Ceviche for me is a quintessential summertime dish. In June I was lucky enough to end up on a fishing charter with a bunch of chefs. We spent the morning catching striped bass and blues on a sportfishing boat called Absolute. The fishing that morning was prolific, but the best part of the day was the ceviche that chef Kevin Burleson prepared on our trip back to the dock.
“Ceviche is one of the easiest dishes to prepare and I think for summer it makes the perfect lunch. Its literally five ingredients, or four if you want. You can make it as elaborate as you want or as simple as you want,” said Burleson, who runs the bar-grill side of Straight Wharf Restaurant.
Ceviche is a dish that originated on the Pacific coast of Peru comprised of raw fresh fish cooked by the acid from lemon, lime and orange juice and tossed with vegetables and sometimes fruit. I have always enjoyed ceviche, but for some reason I have always been hesitant to make it at home.
Burleson believes that if you follow a few simple rules of thumb, home chefs can whip up this easy summer meal with minimal effort.
Step one is to start with a fresh product from somewhere reputable. I wouldn’t exactly make ceviche with fish from the grocery store, but any one of the fish markets on-island fit the bill. Let your fishmonger know what you plan on doing with the fish. They might have some extra inside knowledge that will help you out. A half- to three-quarter-inch dice on the fish helps it cook evenly and makes it so each bite is an equal mix off all the ingredients.
While you can ceviche most things that come out of the ocean, that doesn’t necessarily mean you should. Look for a white fish like fluke, halibut, red snapper or even scallops. Burleson suggests staying away from cod, mainly for textural reasons.
If you are making ceviche with a fish you caught, it is important to bleed the fish immediately and ice it down. This process keeps the meat clean and takes out any metallic taste from the blood.
The striped bass he used in this particular ceviche was as fresh as you could get, plucked from the water less than an hour before he broke it down.
“Striped bass is the best. I love the texture of it after it ceviches. I mean you have it fresh, it’s just something special. It withstands that acid. Fluke, red snapper, halibut, they soften a little bit. I feel like the bass is hardier, so it really works well with it,” he said.
As Burleson broke down the bass on the top of a cooler, sea spray crashed over the back of the boat. He worked methodically, cutting each filet and skinning the fish with ease. After he cut the filets and diced them, he held out a handful of meat with a smile. People quickly flocked around him like seagulls looking for a snack. He came prepared and had all his ingredients prepped before we left the dock.
Step two is acid. Equal parts lemon, lime and orange juice is what cooks the fish. Burleson says that it is important to have the fish completely covered by the juice. That way you don’t have to keep stirring the ceviche. Some traditional ceviche in Peru can take two to three days to marinate. The fish takes on more flavor the longer it sits, but for a quick lunch 20 to 30 minutes is fine.
Step three is choosing what vegetables you want to include. It’s all about preference. Roasted sweet potato is used in Peru. Orange segments add a little bit of sweetness and can help balance the acid.
“Typically, in all my ceviches I do a tomato. A nice heirloom tomato. It brings acid, texture and flavor. It also leaks a little juice and helps to create that leche de tigre. The sauce of the ceviche. Pickled red onion, pickled celery, cilantro, lemon, lime and orange juice, a dash of sriracha, orange segments and Thai bird chilis,” Burleson said.
After the fish was broken down a pair of hands swooped in with a quart container of juice. Next, pickled celery, orange segments, tomatoes and chilies were all added to the bowl. The ceviche came together in mere minutes. Burleson popped the mixing bowl into the cooler to give the fish time to cook and enjoyed an Aperol spritz as we waited for it to be ready.
As we rounded the jetties the group quickly devoured the ceviche. The flavors were bright and fresh, complemented by salty corn chips.
I know that my experience was a bit of an outlier. Not everyone is lucky enough to have a chef among their friends, but on Nantucket this summer the components to this dish will all be staring you in the face.
August is peak season for fresh produce. Get on the water or go make friends with your local fishmonger. Go downtown to the farmers market or out to Bartlett’s or Moors End Farm and load up on veggies. Summer is fleeting and savoring a corn chip piled high with freshly-made ceviche should be part of your memories.