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CEVICHE CONFIDENTIAL

In Peru, as in Palm Beach, raw fish masters share the secret of a good ceviche: keep it fresh and simple.


The tweets of Gaston Acurio, the acclaimed Peruvian chef and restaurateur, are like snippets of love poems devoted to the food of his homeland.

It’s easy to understand why his native cuisine brings out the Pablo Neruda in him. Consider a properly made ceviche. Food doesn’t get simpler, yet more majestic than this, the light mingling of fresh, raw ingredients of contrasting textures and flavor notes.

A good ceviche greets you briskly, chilled and citrusy. It indulges you with plump bites of gorgeously marinated fish or seafood. And it leaves its subtle heat to linger on the palate.

“The Peruvian soul can’t live without chile peppers, and we must have at least one ceviche a week,” Acurio told me. “It’s part of our makeup.”

Acurio is every bit as poetic by phone as he is by tweet, as I learned during an interview a couple of months ago. He spoke about the ever-changing dialogue between cook and ingredients, how to decode the messages hidden in aroma, smoke and sizzles.

“Ours is a generous, adventurous kitchen that reflects Peru’s inner rhythms. As cooks, we were born in a wonderland of natural ingredients. To live and cook in Lima is to live in a grand culinary think tank,” he said. “But it’s good to travel, try new things, see your country from afar and reflect on the things that you may not notice on a daily basis. But we do so with nostalgia. Then again, there is a permanent nostalgia in the cook. By nature, we are nostalgic, seeking memory and comfort in food.”

I asked him to walk me through the steps of a simple ceviche.

“Just pretend you were here in Palm Beach County – what ingredients would you use?” I asked.

Of course, Acurio was not in South Florida at the time, although he’d be here soon enough to star at an event during the South Beach Wine & Food Festival. But on that day, he was in Lima, Peru, making himself a quinoa burger with mango chutney. And, artistic soul that he is, he agreed to compose a virtual ceviche.

“To make a ceviche, you must know the art of conversation with your ingredients. Your role as a cook is to dialogue with your ingredients,” he began.

“In South Florida, I would find a fresh fish of the zone, perhaps pompano or snapper, a good local fish. Then I would find the nearest, locally grown chile pepper. I would search for a good lime and red onions,” he said.

“From there, it’s very simple: if the fish is small, dice it small. If it’s big, dice it larger. If the limes are too big, use less. If the chile is too spicy, go easy. It’s the cook who decides. You have to dialogue with the ingredients to find the balance.

“Lime, onion, chile, fresh fish. Then listen to your inner voice as a cook. It takes seconds. In 30 seconds, you have a good ceviche.”

And like a good ceviche, Acurio’s words and the visions and scents they conjured in my mind lingered.

So what does one do when one has a ceviche craving anywhere near Palm Beach? One calls chef Clay Conley.

Conley creates masterful raw, marinated fish and seafood dishes nightly at his island eateries, Buccan and Imoto. And, perhaps more central to this story, he traveled to Peru last year for culinary inspirations. There, he met Acurio and dined at one of his restaurants.

Conley has been making Peruvian-style ceviche since his days at Azul restaurant at Miami’s Mandarin Oriental hotel.

PERUVIAN CEVICHE

Recipe by Gastón Acurio of La Mar in Lima, Peru, adapted from “Bon Appetit” magazine.

4–6 servings

For the marinade, or “Leche de Tigre”

2/3 cup fresh lime juice

2 garlic cloves, smashed

1 tablespoon (packed) chopped fresh cilantro leaves

1/2 ají limo or habanero chile, seeded, halved lengthwise

1/2 small red onion, finely sliced

Kosher salt

For the ceviche

1 small sweet potato (about 8 ounces)

1 ear of corn, husked

1/2 ají limo or habanero chile, seeded, halved lengthwise

1 pound snapper or pompano, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

1 small red onion, quartered and thinly sliced, divided

Kosher salt

Cilantro leaves

Make the marinade, or Leche de Tigre:

Set a fine-mesh sieve over a small bowl. Purée first 4 ingredients and 4 large ice cubes in a blender until smooth. Add onion; pulse 3–4 times. Strain liquid into a medium bowl. Season with salt. Cover and chill.

Make the ceviche:

Pour water into a large pot fitted with a steamer basket to a depth of 1 inch; bring to a boil. Add sweet potato, cover, and cook until just fork-tender, about 30 minutes. Transfer to a plate; let cool.

Meanwhile, add more water to same pot, if needed, to measure 1 inch; bring to a boil. Add ear of corn to pot and steam until crisp-tender, 2–3 minutes. Transfer to a plate; let cool completely.

Halve potato lengthwise. Using a small melon baller, scoop out potato balls and place them in a small bowl; set aside. Cut kernels from cob. Reserve 1/3 cup kernels (save extra kernels for another use).

Rub a large bowl with cut sides of chile; discard. Place fish, 2/3 of onion, leche de tigre, and 4 large ice cubes in bowl; stir well. Let marinate for 2 minutes; remove ice.

Fold in potato and corn; season with salt.

Using a slotted spoon, divide ceviche into small bowls or onto plates. Drizzle ceviche with leche de tigre from bowl; garnish with remaining onion and cilantro.

Nutritional information per serving: 160 Calories, 1.5 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 45 mg cholesterol, 18 g carbohydrates, 2 g dietary fiber, 4 g sugars, 19 g protein, 380 mg sodium.

Local resources: Ají limo chiles are sold at Latin markets such as El Bodegon in West Palm Beach, as are habanero chiles, which also are available at specialty stores. As Peruvian limes are difficult to find, chef Clay Conley suggests using ripe key limes or yellow lemons, which approximate the authentic taste.


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