Preparing ceviche

It happens to all of us. Every cook tries new recipes, and they don’t always go right on the first try. Or the second. Today, I attempted to make ceviche, a unique Latin American appetizer in which fish is “cooked” using acid rather than heat, the preferred acid being lime juice. It’s a very tricky dish to do well, as I found out.

I had a different recipe all ready to go – Ukrainian borshch – but we hit a record 93 degF in Cambridge today. In the midst of a heat wave, root vegetable soup seemed completely out of season.

I wandered the Arlington farmers’ market, looking for inspiration, and I found it at a stall selling fresh fish. Not heating up my kitchen on a day of record heat sounded like the ideal solution. Half a pound of haddock and several fresh vegetables and herbs later, I was ready to make ceviche.

Saying that this is New Mexican ceviche is something of a contradiction in terms. New Mexican cuisine is largely dictated by local food: chiles, tomatoes, beans, corn. Rice and avocados are imports from Mexico, but even that’s not so far away. One thing that’s almost impossible to get in landlocked, high desert New Mexico is fresh fish. I have caught trout in mountain streams and have fond memories of one amazing morning on the Chama River when the browns were so hungry they were striking bare hooks. Fresh, pan-fried trout remains one of my favorite breakfasts. Still, I can’t imagine trout would work in ceviche. (Know otherwise? Tell me in the comments!)

I have never seen ceviche offered in New Mexican restaurants, which makes sense, since fresh whitefish must be flown in daily at tremendous expense (I’m betting that some insane place offers it anyway). It’s not surprising, then, that my first experience of ceviche was in Burlington, MA, and that was shrimp ceviche, tasty but not outstanding. Then we went to Cape Cod this summer, and my husband and I dined at Tumi, a Peruvian-Italian fusion restaurant, where I tried the mixed seafood ceviche.

It was a revelation. The acidity balanced with the delicate fish captivated me. I couldn’t get enough and ate more than my fair share of the appetizer, which was fine because my husband was having a similar experience with his rocoto relleno appetizer. By the time I had finished the last bit of grilled octopus, I knew that I had to try making ceviche myself as soon as possible.

My first attempt was a dismal failure. Ceviche requires careful timing. I didn’t really understand how long it took to “cook” the fish in the lime juice, and we had to go out that evening, which meant that it was disastrously overdone mush by the time we got home. Today marks my second attempt, using this recipe from Laylita’s Recipes.

It was AWFUL: too acidic, not salty enough, terribly bitter. I made several mistakes.

  1. I was preparing the ceviche at the same time as some pork carnitas, so I missed the part where the onion and tomato are marinated separately at the end of the cooking process, and I threw in the onion and part of the tomato to cook with the haddock. I suspect the onion may have contributed to the bitterness.
  2. I also forgot to add salt to the fish before cooking it in the lime juice.
  3. When I drained the fish, I noticed – too late! – that some of the fish was not fully cooked, and I was out of limes. So I pulled out a bottle of lemon juice, covered the fish again, and cooked it for another 45 minutes. This was a terrible mistake. The lemon juice clashed with the lime juice and was much more acidic without any balancing sweetness. I suspect that this was the main source of the bitterness.
  4. I tried to salt the fish after adding the remaining tomato, bell pepper, avocado, and cilantro. This just made it salty and acidic and bitter. And mostly inedible. Bleh.

My one success: Hatch green chile. I don’t have Ecuadorian peppers, nor is New England well known for any of its hot peppers, but I did happen to have some Hatch green chile in the fridge that I’d been meaning to use. Even with the nasty bitterness, I could taste the mellow burn of the chile, and I think it would be really excellent in a ceviche done properly.

So, the moral of today’s cooking adventure: do not attempt to cook something totally new while also making something else complicated. Ironically, the pork carnitas was probably the best I ever made, with a wonderful, rich umami flavor to it. I would post that recipe, except that I don’t actually know exactly what I did. I was paying too much attention to the ceviche to really notice. I browned the pork, took it out of the Instant Pot, sauteed the onions and garlic, then added a splash of apple cider vinegar, a dollop of tomato paste, some low sodium chicken broth, mexican oregano, cumin, mustard powder, and Worcestershire sauce, with a sprinkling of salt and freshly ground pepper. Fantastic!

But the fact that I can pull off things like that makes me cocky. I forgot that I’ve made carnitas a million times before, and that ceviche is in a class of cooking I am wholly ignorant of. Next time I try ceviche, it’ll be on a lazy afternoon when I have absolutely nothing else to do, and I can really focus on getting everything right. And I’ll be sure to have extra limes.


Marinating vegetables for ceviche

Tomatoes, bell pepper, avocado, and cilantro, all headed to their DOOM.

Finished ceviche

It looks soooooo good, but it tastes soooooo bad.