Summer seafood dishes are pretty much the saving grace of this dreadful time of year. Because I am landlocked, I just don’t have the access to fresh fish that I would prefer, but I do have lovely friends on both coasts who are happy to indulge me when I visit. I told you I’ll be heading up to visit Claire soon and I cannot even begin to describe to you how excited I am to let her stuff my face with seafood, particularly the dish she is sharing with us today (also breakfast, becasue holy cow, Claire is a breakfast goddess). Claire lives in a place that allows her to take summer seafood seriously and these ceviche tacos are just what I need to help me make it through to the cooler days ahead. Claire, give our readers a little taste!
Man, it is hot out. It is so hot, I cannot for a second entertain the idea of standing in front of a hot stove, and let’s not even joke about standing outside in the heat and cooking over a grill. The summer issues of all of my favorite food magazines have been making their way to my mailbox, and I’ve been surprised to learn this simple truth: Magazine summer dinner recipes are like the “natural look” makeover; it seems like they’re going to be totally easy to pull off, but it turns out that it takes a lot of work to look so low-maintenance. After one too many nights of throwing my hands up and settling for a salad, I started to ask myself in exasperation, “Can’t I just cook some meat for dinner without working up a sweat?”
Luckily, this is not a new problem. Since the invention of cooking meat over a fire, I assume, people have been trying to figure out how to have meat without cooking it over a fire. Creative methods come from all over the world, but I think it makes the most sense to look to the tropics for a good summer seafood meal. My favorite method to beat the heat comes from Peru, and it’s a double-whammy, for reasons I’ll get into in a minute.
Ceviche is arguably one of the easiest summer seafood dishes to make in the whole world, but done properly, it can also be one of the most impressive things to come out of your kitchen.
If you’re not familiar, ceviche is slices or pieces of fish cooked by the application of an acidic marinade, usually citrus juices. The citric acid from the juice causes the proteins in the meat to denature, which gives it the opaque look and texture of fish cooked with heat. Because you are not using heat, the fish you use for this dish must be exceedingly fresh. The best way to get really fresh fish is to catch it yourself, of course, but the next best option is a reputable, dedicated fishmonger. You want a clean and busy place where the staff can tell you when and where every fish in their shop was caught and by what method, as well as the name of the boat and fisherman who brought it in. The fish in the shop should be stored on top of ice at temperatures just above freezing. The flesh should be firm, bouncing back from a good poke rather than being left with a dent, and it should have no fishy smell. In most cases, you can tell you’re in the right place if the fishmonger’s shop is removed from the touristy part of town and buried among the fishing boats. I’m lucky enough to live just a 15-minute drive from the Pacific coast, so I can make the side trip into Morro Bay and visit my fishmonger there.
Semi-firm white ocean fish is traditional for ceviche, but virtually any fish will work, and even some shellfish, so your choice should depend more on quality and sustainability, rather than tradition. Your best bet is to head to the fish market with an open mind, and opt for whatever is freshest. A responsible fishmonger will stock only sustainably caught product, but I think it’s a good idea to double check anyway. I like to use The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s free Seafood Watch smartphone app because it’s always up-to-date and it’s a simple and effective guide to making the most informed choices. I chose seabass for my ceviche, and I asked the clerk to skin it and pack it on ice for me for the drive home.
I decided to keep my recipe traditional and simple, which brings me back to that thing I said about ceviche being a beat-the-heat double-whammy. Obviously, the first whammy is the no-heat cooking method, but what is that second whammy? Ironically, it is heat! We want to go hot, not in temperature, but in flavor. There are real, scientific reasons that traditionally spicy foods come from the hottest climates. One of those reasons is that spicy foods raise the body’s internal temperature to match the temperature outside, diminishing the perceived extreme difference in temperatures. As blood circulation increases, it also causes facial perspiration, which in turn produces a cooling effect as it evaporates. Hot weather is also a natural appetite suppressant, and spicy foods naturally stimulate appetite and digestion, so without further ado, let’s get to the grub!
Spicy Ceviche Tacos
1 small red onion or half of a large one, sliced thinly
1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves and stems, divided
1 or 2 jalapeño or serrano peppers
½ cup fresh citrus juice
Small corn or flour tortillas
Kosher salt and black pepper to taste
Keep your fish on ice while you do the rest of your prep. The colder and fresher you can keep your fish, the better!
Start by juicing your fruit into a non-reactive bowl; I used all limes, but you can also add in sour orange, lemon, or passionfruit juice for a fun variation on tradition. Add your sliced red onions to the bowl. Pick the leaves off of about a third of your cilantro and set those aside to top your tacos. Coarsely chop the rest of the stems and leaves, and add them to the marinade. Mince the peppers and add them to the marinade. Most of their heat resides in the seeds and the ribs, so for less heat, remove them.
Slice your fish on a 45° angle into approximately quarter-inch-thick slices. Add the fish into the bowl with salt and pepper and allow it to marinate for at least 5 minutes, gently folding occasionally to make sure all of the slices are getting equal exposure to the juice. At this point, you’ll want to keep a close eye on your fish. Let it go too long, and the meat will completely break down, leaving you with dry, overcooked fish. For my taste, somewhere around the 10- to 12-minute mark is ideal, but it’s going to depend on how you sliced it. You want it nicely firm on the outside, but tender and translucent on the inside.
While the fish is marinating, you can prep your taco toppings. Cut up the avocado and tomato, and coarsely chop the cilantro leaves you set aside earlier. When the fish is ready, assemble your tacos, using some of the onions from the marinade to round out your taco toppings, and serve them with your favorite refreshing beverages. Toast to the sea for providing you with the ultimate best summer seafood dinner.