A refreshing fish preparation
This article originally ran in the Spring 2014 (V9I1) issue of Yukon, North of Ordinary.
When the rivers crack open and light floods the springtime sky, we crave bright flavours that fill the kitchen with sun. We’re done with the heavy foods of winter, the stews, roasts, soups, and casseroles that sustained us through the sleepy, dark days. We’re wide awake now and hungry for all things fresh and new.
But sometimes, we need a jolt of inspiration. This time last year, I wasn’t ready for spring. I had just finished writing a cookbook and had absolutely nothing left—no energy, no kitchen mojo. My cooking was listless; my ideas stale. Luckily for this spent cook, a fresh wind blew in from the South and deposited a young Mexican chef and writer, Carlos Macías, into my kitchen. Carlos was in the territory doing a piece on Yukon food for Aeromexico’s inflight magazine, Accent. I was keen to collaborate with him. We met via e-mail and made a pact to sharpen our knives and cook up a sun-kissed northern feast.
Carlos brought with him the energy of a chef whose life path is to find “the secret of deliciousness.” As a child growing up in Mexico, one of his first words was comer (“to eat” in Spanish). “I would get excited and say, ‘Comer, comer!’ as soon as my parents were awake,” he says. That excitement led him to a regional cooking school when he was 18 and, from there, to explore the world through food.
He sent his résumé to restaurants in Canada, Australia, Europe, and South America, and then landed a cooking gig in Ontario, in 2009, an experience he describes as “an explosion of knowledge.” Later, he moved to the Wickaninnish Inn, in Tofino, on the west coast of Vancouver Island. There he ran the open kitchen at the Driftwood Café and charmed customers equally with his handling of the west-coast, tapas-style menu and warm and friendly manner. (I have this on good authority: my mother and sister visited him there and raved about the food and Carlos alike.)
Cooks suffering from a creative slump are in a vulnerable place. You’re only ever as good as your last successful recipe, and when things are going badly in the kitchen you think that’s it—you’re toast. Never will these hands create deliciousness again.
Carlos rescued me from my vat of self-pity. He was over the moon about the ingredients I laid in front of him: moose steaks, smoked salmon, a filet of halibut, highbush cranberries, and morel mushrooms—ingredients I regarded with a tired and baleful eye. His enthusiasm revived me, and we walked through downtown streets to the supermarket, discussing possibilities, thinking, imagining.
At the store we strolled through the aisles, trailed by César Sandoval, the big, friendly photographer who reminded me of a Labrador retriever. Carlos selected oranges, limes, cucumbers, a fennel bulb, and a sweet potato. The wheels were churning. He would turn the halibut into a northern ceviche.
Ceviche is a Peruvian dish that depends on the freshest ingredients and the lightest touch. Carlos says ceviche is “fresh, naked food, and that's what I like the most about it. You can't hide anything with ceviche. You have to put the best you’ve got in it.”
Fresh, raw fish, usually white fleshed, is cut into pieces and marinated in citrus juice, usually lime. The acid “cooks” the fish by denaturing the protein. Carlos describes the basic formula as fish plus acid, marinade, aromatics, garnish, and finishing touches. You can have wonderful results with salmon, trout, prawns, crab, or oysters, as long as you “adapt the concept.”
Back at my house, we adapted the concept by combining lime, orange, and lemon juice with the juice of highbush cranberries, which turned the marinade pink. We skinned the halibut filet, submerged it in the marinade, and left it there for 30 minutes. (Carlos taught me you can leave the fish in the marinade for as little as 2 minutes, depending on how small the pieces are.) He soaked the fennel fronds in ice water to give them strength and body; this was the aromatic portion. We roasted and puréed sweet potato for the garnish. In Peru, ceviche is most often served with sweet potato and roasted corn.
When Carlos sliced into the “cooked” halibut, the outside was pink and the inside still white, providing a lovely contrast. We twisted thin halibut slices into rounds and topped them with a sprig of fennel—the finishing touch. Finally, Carlos made a two-way cucumber salad by arranging long, flat ribbons of sliced cucumber over a crisp pile of chopped cucumber and sliced fennel.
At the table, guests alternated a bite of delicate, pink-tinged halibut with a spoonful of sweet potato purée and a bit of cucumber for crunch, while Carlos and César regaled us with stories.
They told us that the leftover ceviche marinade is known as leche de tigre (tiger’s milk). Peruvians mix it with beer or pisco (a colourless or yellowish-to-amber-coloured brandy) and consider it an excellent cure for hangovers and a wicked aphrodisiac. As we moved from ceviche to grilled moose in a morel sauce, Carlos spoke about the paradox of creativity in the kitchen: you’re expected to produce beautiful food under incredible pressure. The thing you love to do can become tortureif you don’t organize your ideas and come up with a creative process.
Later, Carlos wrote me in an e-mail, “Cooking doesn't come easily to me. I have had to work really hard to get acquainted with the knife, timing, multi-tasking. And like I said, it's always been about tastiness—what's delicious to the eye first, to the nose, mouth, and soul.” First he learns the basic principles of a dish and the traditions behind it. Then he changes it up. “It sounds like a chef's cliché, but in many ways I don't like to follow the rules.”
Carlos returned to Vancouver Island and wrote his story for Accent, and I set off on a six-month promotional tour for my latest cookbook, The Boreal Feast. I spent that time preparing food for talks and events, so when I returned home all I wanted to do was follow other people’s recipes. Cooking was still not coming easily to me. Then, when it came time to write this piece, I remembered Carlos and his ceviche.
I got brave, learned the basics, and then changed it up.
Every cook who tackles ceviche has at least one disaster story, and I have mine. I laboured with these recipes for several days before I was happy. I’ll spare the gritty details, but I will share this: highbush cranberry juice becomes bitter on the second day. Use it immediately or add sweetener. Similarly, frozen Atlin Lake whitefish is best on the day it is thawed.
Peruvians would turn up their noses at frozen fish, but here in the North it is often all we have, especially in early spring before fishing season starts. Freezing also reduces the risk from parasites that could be present in the fish. (As a rule of thumb, freeze seafood to –35° C for 15 hours or to –23° C for seven days.)
Another tip: don’t get too elaborate. I made a couple of salsas to accompany my ceviche, but they overpowered the delicate flavour of the fish. I’ve included them here because they’re great on their own, but in the end I discovered simplicity is best. As Carlos says, “Ceviche is about being subtle, delicate, and focused on the small things.”
One of the guests at our ceviche dinner last spring was Whitehorse resident Laurel Parry, whose brother married a Peruvian. When she visited them in Lima, her sister-in-law greeted her at the airport saying, “Laurel, now you are in Peru. Here we don’t say, ‘Non, non, non.’ We say, ‘Si, si, si!’”
Words to live by—especially in the kitchen, especially in spring.
I’ve adapted the traditional version of this recipe by using northern acids, such as rhubarb and highbush cranberry juice, as well as roasting the sweet potatoes and serving the dish with spicy papadums for a crunch factor. The chili flakes add flavour and heat.
8 oz. (225 g) whitefish or halibut filet, skin removed
1 tsp. (5 ml) coarse salt
1/2 cup (125 ml) rhubarb juice (substitute fresh lime juice)
1 tbsp. (15 ml) highbush cranberry juice (substitute fresh lemon juice)
2 tbsp. (30 ml) chopped fresh mint
2 spring onions, finely chopped
1 tsp. red chili flakes
1. Chop fish into 1/2-inch (1-cm) cubes and toss with salt.
2. Combine juices together, pour over fish, refrigerate, and let sit for 10 minutes.
3. Drain fish and toss with mint, onions, and chili flakes. (Discard marinade or combine with a shot of Yukon-made vodka for a bracing drink.)
4. Serve immediately with roasted sweet potatoes and papadums shallow-fried in canola oil in a cast-iron frying pan. Tortilla chips will work, too.
Makes 4 appetizer-sized servings.
Roasted Sweet Potatoes
3 cups (750 ml) sweet potatoes, peeled and diced into 1/2-inch (1-cm) pieces (about 2 medium or 1 large sweet potato)
2 tbsp. (30 ml) birch syrup
1 tbsp. (15 ml) olive oil
1 tsp. (5 ml) coarse salt
1. Toss sweet potatoes with remaining ingredients and roast in a 350° F (176° C) oven until lightly browned and fully cooked, about 30 to 40 minutes.
Makes 3 cups (750 ml).
4 cups (1 L) chopped fresh or frozen rhubarb
2 cups (500 ml) water
1. Combine rhubarb and water in a medium saucepan. Bring to boil over high heat, cover, reduce heat to medium low, and simmer for 10 minutes.
2. Strain through a fine sieve, cool, and refrigerate. Consume juice within a week and use leftover solids in muffins or quick bread.
Makes 2 cups (500 ml).
Highbush Cranberry Juice
2 cups (500 ml) fresh or frozen highbush cranberries
1 cup water
1. Combine berries and water in a medium saucepan. Bring to boil, cover, reduce heat to medium low, and cook for 30 minutes.
2.Strain through a fine sieve and cool. Discard pulp. Use juice immediately or add a sweetener such as maple or birch syrup for longer-term storage and use. Will keep for up to a month in the refrigerator.
Makes 1 cup (250 ml).
Sockeye Salmon Ceviche
For this one, I took Carlos’ advice and used olive oil as one of the finishing touches. “Not long ago I discovered that the best olive oil you can find gives ceviche an awesome last touch,” he says. I added lime to give the rhubarb extra zing and minced jalapeno to add some heat.
1 filet sockeye salmon, skinned
1 tsp. (5 ml) coarse sea salt
1/2 cup (125 ml) rhubarb juice
2 tbsp. (30 ml) fresh lime juice
2 tbsp.(30 ml) minced red onion
2 tbsp. (30 ml) minced jalapeno pepper
1 tbsp. (15 ml) extra virgin olive oil
2 tbsp. (30 ml) chopped cilantro
2 cups (500 ml) shredded baby spinach or arugula
Sliced red onion and orange zest for garnish
1. Combine rhubarb, lime juice, red onion, and jalapeno.
2. Slice salmon into 1/4-inch slices and place in a non-reactive bowl. Toss salmon in marinade, then refrigerate for 2 minutes, toss again, and refrigerate for another 2 minutes.
3. Remove salmon slices from marinade and pat dry.
4. On four small plates, arrange salmon slices on a bed of shredded young greens and then drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with cilantro, and top with finely sliced red onion and curls of orange zest. Serve immediately with tortilla chips or papadums and roasted sweet potato.
Makes 4 appetizer-sized servings.
1/4 ripe cantaloupe, peeled and diced
1 stalk celery, diced
2 tbsp.(30 ml) finely chopped tomatillo
1 tsp. (5 ml) coarse salt Juice and zest of 1/2 lime
Combine all ingredients and chill until ready to serve.
Makes about 1 cup (250 ml).
1 medium-sized pink grapefruit, peeled and diced
1 ripe avocado, peeled and diced
2 tbsp. (30 ml) chopped red onion
1 tsp. (5 ml) coarse salt
Combine ingredients and chill until ready to serve.
Makes about 1 1/2 cups (375 ml).