How to Make Delicious Alaskan Ceviche
By: Michael Rogers
I’m not much of a “foodie,” though, I like good food and I’ve got a couple of dishes that I can do flat out great … but for the most part, food is fuel. If it tastes good and is served at the appropriate temperature then those are bonuses, but generally I’ll eat mediocre as readily as gourmet. There are a couple of exceptions to that rule for foods that I’m passionate about. As a former Southerner, I’m very particular about cornbread. If you put sugar in your cornbread you’re baking a cake, not cornbread, and we need to talk. Another is barbecue. Alaska is, in general, a wasteland of good barbecue and while I readily admit that I grade barbecue on a pretty steep curve, really great barbecue takes a plane ride to acquire. The other thing I’m really passionate about, and it’s a new thing for me, is Alaskan ceviche.
I remember the exact time and place that I first tried this dish; I was standing on a beach on an island off the coast of Costa Rica on Christmas Day in 2014. We had taken a family vacation over Christmas week to try something new and get out of the cold, and four degrees off the equator was about as close as we could get to different than the 49th state and warm. We’d taken these outrigger canoes out to the island to watch toucans and snorkel and the guides were serving us a picnic lunch. One guide was busy handing out food to everyone and he handed me a red solo cup with some bizarre looking relish or salsa in it and a spoon. I gave it a timid try, and it was one of the most delicious things I’d ever eaten. Since then, ceviche has become one of those foods that I’m just passionate about and I make it pretty frequently.
So what exactly is Alaskan ceviche? It’s essentially fish “cooked” in acidic citrus juice, usually with some herbs and spices and onions mixed in. “Cooked” is in quotation marks on purpose but more on that later. Originating in Peru and fanning out through most of Latin America, it’s a staple in the coastal regions all over Central America and reaching down into South America. It’s made with a wide variety of seafood and shellfish and dates back several thousand years according to folks who delve into the origins of foods. It’s also a dish that’s gotten some acceptance in North America. And for good reason, it’s delicious. Not only is it delicious, it’s about as easy as things are to make. If you can operate a paring knife and squeeze a lime … you’re good to go, and I’ll tell you how. I can hear you now, “What’s up with all this Latin American cooking? This is The Alaska Life!” It turns out that many of our Alaskan fish, the fish many of you readers have stocked in your freezers year after year, make some perfectly awesome Alaskan ceviche.
But first, let’s talk about food safety for a bit; “cooked” is something of a misnomer. While the citric acid will turn the fish opaque and give it a firm texture, ceviche is in no sense of the word cooked. It’s true that the acid does kill off a fair number of the gremlins that inhabit fish but it certainly won’t kill them all. Alaskan fish in particular—fish like halibut, cod and rockfish—can play host to some real beasties that the acid won’t kill. While most of them won’t kill you, they will give you a first rate case of projectile diarrhea. Never fear, the answer is simple, use frozen fish. That’s how sushi bars the world over don’t give folks tapeworms, anasakis worms and liver flukes … they use frozen fish. A trip to minus 4 degrees F for about a week will do it. The little freezer on top of your fridge may not get quite that cold (so check first!), but that chest freezer almost assuredly will and a commercial freezer definitely will. If you’re like me, deep in the Interior with a chest freezer in a shed that sees an honest minus 50 degrees F every winter … worry not and ceviche on. So if the above hasn’t completely turned you off on the idea … on to the kitchen.
The first trick is to select the fish. Any fish with a firm, white flesh works good. The Costa Ricans are fond of a fish they call corvina, which is a black sea bass, and it’s a kissing cousin to our rockfish. So if you’ve got some “shinies and stickies”(pelagic and non-pelagic rockfish) in the freezer this is a great place to use it. Halibut works well and is one of the most commonly eaten fish in Alaska. Also, lingcod are delicious in ceviche. Our emblematic salmon doesn’t work so well in my opinion, but that’s a matter of taste. Freshwater fish can be made to work, but the fish turns mushy and it’s best to just not go there—other preparations can make grayling and trout shine, but it’s not this one.
Here’s what you need:
1 pound of halibut, rockfish or lingcod
1 small white onion, diced
6 Roma tomatoes (firm is good), seeded and diced
½ cup of chopped cilantro … more if you like it
½ cup of sliced jalapeños, the pickled ones from a jar are just fine for this, although you can use fresh.
Juice of 4-6 limes or a bottle of lime juice
Red Pepper flakes (a dash if you like spicy)
Now that you’ve taken your fish and let it thaw in the fridge overnight, cut it into ½” cubes and place it into a large, non-reactive bowl. Glass works, but metal will not. Add in about half of the onion and stir in 1 teaspoon of salt. Pour in the lime juice until the fish is covered. Cover the bowl and place in the fridge for at least 30 minutes, an hour to two is probably better. As a note, you can leave it overnight but it is more of a pickled fish at this point rather than a traditional ceviche. If you have a squeamish eater at the table, try them out on the overnight version as it’s firmer and has a more “cooked” texture.
Once you’ve let the pH do its job, remove and drain the juice. Stir in the remaining onion, jalapeños, tomatoes, and cilantro and season to taste with red pepper flakes or fresh ground pepper and additional salt. Optional add ins are cooked corn, avocado slices, bell peppers, oregano, poblano peppers or even a handful of grilled Alaska spot shrimp. You can also throw in a bit of orange, lemon or grapefruit juice in the marinade mix for variety, but leave the bulk of it lime, as it’s more acidic than orange juice. I tend to like my ceviche plain and spicy—the flavor star is the fish, and some heat without a salad bar thrown in is what I prefer. At this point I like to put it back in the fridge for about 15-20 minutes to let all the flavors get to know one another. Serve chilled on tortilla chips as an appetizer or eat with a spoon as a light lunch. It also makes a superb topping for halibut tacos.
If you enjoyed “How to Make Alaskan Ceviche” check out “Alaskan Salmon Tacos – Fresh From the River.“