This is my entry into this week’s Salon Kitchen Challenge, on the theme of “shrimp.”
Over on Salon.com, food writer Francis Lam, formerly of Gourmet, hosts a weekly food writing and recipe challenge, the Salon Kitchen Challenge. Francis announces a theme as broad as “a meal for someone you love” or as narrow as “egg salad,” and entrants are asked to write a story and a recipe fitting within the theme. The winner is published in the Food section of Salon.
Gulf shrimp are uniquely sweet. There is only one way I’d want to eat those: just as they are, after a quick boil in salted water. That’s it; nothing to mask their pure flavor.
Other sources of shrimp, including farmed, have less flavor than gulf shrimp. These require a little bit more adornment.
Mexican cuisine is great source of shrimp recipes, and I’d like to share a favorite one of these with you: ceviche, a salad of raw seafood marinated in lime or other citrus juices. I am a rabid fan of ceviche in all its forms: fish, shrimp, mixed seafood. In case you are wondering about the safety of eating raw seafood, there is a myth that the acidic citrus juice in which raw fish and shellfish are marinated in ceviche “cooks” the fish. In chemical terms, the acids denature the proteins in the fish, changing the texture to approximate cooking. However, since ceviche never touches any heat except for the chiles added, this is still a raw seafood dish and there is always the possibility of bacteria and parasite contamination, as delicious as it may look and taste.
Food safety concerns aside, I looked forward to eating a lot of fresh seafood on a family trip to Nayarit, Mexico. Our entire trip was to be spent on Mexico’s Pacific coast, exploring beaches, big and small, stretching North from Puerto Vallarta. We gathered our gang into our rental car, and headed confidently on the highway.
We had already passed by two car-truck wrecks on the highway that led north of Puerto Vallarta into the less touristed parts of Nayarit. While the road was well paved, it narrowed frequently into a single lane, and instead of shoulders on the side were steep ravines. I wondered how helpful the booster seats we had lugged with us from California would be in the event of one of those head-on collisions. As the brilliant Mexican sun started to slowly fade into a lovely muti-hued sunset, I also noticed that there weren’t any street lamps. Soon, we would be navigating this unfamiliar road in the dark.
“The Moon guide says that it’s only about 19 km until the turnoff for the road to the coast. It feels like more than 19 km so far,” I said to my husband, the only one of us brave enough to drive on unfamiliar Mexican roads.
“You don’t have a sense of how far a kilometer is,” my husband said, grinding a pet peeve about how everyone in the world, except for Americans, uses the Metric system. “It has not been 19 km yet.”
I figured he was right, since I don’t speak Metric very fluently. And so we proceeded into increasing darkness. But wait, wasn’t that the horizon over there, to our left?
“Hey, that looks like the coast over there.”
“You’re imagining things. I am positive we are on the right road,” he said, as his hands stubbornly gripped the wheel.
And that’s how we ended up in Tepic, the capital city of Nayarit. We were trying to go to San Blas, a coastal area known for its birds and other wildlife. It’s not an unknown among intrepid fans of Mexico, but still a somewhat “hidden gem.” Well, definitely hidden from us. But the trip wasn’t a waste. Getting lost is, after all, one of the best ways to get to know a place. We explored a market of handicrafts produced by the the many indigenous people who live in this region; strolled in the zocalo, where we took pictures of its most famous attraction, the church; and refreshed the kids withpaletas (they can be happy anywhere, so long as there are popsicles). We also had a meal there, but it was nothing to write home (or blog) about, and it was hard to find any seafood in this dusty inland city. It’s been fun telling people we’ve met since then, including people who grew up in Nayarit, that we had been to Tepic. Apparently, Tepic, not San Blas, is a true hidden gem: nobody we have met has ever been there.
Our hotel was back in Puerto Vallarta, a good few hours away (if we didn’t get lost) and it was was quickly approaching total darkness, so we didn’t even try to find San Blas at this point. And so we got back on the road.
If you’re not convinced of the safety of eating ceviche prepared the traditional way, here’s a solution for you, by way of Rick Bayless. Bayless was recently selected by President Obama to cook for the administration’s second state dinner on May 19th, honoring Mexican President Felipe Calderon. He has a great recipe for shrimp ceviche that avoids the issue of food poisoning by using quickly cooked shrimp. This results in something which is closer to a Mexican shrimp cocktail than a true ceviche. As such, this recipe is probably blasphemous to Mexican culinary purists, but is delicioso nonetheless. Wash this down with margaritas (Rick Bayless’ recipe is the best I’ve come across) or non-alcoholic freshly squeezed limeade, and you’ve got a fiesta.
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Rick Bayless’s Ceviche de Camaron: Shrimp Ceviche “Cocktail”
by Rick Bayless, Mexico One Plate at a Time
yield: Makes 3 cups, serving 6 as an appetizer
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 generous pound unpeeled smallish shrimp (I prefer the ones that are 41/50 count to a pound)
1/2 medium white onion, chopped into 1/4 inch pieces
1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro, plus several sprigs for garnish
1/2 cup ketchup
1 to 2 tablespoons vinegary Mexican bottled hot sauce (such as Tamazula, Valentina or Búfalo, the latter being on the sweet side)
About 2 tablespoons olive oil, preferably extra-virgin (optional, but recommended to smooth out sharpness)
1 cup diced peeled cucumber or jícama (or 1/2 cup of each)
1 small ripe avocado, peeled, pitted and cubed
Several lime slices for garnish
Tostadas or tortilla chips, store-bought or homemade or saltine crackers for serving
1. Cooking and Marinating the Shrimp.
Bring 1 quart salted water to a boil and add 2 tablespoons of the lime juice. Scoop in the shrimp, cover and let the water return to the boil. Immediately remove from the heat, set the lid askew and pour off all the liquid. Replace the cover and let the shrimp steam off the heat for 10 minutes. Spread out the shrimp in a large glass or stainless steel bowl to cool completely. Peel and devein the shrimp if you wish: One by one lay the shrimp on your work surface, make a shallow incision down the back and scrape out the (usually) dark intestinal tract. Toss the shrimp with the remaining 1/2 lime juice, cover and refrigerate for about an hour.
2. The flavorings.
In a small strainer, rinse the onion under cold water, then shake off the excess liquid. Add to the shrimp bowl along with the cilantro, ketchup, hot sauce, optional olive oil, cucumber and/or jícama and avocado. Taste and season with salt, usually about 1/2 teaspoon. Cover and refrigerate if not serving immediately.
3. Serving the ceviche.
Spoon the ceviche into sundae glasses, martini glasses, or small bowls: garnish with sprigs of cilantro and slices of lime. Serve with tostadas, tortilla chips or saltines to enjoy alongside.
The ceviche is best made the day it is served. The flavorings can be added to the shrimp a few hours in advance.
Simply the Best Margarita
From Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen; Scribner, 1996.
1/4 cup fresh lime juice, about 1 large lime
1/4 cup silver 100 percent agave tequila
1/4 cup orange liqueur
1/2 cup coarsely cracked ice cubes
Rub the rims of 2 martini glasses with a lime wedge, then dip the rims in a dish of course salt. Refrigerate the glasses if desired.
In a shaker, combine the lime juice, tequila, and orange liqueur. Add ice and shake 10 to 15 seconds, then strain into the prepared glasses.
Story and photos © 2010, Linda Shiue.