Weekend Project: Make Your Own Ceviche
“In Peru, when you’re by the beach, you always have ceviche.”
Ceviche is the ideal summer dish. It’s refreshing, easy to throw together, and satisfies that warm-weather craving for seafood. Its simple composition -- a fresh catch, a citrus marinade, and a topping of veggies -- makes it super versatile, allowing you to be as basic or elaborate as you’d like.
Every Latin country does ceviche differently, and the one that I grew up with relies on a tomato sauce base. This rendition, which involves the household convenience of Heinz ketchup, is my mother’s Ecuadorian approach. It’s slightly sweet, contains cooked shrimp, and looks a bit like a gazpacho.
The origin story of ceviche is a hazy one, dancing between Ecuador and Peru, but it’s widely accepted that the birthplace is, in fact, Peru. So, in an effort to expand my horizons, I called Leyla Yrala of La Cevicheria, a hidden gem on the Rockaway boardwalk that specializes in authentic Peruvian ceviche.
Leyla and her co-owner sister, Ximena, emigrated from Peru 20 years ago. When they got to Rockaway, they felt let down by the basic beachside fare. “The concessions back then were very dark -- only onion rings, french fries, and hot dogs. That was really weird for us, because in Peru, when you’re by the beach, you always have ceviche.”
According to Yrala, what makes Peruvian ceviche distinct is the fresh lime juice, raw fish, and absence of tomato. And this is the essence of La Cevicheria’s best-seller, the Cebiche Mixto -- a combination of fresh fish, shrimp, and calamari, marinated in lime juice and a special “Madre Sauce,” made of Peruvian peppers. These flavors, both tangy and spicy, are then balanced out with a bit of sweet potato and Peruvian corn.
Once I became privy to the Cebiche Mixto recipe, the first order of business was getting my hands on the secret ingredient to the Madre Sauce: the Peruvian yellow pepper, or aji amarillo. Yrala explained that the sauce tastes best when you buy the pepper in its pure form, cook it for a few hours, and then blend it -- but it’s easier to get a paste. After a few phone calls to Latin American supermarkets in Jersey City, I was fortunate enough to be acquainted with this marvelous spice at Aqui Market (though you can buy the paste on Mercato, Instacart, and Zocalo). Think all the Scoville goodness of a habanero pepper, but with a fruity kick.
What separates a mediocre ceviche from an outstanding one is the freshness of the fish, and this day-of-visit-to-the-fish-market requirement makes it the perfect weekend project. Yrala’s favorite fish to use is hake, but she assured me that any white fish will do. I ended up getting a piece of cod, a pound of wild shrimp (heads and tails included), and, to my delight, two squid bodies that were already stripped of their tentacles and innards.
I should probably mention that, while I’ve always enjoyed eating seafood, I’ve never actually cooked any myself. At first the idea of working with raw fish felt like I was skipping to level 10, blindly trusting in my ability to not get anyone in my family sick. But I knew it had to be done. “You need that natural umami from the raw fish to give the ceviche flavor,” Yrala said. Now looking back, this plight of mine really just meant less work. Yrala advised me to cut the fish into small cubes, rather than big pieces. After a few minutes of simply sitting in the lime juice, the fish turned from transparent to opaque, signaling that it was cured and ready to eat. The small size of the cubes allowed for the lime to fully pass through.
The shrimp and calamari, on the other hand, are meant to be boiled. I peeled the shrimp and sliced the squid bodies into thin rings (easy to do as the insides are hollow) and put those to cook as I blended up the Madre Sauce in my Nutribullet. My tolerance for spice is quite low, so I ended up using about half of the recommended amount of yellow pepper paste, and that gave me the perfect amount of heat. The shrimp and calamari were done in a few minutes and, per Yrala’s instructions, I tossed them in a bowl of ice immediately afterwards to stop the cooking process.
After mixing all of the prepared elements into a bowl -- and adding salt, chopped cilantro, and sliced red onions -- it was time to make a side. The closest thing I could find to Peruvian corn, or choclo, at the supermarket was a can of hominy, a kind of corn kernel that’s soaked in alkali, making it larger in size. I was too eager to dig into my ceviche at this point, so I just warmed the kernels up in a pan with olive oil, and it turned out to be surprisingly delicious. I’d imagine that if you roasted them in the oven, you’d come pretty close to the toasted corn featured in the original Cebiche Mixto.
If I had the chance to do things differently, I might have chosen a fish with a firmer flesh. The cod, though excellent in taste, was prone to some shredding once it entered the pool of lime. And the ceviche tasted even better when I went back to the refrigerator a few hours later for round two. So keep that in mind if you want the fish to really absorb all that the Madre Sauce has to offer, but make sure it doesn’t stand there for more than two days. Though I don’t see how it could -- who wouldn’t want to feel immediately transported to a cevicheria on a Peruvian beach?
- 6 ounces Peruvian yellow pepper paste
- 2 garlic cloves
- 1 small piece of ginger
- 1/2 small red onion
- 1 celery stick
- 6 ounces lime juice
- 1 pound fresh hake, cut in cubes
- 1 pound shrimp, previously boiled
- 1/2 pound calamari previously boiled
- 1 red onion (cut julienne style)
- 2 small pieces of sweet potato (previously cooked)
- Peruvian corn (cooked with a little bit of sugar)
- Toasted corn
- kosher salt, to taste
- chopped cilantro, for garnish
Blend all the ingredients (you can add 4 ounces or so of water).
In a bowl, mix the fish, shrimp and calamari; add salt, Madre Sauce, lime juice, and mix; add cilantro and a couple of ice cubes, and let it rest for a few minutes (you will see that the fish gets whiter -- that’s when the lime has cooked it).
Put the ceviche in the middle of the plate, julienne onions on top, sweet potato, Peruvian corn, and toasted corn on the sides.
If the lime mixture is too acidic, add ice. Always keep the ceviche cold (warm or room temperature is not good!) Always cook with love.