The table as the gravitational center of our lives.

Wild Sea Bass Ceviche with Avocado, Purple Potatoes, & Fried Plantains

“It is almost as if happiness is an acquired taste, like coconut cordial or ceviche, to which you can eventually become accustomed, but despair is something surprising each time you encounter it.” -Lemony Snicket, pseudonym and alter-ego of American children’s writer Daniel Handler

This post is one that I’ve been wanting to get out of my head and onto the computer for quite some time.  With school now visible only in my rear-view mirror, and having made only the slightest, teeniest baby steps into life as a culinary professional, I’ve got just enough information in my arsenal to start forming some of my own opinions, to begin carving a path, and to shape a philosophy.

I never walked in the front door of the French Culinary Institute thinking to myself “I want to be a restaurant chef.”  I was, in fact, terrified that the school would push me unwillingly in this direction, dumping me into some sort of “fancy restaurant chef” mold, and churning me out on an assembly line come graduation day.  I had days that felt like that.  Many of my classmates, after all, were there for this reason, aspiring to Michelin stars and James Beard Foundation appearances and working with heavyweights like Thomas Keller, Jean-Georges, or Daniel Boulud.  I didn’t, and still don’t, give a crap about any of that stuff.  I walked out the door of FCI with my diploma and toque thinking the same exact thing I was thinking when I walked in the door 9 months-and-change ago, and that’s “I really love to cook.”  I’m just a whole lot better at it now.

Loving to cook has never, for me, equalled “getting a job in a restaurant.”  I used to ask my Father all the time why he didn’t leave his demanding role in the architecture profession that forced him to be away from his family 3-4 days per week, and open a restaurant instead, where he could be surrounded by friends, great food, and wonderful wine all the time.  ”Too much work for too little in return” was always his answer.  Loving to cook never equalled “the restaurant life” for him either, I suppose.  I worked as a hostess at a fine dining establishment in Colorado Springs during high school, and as a waitress & cocktail waitress at another while in college.  I saw enough about the restaurant industry to know that it doesn’t appeal to me much.  While at school, I’d also been exposed to more than a few accounts (on a regular enough basis to scare me) of classmates in absolutely wacky, abusive, overworked and underpaid restaurant situations.  Many females talked about rampant gender bias and sexual harassment on a level that I honestly found shocking.  (I’m no armpit-hair feminist or anything, but being called a “stupid bitch” while busting my ass to earn my weekly wages has got to be where I draw the line.)  Imagine my shock and surprise when I began to cook on the restaurant line at L’Ecole, and found myself loving it.  And it didn’t stop there.  I loved it enough to pursue longtime friend Jacques Gautier about apprenticing with him at his incredible Latin/Caribbean-focused restaurant Palo Santo in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

I knew Jacques enough to know he wouldn’t scream at me, wouldn’t belittle me, and would actually be excited to teach me about his food.  I thought of it as a pretty safe bet, if I’m being completely honest.  I was not, however, prepared for the sheer hard work of it all.  Not even close.  Let me put this into perspective a bit.  At L’Ecole, there are 2 full classes of about 16-18 people handling a 5-course dinner service for an average of about 50-60 people.  Oh, and 2 teachers, too.  When I first started on the line at L’Ecole, I thought it was the hardest thing I’d ever done.  After only a few weeks of that, I went to work at Palo Santo on Friday nights, where only 3 of us handle a 3-course dinner service for about the same number of people.  At L’Ecole, my night began at 5:45pm, and I was out at 10:45pm.  With Jacques, my night began at 2:00pm, and I was out when service was over and the kitchen was clean…..sometimes not until 1:00am.  I never sit down at Palo Santo, and I don’t take breaks.  I am constantly and actively doing something, whether it be making masa, butchering ducks, working the plancha, or making sofrito.  At Palo Santo I am always on:  the menu changes daily, and the kitchen is open, visible to patrons at all times.

What I also got there was an incredible education.  Jacques is lucky enough to have not one, but 2 great chefs working for him.  Trinidad & Alejandro did something wonderful for me.  After 9 months of formal, regimented, and sometimes uptight French training, they brought me back down to Earth a little bit.  There were little things, like when I was prepping a bowl full of tomatoes the way I had been taught at school, robotically de-seeding and peeling them, and Trinidad looks on, amused, and says “No, no.  We use all of that.”  They taught me to work faster, smarter, and more efficiently.  They taught me to stay sharp, to keep the orders straight in my head, to keep the food coming, and to fix things on the spot that weren’t right.  They taught me to cook with each and every one of my senses, and that no one sense is more important than any other.  They taught me an unbelievable amount about Latin produce and ingredients, about work ethic, and they helped me to sharpen my long-dormant Spanish skills.  I’m sure I was a burden as often as I was a blessing in the kitchen with them, but I appreciate everything they taught me, and will carry it with me forever.  When I brought my sister, brother-in-law, and nephew in for dinner a few weeks ago, I told them I missed them.  They said they missed me more.  I’m having quite the internal dilemma about whether or not to commit at least part of my time to the restaurant life, having had the good fortune of finding a great team at a great place that so clearly shuns the incomprehensibly abusive “norms” of the restaurant industry.  It’s hard, hard work, long hours, and very little money.  But to learn such fabulous things, well that’s it’s own gift isn’t it, and a priceless one at that?

I learned to make ceviche the night I handled the garde manger station at Palo Santo on my own.  (It was the hardest shift of work I’ve ever done in my whole life.  Thank god Jacques is always generous with the wine at the end of the night!)  Because the menu changes daily to reflect what’s fresh and in season, we make ceviche out of all kinds of different seafood:  scallops, shrimp, Amberjack…..you name it.  It all works wonderfully, and it’s fun to taste the little differences between each one.  There is a common mis-conception about ceviche that, like sushi, it involves raw fish, but that’s actually not true.  The fish in ceviche is actually cooked by the citric acid present in the lime or lemon juice used to make it.  The garniture items can vary widely, but this particular recipe is my own, influenced by what I learned at the restaurant.  It’s a colorful, wonderfully light recipe, and a perfect summertime dish.

Ingredients:

For the ceviche:

1 8-10 oz. fillet of center-cut wild sea bass, skin removed, any stray pin bones removed, and flesh cut into cubes roughly 1/4″ – 1/2″ in size  (NOTE:  Any firm, white fish will work with this recipe.)

Zest of 1 lime

Juice of 4-6 limes (NOTE:  You need enough lime juice to completely cover the fish in a plastic container.  I used 4 medium-sized, rather juicy limes, but this really just depends on the limes you happen to be using, and how much fish you have.)

For the garniture:

3-5 purple baby creamer potatoes, washed

1 1/2 cups neutrally-flavored oil, such as vegetable or canola

1 green plantain, washed, peeled, and sliced into rounds roughly 1/8″ thick

1/2 red onion, washed, peeled, and diced very fine

1/2 poblano pepper, washed, cored, and diced very fine

1 small plum tomato, washed, seeded, and diced very fine

1/2 ripe avocado, washed, skin removed, and flesh diced to roughly the same size as the fish  (NOTE:  Coat the avocado cubes with a bit of fresh lime juice if not using right away, and cover with plastic wrap so that the plastic touches the top layer of avocado.  This should stave off the oxidation process for a while.)

1 tbsp. white wine vinegar

1/4 – 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil (NOTE:  the range depends on your own tastes – the more olive oil you use, the less acidic the finished product will be…..the less you use, the more acidic it will be.  I recommend starting with less, tasting, and then adjusting from there.)

Good handful of fresh cilantro leaves, washed, dried, and chopped very fine  (NOTE:  I like to leave a few leaves whole and intact for a final garnish.)

3-5 chives, washed, dried, and chopped very fine

1 cup freshly popped, lightly salted popcorn (NOTE:  Store-bought is fine in a pinch, but try to choose something of good quality.)

Kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper

Sea salt, for sprinkling at the very end (NOTE:  I used Maldon brand, which is wonderful.)

Instructions:

1.  Place the fish cubes in a stainless steel, glass, or plastic container.  Cover completely with fresh lime juice.  Cover the container with plastic wrap or a lid, and place in the refrigerator for at least 6 hours.  The citric acid from the lime juice will cook the fish, and you will notice this happening as the fish begins to lose its translucent appearance and turn opaque.  It’s a good idea to give the fish a thorough, but gentle, stir about 3 hours into the process, just to ensure that all surfaces are exposed to the acid.

2.  While the ceviche works in the refrigerator, you can prepare much of the garniture.  Place the purple potatoes in a small saucepan, and cover by about 1″ with cold water.  Add a small handful of kosher salt to the water.  Place the pot on the stove over high heat, and bring to a boil.  Cook the potatoes at a boil until you can pierce them with a fork with little resistance, about 15 minutes or so.  Drain the water away, allow the potatoes to cool slightly, and then cut into 1/8′s.  Reserve.

3.  In a medium skillet, heat the neutral oil to about 350ºF.  (NOTE:  If you don’t have a frying thermometer, that’s ok – you can just let the oil get very hot and then toss a small piece of plantain into the oil to test it.  If you hear a good sizzle sound and it bubbles up in a lively way, you’re pretty much good to go.  What you don’t want is the oil getting so hot that it starts billowing white smoke.  If that starts to happen, simply turn down the heat a little bit.)  While the oil heats up, line a plate with a few sheets of paper towel and set it to the side.  When the oil is at the proper temperature, add the plantain slices, working in batches of about 6 at a time.  (Too many pieces of plantain will cause the oil temperature to drop rapidly and will adversely affect the cooking process.)  When the plantains have achieved a nice, deep, golden brown color, remove them from the oil with a slotted spoon or spider and place on the paper towel-lined plate to dry.  Sprinkle the hot plantains with a bit of kosher salt to season.  Continue with the remainder of the plantain slices.

4.  In a stainless steel or glass bowl, combine the red onion, poblano pepper, tomato, avocado, white wine vinegar, olive oil, cilantro, and chives. When the fish is ready, strain the liquid away into a separate bowl.  (NOTE:  I learned at Palo Santo that the lime juice cooking liquid reserved here is sometimes served in Peru in a small glass along with the ceviche.  It’s called “leche de tigre,” which means Tiger’s Milk.  Awesome.)  Add the fish cubes to the mixture, stir gently to combine, and season to taste with salt and pepper.

5.  To serve, arrange the purple potato segments and fried plantains as shown.  Spoon a mound of the fish mixture into the center of the plate, and add a few spoonfuls of the lime juice cooking liquid over everything.  Sprinkle the plate with a few pieces of the popcorn and a bit of sea salt.  Serve immediately.

Yield: I like to serve this dish as an appetizer course, in which case this recipe will serve 4 people just fine.  If serving it as a main course, it’s enough for 2.

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  1. admin

    I’ve been experimenting a LOT with ceviche this summer and I wanted to add a little addendum to this post, which is that I’ve been adding some coconut water (try Vita Coco or Zico brands, but of course the water from a fresh coconut is best…..) to the lime juice that the fish is cooked in. Instead of just drowning the seafood in 100% lime or lemon juice, I’ve been going with about 2 parts citric acid to 1 part coconut water. Wonderful!

    Jul 01, 2010 @ 4:11 pm

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