When I was a teenager, I lived in Panama for several months. Panama City, the capital, is a coastal city with the Pacific Ocean at its door. I’ve never lived anywhere else quite like it. Seafood was abundant and spectacularly fresh, and the city had countless open-air cafés that served it. I still remember the evenings I spent in those cafés: the lively sparkle of city lights, the ocean smell and traffic fumes mingling with the savory aromas of grilling fish and beef, the garlicky chimichurri sauce often on the table as an accompaniment, the endless stream of pedestrians passing by or standing in noisy groups, laughing and flirting, moving to the beat of loud music. In these cafés, eating wonderful food simply prepared and made even more memorable by the raucous parade of life around me, my enthusiasm for the ceviche served there—the style I’m about to share with you—was born.
Which brings me to a confession. The word “ceviche” covers a wide range of possible ingredients and there are scads of recipes out there that make use of them. But I have to say right now that most of them don’t interest me. As much as I like shrimp, scallops, squid and octopus, I don’t want any of them in my ceviche. I also don’t want my ceviche studded with cubes of fruit. No avocado or tomato, please. No mango or melon, and definitely no papaya, which smells to me like a hair straightening product I used to use. I want it left alone. And to be more exact, I guess the version I make would be “Ceviche de Pescado,” (fish) as opposed to, say, “Ceviche de Pulpo” (octopus [nobody asked me, but I think “pulpo” is the most perfect word for octopus in any language]) or “Ceviche de Camaron” (shrimp). Finfish is the star ingredient. That’s it. With onion, lime juice, chile peppers and seasonings in supporting roles. Like this:
1 lb. firm, white-fleshed skinless raw fish fillets, cubed
4 oz. fresh-squeezed lime juice, plus the juice of 1-2 extra limes
½ c. finely chopped onion
1 tsp. sugar
Tabasco or Cholula hot sauce, a couple of dashes
Fresh chiles, seeded and finely chopped, to taste
Salt and white pepper to taste
Tostadas for serving (optional)
Put all ingredients in a glass bowl (lime juice will react with aluminum and cast iron in vile and disgusting ways) and stir to combine. Cover and refrigerate. For the first 4 hours, stir frequently (about every 30 minutes). Ready to eat in 6 hours.
• For larger or smaller quantities, the proportions are 1 oz. fresh lime juice (plus a little extra) and ¼ tsp. sugar to each 4 oz. trimmed fish. Make a quantity that you’re sure will be eaten up within 48 hours or less.
• As for the fish, snapper or grouper is fantastic. But since I didn’t want to pay $22.97 per lb. for grouper, I made this batch with Tilapia (for about 6 bucks) instead.
• I use Persian limes. If you’re using something smaller, squeeze 3 or 4 more limes instead of 1-2. The juice should come up to about ¼” (or a bit lower) below the top of the fish. Bear in mind too, that the fish and onion will exude some juices, adding to the quantity of the marinade in the bowl and creating a delicious blend of flavors.
• For the chiles, I use 2 jalapenos per pound of fish, because that’s what I grow and always have on hand. Serranos are great too.
• Yellow sweet onions are my choice here. They don’t overpower the fish.
• For 1 lb. of fish, I use a scant tsp. of fine sea salt and about ¼ tsp. white pepper.
• Conventional wisdom says to use only fresh fish fillets, but I’ve used (and enjoyed) flash-frozen. We don’t always have a choice in the matter, unfortunately.
• This recipe doesn’t call for cilantro, but I wouldn’t be averse to adding a sprinkling at the end.
• Many recipes for so-called “Classic Ceviche” call for much more lime juice. But then you’re often told to drain it after the fish has set, in order to prevent it from becoming too lime-y and sour. You won’t need to do that with this recipe. As long as you stir the mixture frequently for the first 4 hours, the fish will “cook” with the amount of lime juice I recommend.
Season with traffic fumes, flirting and loud music as desired. Enjoy!