Riddle me this! What’s cooking… without cooking?
The dream of single mothers everywhere? Probably. But, let’s try a little harder.
Need a hint? How ‘bout this li’l ditty?
Bright and fresh with ocean brine
I go great with crisp white wine
Especially on the Latin coast
(Mexico, sure, but Peru the most).
Tart and tangy, soft and sweet,
I am cooked, but without heat.
Acid turns me firm and white,
Without any fire in sight.
What am I?
Give up? Clearly you’re not the Riddler-loving, brain-teasing dork I am. That’s OK, though. Ceviche doesn’t discriminate.
Ceviche (say it with me now, “suh-VEE-chay”) rules the school of raw-ish fish preparations that now dominate restaurant menus and cooking TV shows (sorry, pesca crudo). At its simplest, it’s just sea critters and lime juice (although tomatoes, cucumbers, and chilies often find their way into the mix). The lime juice denatures the proteins in the fish just like heat does, so you end up with firm, bouncy shrimp or scallops without any “cooking” at all. Cha-ching!
“Hang on, Mr. Wizard! It ‘denatures the proteins’? What is this, science class?”
In a way, yes. Let’s talk chemistry for a second.
Fish are made of proteins (which themselves are just strings of amino acids joined together in funny shapes). In their natural state, proteins are like a basket of yarn — lots of strings, all neat and tidy.
As with yarn, though, it’s pretty easy to fuck it all up. Heat, radiation, acids, alcohols, baking soda, formaldehyde — all these things and more will get those proteins all loosey-goosey so they tie themselves in knots. Introducing that stuff to a protein is like throwing a cat at your grandmother’s half-done quilt. Tangle City!
That’s a good thing when it comes to cooking, though. Cook a piece of raw halibut and watch its translucent flesh turn all white and flaky as its proteins unfold and refold. That’s denaturation (and the basis of cooking all meat, poultry, and seafood)! Tangling proteins for delicious results.
Normally, heat does the job. Roasted chicken, carne asada, pan-fried trout — they all rely on fire to tangle those proteins. But, you don’t have to use heat. Sure, you won’t kill microbes or induce browning without it, but it’s not strictly necessary. Any denaturant ought to work, it’s just that most taste like crap (at best).
Y’know what doesn’t taste like crap, though? Lime juice.
Limes are the best citrus. I put lemon on everything, but limes have more zing. They’re bright and fragrant and tangy. You probably don’t want to eat them straight, but they perk up dishes all across the Citrus Belt. Mexican salsas. Thai larbs. Floridian pies. They’re perfect.
They also denature proteins like a pro. Dunk some fish in a bowl of lime juice, go play Mario Kart for an hour, then come back for a tasty ceviche that’s practically cooked itself.
Few dishes offer the same ROI. Ceviche is cheap — shrimp and limes cost a couple of dollars, at most. It’s delicious — punchy and refreshing when done right. It’s impressive — people drool over a sophisticated Latin dish involving unusual techniques. And, it’s easy — quick to prepare, mostly hands-off, and virtually foolproof.
Let’s face it. Spring is around the corner (or already here on the West Coast). A lot of you would rather be in the horrible outdoors instead of over a hot stove, for some reason. As the days grow longer, cooking tends to take a backseat to all the other stuff going on.
Still, you’ve gotta eat and there are only so many rotisserie chickens and Crunchwrap Supremes you can handle. Give yourself a break, marinate some seafood for dinner, and get back to doing what you really want to do (which is this, I presume).
First, buy this stuff:
- Limes (about three juicy ones for every pound of seafood)
- Shrimp (without the shells)
- Red onion
Roll the limes on the countertop to get the juices flowing. (Seriously, this doubles or triples the amount of juice you can squeeze out.)
Slice them in half.
Squeeze all the juice into a big bowl (jam a spoon into each half for extra points).
Drop your shrimp into the juice.
Toss in a couple of big, three-finger pinches of salt.
Crack a little pepper onto them too, while you’re at it.
Shove the whole thing in the fridge.
Turn on Criminal Minds in the background.
Slice the jalapeno in half.
Pull out the seeds.
Chop the seedless jalapeno halves until they’re about the size of your pinky nail.
Chop some onion until it’s about the same size.
Chop the cucumber too, but keep it a little bigger (try thumbnail size).
Chop the tomatoes until they’re about the same size as the cucumber.
Toss all the vegetables into the shrimp bowl and give it a stir.
When the lunatic is safely in custody, check your shrimp: Cut one in half and see if it’s opaque enough for you.
All good? Taste it. Does it need more salt? More pepper? Anything? (If the shrimp are little on the rare side, just leave them in the acid for an episode of Malcolm in the Middle.)
Presto, dinner is served! (At this point, sickos will garnish their wonderful dish with cilantro. I leave it pure, because there’s never any excuse for the devil weed. A few slices of avocado set it all off nicely, though.)
And, please do me a favour and tell anyone you like how easy it is to impress their neighbours with a lively ceviche. It’ll be good karma for you.
PS. Feel like more seafood (or things dunked in acid)? Check out one of these other Cook Somethin’ posts: