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Appetizer or snack, seviche is versatile American catch

March 17, 2004|by

SAN ANTONIO, Texas (AP) - Most people would associate a Texas cookoff with barbecue or chili. In San Antonio during the 4th annual New World Food and Wine Festival, some leading chefs had another kind of cookoff.

They called it "The Ceviche Sessions."

If you think seviche (sometimes spelled ceviche or even cebiche) is simply raw scallops marinated in lime juice, think again. There are endless creative and delicious ways to add this bracingly fresh seafood delicacy to your culinary roster.

"You don't need a recipe," said Ben Berryhill, executive chef of Houston's top-rated Cafe Annie. "Cook with your senses. Mix it with cucumber for a cool salad, or make it spicy if it's for the Super Bowl crowd."

At an elegant dinner, serve seviche in a martini glass topped with an olive or on small dishes. At a cocktail party, pass it around on chips. It can be sauceless, just small pieces of fish slightly pickled to preserve freshness and zing, or saucy with tomato and chili. Add crunch and color with vegetables.

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Elisabeth "Lisa" Wong, owner and executive chef of Rosario's Mexican Restaurant, made seviche with tilapia, serrano chilies and oregano.

Rene Fernandez, co-owner and executive chef of the Nuevo Latino restaurant, Azuca, where the cookoff was held, marinated tuna in sour (Seville) orange juice rather than the more traditional lime juice.

"Seviche means to saturate," said Berryhill, who made a crabmeat and shrimp seviche saturated with chipotle ketchup. (Shrimp, by the way, is one of the few fish that needs to be cooked first, as do lobster and squid.)

Seviche has become the signature "cocktail" of Nuevo Latino cuisine in the United States and is served at raw bars as well as on dinner menus. At Azuca, the "Ceviche Trio" is always on the menu. Three little mounds of three different seviches - shrimp, bay scallop and sea bass - are served on a wooden board.

"It's the best appetizer we sell," Fernandez said. He plans to add a seviche bar at Azuca, to accommodate the popularity of this dish.

"Seviche originated in Peru," explained Fernandez, who worked his way through Latin America in the early stages of his culinary career. "Every country has its own version. Acapulco seviche is the most renowned - they use mackerel marinated in lime with tomato and Tabasco.

"In Guatemala, they use more of a white fish with onions, cilantro, diced chili peppers and green peppers."

The strangest seviche Fernandez encountered was in Brazil. "It was not called seviche," he said, "but they used a 300-pound fish - I can't recall its name - and marinated it with lime and orange and added onions and garlic."

Seviche made a big impression on Wong 10 years ago in Acapulco. "I had had it before," she said, "but this was the first time I really noticed it."

At Rosario's, which is also famous for its prize-winning salsa, the seviches were originally made with a tomato base, which is more traditional to Mexican cuisine. They have since added other types to the menu.

You can use any fish to make seviche as long as it is absolutely fresh. Ask for sushi quality when you buy, and smell the fish to be sure it's fresh.

Fish such as sea bass, snapper, mahi mahi and halibut that keep their shape and texture are best. Steak-like tuna keeps its firmness, too, but soft fish such as sole, can become mushy. A sharp knife is essential, to cut the fish without tearing the flesh.

In most of Latin America seviche is marinated with lime juice, but in Ecuador it is made with the juice of bitter Seville oranges.

"You can use any citrus juice to marinate fish," said Wong, who opened her first restaurant in 1981 right out of high school and has since been honored as a young culinary entrepreneur in her city.

She suggested any combination of orange, lemon, even grapefruit. However, don't add grapefruit by itself or it will be too bitter. Wong uses grapefruit in a favorite seviche she likes to make at home.

"This one is sea scallops with one part lime, two parts lemon, and some grapefruit juice," she explained. She adds freshly grated ginger, too.

"The marinating time depends on the fish," said Fernandez, but "four hours max" is a rule he follows.

The chemical process that occurs when the acid of the citrus comes in contact with the fish is similar to what happens when fish is cooked with heat. Citrus acid changes the look from translucent raw flesh to the firm, near-flaky opacity of cooked fish, but the texture is chewy and completely different from fish cooked with heat.

Use enough juice to cover the fish so it "cooks" evenly. Drain the juice from the fish after it marinates and rinse it under cold running water to stop the "cooking." Always make seviche the same day you use it or it will continue to marinate and get mushy.

According to Berryhill, making seviche should be a creative process with no need for exact measurements. "Use your head, use your palate. You can always add more. It's not rocket science," he quipped. "The one rule: it's gotta be super cold."

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