This weekend was the start of some serious Test Kitchen activity. I have been tossing a bunch of ideas in my head: a traditional Mexican ceviche, one with an Italian twist, and maybe one inspired by the Yucatan. So armed with my exprimador (citrus press), my chef’s knife, and some mixing bowls, I was off to my kitchen.
Well, not really my kitchen, first I needed to go and get my ingredients. So I drove out to my favorite fish monger, Taylor’s Lobster, in Kittery, Maine. One of the great advantages of living in New England is the availability and affordability of lobster.
I picked out four 1 ¼ pound lobsters for $33.00 and then headed off to the Golden Harvest, also in Kittery, Maine, where they have a wonderful selection of produce. Now armed with my fresh ingredients, I drove back to my kitchen with anticipation.
So the basis of any ceviche in Mexico is of course, the citrus. The seafood will actually “cook” in the citrus. Although in my case, I will almost fully cook the lobster and then just finish it off in the citrus. A good rule of thumb is to use equal parts of lime juice and lemon juice, but I also want to add some sweetness to one of the dishes. The rest is plain vanilla; the cilantro, jalapeño, tomatoes, and maybe a bit of garlic. So I setup my kitchen into a sort of mise en place.
I squeezed all my limes, lemons, and oranges into separate bowls. I chopped my red onion, the Habanero chiles, jalapeño chiles, ginger, and garlic into their own bowls. I prepared an ice bath to cool the lobsters and I placed the lobsters in the freezer for about 15 minutes to put the lobsters to sleep. Doing this makes it easier to handle them and maybe a bit more humane as well.
I filled my steamer pot full of water and set it on the stove, added 3 tablespoons of salt, two bay leaves, and clove of garlic. Once the pot was at a full boil, I placed two of the four lobsters into the pot, covered them and turned off the heat. I let them cook for about 8 minutes, then pulled them out and placed them in the ice bath to both stop the cooking immediately and to cool them quickly so I can remove the meat. While I was cracking my first batch of lobsters, I repeated the same process with the two remaining lobsters. Once those last bugs were done; I removed their meat as well.
I just used the tail and claw meat; there is really nothing else of value in the lobster beyond this. In all I yielded about 1 pound of lobster meat from the four lobsters. Then I chopped up the meat into small pieces. Since I wanted three portions, I divided up the 1 pound of meat into 3 separate 5 and 1/3 ounce portions and placed each portion into their own bowl.
The first ceviche, the traditional Mexican ceviche, I placed 1/3 cup of lime juice, 1/3 cup of lemon juice, 1/3 cup of orange juice, and about 1/2 of a red onion minced very fine and some salt (just a pinch). I let that marinate in the refrigerator for about 1 hour. After an hour, I took it out the fridge, strained off the citrus, chopped up 2 plum tomatoes, about ½ cup of cilantro, and ½ of a jalapeño chile (seeds and membranes removed) and tossed them all into the mixture and placed it back into the fridge.
For the Italian version I placed 3/4 cup of lemon juice, ¼ cup of balsamic vinegar and ¼ cup of red onion (I had bought some scallions for this but I completely lost my mind and forgot that I had wanted to use them in this recipe!). I placed this in a bowl in the refrigerator for one hour also. After the appointed time, I strained off the citrus, chopped some green olives, and a chiffonade of fresh basil. I tossed this all together and placed back in the fridge.
The Yucatan version I placed 1/3 cup of lemon juice, 1/3 cup of lime juice, 1/3 cup Rice Vinegar, 3/4 cup of coconut milk, 1 teaspoon of low sodium soy sauce, 1 tablespoon of fresh chopped ginger, ½ of a Habanero chile (stem and membrane removed). I let that soak up the juices in the fridge for an hour as well. I then pulled it out, strained of the citrus and placed it back in the fridge.
I then went about making the Avocado Soup. I placed 2 tablespoons of olive oil into a skillet and 2 pats of butter, I let that get hot and then put in ½ of a chopped yellow onion. I let that cook close to carmelization, then added about 1 cup of cilantro. I cooked that off to just after the cilantro wilted, then I placed that into the blender with 6 cups of vegetable stock. One has to be cautious with Avocados, as they turn black very quickly after cutting them due to oxidation. So once everything was in the blender, I cut up and scooped out the flesh from 3 Haas avocados. I pureed this all together and covered and put in the refrigerator until it was cool.
So after about 3 hours in the kitchen, everything was ready to taste. I pulled my ceviche from the refrigerator and began plating. I squirted out some Sriracha sauce on 1/3 of the plate for the Yucatan ceviche, I drizzled a balsamic reduction on the center 1/3 of the plate for the “Tuscan” ceviche, then I spooned a bit of the avocado soup on the last 1/3 of the plate for the Mexican ceviche. Now, as you can see from the photo, there were some lessons learned here. Number 1, I should have drained the ceviche completely, because the minute I plated the ceviche, the citrus began to bleed out into the sauce. Number 2, I should have had my wife take a picture immediately. By the time I brought the plate over to the table for the photo, all the bleeding caused the sauces to intermingle, which completely ruined the presentation.
My wife and I then went about tasting each and offering our opinions. My Yucatan ceviche, in my opinion, was quite delicious, with the coconut flavor coming up through the sweet lobster meat, with a small hint of the Habanero chile coming up as well. Together with the Sriracha, I thought this was a great combination. The only thing it was missing was some fresh herb such as cilantro, or maybe even some mint! The “Tuscan” ceviche fell bit short. Although I think the flavor of the balsamic and lemon worked well, the mistake in this dish was the red onion and especially the green olive. The green olives were just too briny and bitter. This gave the dish no balance to the acidity of the citrus and vinegar. Some oil cured black olives would have worked better or even something like some roasted red pepper or sun-dried tomato. Finally, the Mexican ceviche was as expected, a safe, fresh blend of flavors. The only critique would be that the citrus overpowered the lobster a bit. I would probably cut the marinate time from 1 hour to ½ hour on the next attempt. The avocado soup sauce was a good sauce for the dish.
The last step was to plate my audition dish. I took a shallow pasta bowl out of the cupboard, formed my ceviche in the center with the mold, ladled out the avocado soup around the ceviche, and then pulled the mold. I placed a bit of sour cream around the ceviche and took a knife to make a swirl in the soup. Now, this was quite nice, although the problem was that by now the avocado soup was beginning to turn a brownish-black. I will have to find some way to prevent this from happening for the audition. Can you imagine me serving black avocado soup to the judges?
In closing, it was a good 3 hours spent in the kitchen. The reward was of course, tasting the three different creations. Should you make any of these, I would definitely recommend a nice crisp sparkling wine as an accompaniment. The right sparkling wine can handle the bold, citrus-chili flavors that are the essence of any ceviche. I personally would recommend one of the Italian variety, a Zardetto from the Prosecco region would do nicely!