but...