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THE ACID TEST

for The Brooklyn Paper
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It’s late summer and by now all the food that I longed for during the cold winter months has begun to bore me.

I didn’t think I’d ever have enough of big green salads brimming with fresh-from-the-farmers market lettuce and perfect cucumbers; or delicate, cold pea soups tinged with mint or burgers hot off the grill. Yet, after so many impromptu picnics and quick, thrown together dinners, as delicious as they are, I’m sated. I still want to eat cool, light, easy to prepare dishes, but I crave complexity. More layers of flavors. Something spicy.

What I want now is ceviche.

Ceviche (also spelled seviche and pronounced seh-VEE- cheh) is a Latin American dish made by marinating fish or shellfish in citrus juice and serving it cold or cool. Other ingredients vary according to region, but a mixture of fresh herbs, tomatoes or tomato juice, and sometimes chopped peppers and onions are added. With its fresh, vibrant flavors, ceviche works like a cold shower on a tired palate.

Most often prepared with mildly flavored fish such as red snapper, sea bass, sole or tilapia, the fish is sliced thin or cut into small chunks and is "cooked" by the acids in lemon or lime juices or a mixture of both until it’s firm and opaque. (The Ecuadorian version often replaces the lemon and lime with the juice of an orange.) The fish cooks in a matter of minutes or several hours depending on the amount and the thickness of the pieces. If whole shrimp, large pieces of lobster, calamari, scallops or clams are used, they must be briefly boiled or gently poached, then marinated for a short time to insure that the pieces are fully cooked.

The dish is eaten as an appetizer, sometimes with crackers, or as an entree with white rice.

Some historians believe the dish originated in Peru or Ecuador, while others believe that ceviche is Arabian, imported to Peru by Arabian immigrants and then re-interpreted by Peruvians living along the coastal areas.

There are several theories regarding the origin of the word ceviche. One theory is that it derives from the Peruvian mispronunciation of English-speaking visitors saying, "See the beach." Another is that the word spelled cebiche, comes from the Spanish verb cebar, "to saturate."

Two Brooklyn restaurants that serve ceviche are El Conquistador #1 in Park Slope, where chef Jose Palaguchi serves a number of Ecuadorian-style ceviches, and the Latin Grill in Cobble Hill, where chef Arturo Tellez serves a delightful Mexican rendition.

My husband and I braved the brutal heat to sample El Conquistador’s reputably delicious shellfish ceviche. While we waited for our order, we downed ice-cold Coronas and watched Spanish soap operas in the multi-mirrored, wood-paneled dining room.

Year-old El Conquistador #1 serves a half-Ecuadorian and half-Italian menu. The Ecuadorian side is heavy on fish dishes, sopas (soups) and multi-ingredient carnes (meat dishes). The Italian half features inventive pasta dishes, simple grilled or sauteed pesce (fish) and traditional chicken, veal and beef entrees.

Shrimp or a combination of shrimp and other shellfish are the ingredients most often found in Ecuadorian ceviche. Ecuador-born Palaguchi serves three different shrimp-based ceviches. On the weekend, he offers cocktail de camarones or shrimp cocktail. Of the ceviches we tried, this "cocktail," amusingly presented in a cocktail glass complete with big, lemon-flavored shrimp hugging the rim, had the most unctuous consistency and the richest flavor. Whole tender shrimp were mixed in a sauce made thick with avocado chunks, the flavors brightened with the addition of lemon and a lot of lime juice. Small pungent pieces of red onion gave the dish a little spice and parsley imparted a fresh, herbal note.

Served in a porcelain bowl topped with a kitschy-looking lobster, ceviche mixto, a combination of shrimp and clams, was redolent of good olive oil and briny, deep shellfish flavor. Crunchy corn kernels and diced red onion gave the dish textural interest, and a splash of Tabasco sauce intensified the shellfish flavor. A platter of white rice, perfectly steamed and placed on a matching lobster plate, turned the dish into a meal. Palaguchi finishes the ceviche mixto with a traditional Ecuadorian topping of maiz tostada or corn nuts - large, deep-fried kernels of corn that taste like popcorn and have a crunchy texture.

The lightest and simplest of the ceviches, the ceviche de camarones, served in a small glass bowl, had the most vivid flavors. Palaguchi tossed tender shrimp in a lemon, tomato juice and olive oil marinade, sprinkled it with cilantro and topped it with corn nuts.

Mexican chef Arturo Tellez of the Latin Grill also favors shrimp for his ceviche. Opened last December, the restaurant - all glittery blue and white tiles and aqua covered diner chairs - specializes in Mexican and Cuban cuisine. Tellez’s ceviche mariscos (shellfish ceviche) that he jokingly refers to as an "Acapulco Cocktail," is served as an appetizer, but could easily make a light lunch or supper. Following the ceviche with the chef’s fried plantains dessert - his are very sweet and crusty and come topped with a rich vanilla ice cream - makes a memorable meal.

The "Acapulco Cocktail" a mix of shrimp and tender rings of calamari, had less citrus and pulpier tomato than the Ecuadorian version. It, too, was served in a large glass, a milkshake glass in this case, ringed with shrimp and lime wedges.

Tellez’s shrimp and calamari were lightly lemon-flavored, and the sauce had the sting of hot chili peppers. Each bite of the ceviche, with its bright herbal notes, lushness of the avocado and heat of the peppers played a wonderful havoc in my mouth. Instead of rice, this ceviche comes with Saltines. It works.

 

El Conquistador #1 (412 Fifth Ave. between Seventh and Eighth streets) accepts Visa, MasterCard and American Express. Entree portions of ceviche: $9. Entrees: $6-$13.75. For information, call (718) 832-0895.

Latin Grill (254 Court St. between Kane and DeGraw streets) accepts cash only. Ceviche appetizer: $7.50. Entrees: $8.50-$14.50. For information, call (718) 858-0309.

 

Ceviche at home
The ceviche mariscos recipe is adapted from chef Arturo Tellez of the Latin Grill. The success of the dish depends on the freshness of the fish. Go to a quality fish market (I’ve recommended three below), and take a sniff before you buy. Fish or shellfish should have almost no odor. If it smells fishy, it isn’t fresh.

Latin Grill Ceviche Mariscos
Adapted from Chef Arturo Tellez’s recipe
4 ripe tomatoes, diced
1 red onion, diced
2 jalapeno peppers, seeded and diced
1/4 cup lime juice
2 tbsp. ketchup
1 ounce Sangria soda (found in Spanish markets) or mix 1/2 ounce of fruity red wine with 1/2 ounce of plain seltzer
1 ripe avocado, peeled and cut into chunks
1 cup medium-large shrimp, peeled and de-veined
1 cup calamari, cleaned
1 Bay leaf
Salt and pepper
Lightly poach shrimp and calamari in water seasoned with a little salt and bay leaf. Slice calamari into rings. Mix diced ingredients omitting the avocado to create a salsa and mix with liquid ingredients. Add the shrimp and calamari. Cover, refrigerate and let ingredients sit for one to two hours. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Shortly before serving mix in avocado. Serve with crackers.

Where to shop

Costco Wholesale [976 Third Ave. between 37th and 39th streets, (800) 774-2678 or (718) 965-7603] This wholesale warehouse has a well-stocked fish department featuring very fresh fish at prices lower than most fish markets. It pays to purchase a membership here or find a Costco member and tag along.

Fish Tales [191A Court St. between Bergen and Wyckoff Streets, (718) 246-1346] The Zagat survey recently voted this attractive store No. 1 for service and placed it among the top 40 shops in Brooklyn for quality. The fish here is the freshest you’ll find anywhere.

Park Slope Seafood [215 Seventh Ave. between Third and Fourth streets, (718) 832-7638] This shop stocks a large selection of fresh fish at reasonable prices.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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