Wednesday, July 8, 2009


What got me going on this article was a question from a friend who asked, "Do you spell seviche with an 's'?" when we were chatting about that dish that we both adore. She spelled it ceviche and I spelled it seviche. They're both correct and so is cebiche and I happen to think that all of them are corruptions of escabeche (which itself has myriad spellings and corruptions). Language is crazily fluid and cannot be corralled and who cares anyway as long as we understand one another?

But this is all an aside for the real idea behind this post. I think most of us foodies are familiar with this dish, raw fish marinated in citrus. Most references state that the citrus "cooks" the fish, with cooks always in quotes (from the food dictionary: The action of the acid in the lime juice "cooks" the fish, thereby firming the flesh and turning it opaque). This got me pondering about cooked versus raw, the very semantics of two states that we take very much for granted. Or to ask it in a more straightforward manner, what does it mean for something to be cooked?

This leads to many other questions such as "Does the transformation from the raw state necessarily imply the application of heat?" Gee, I'm a professional chef and somewhat of a language pedant and I haven't a clue. So I set about finding an answer, as if such a fundamental question can have but a single answer.

But before I move on, let me just limit this discussion to the physical transformation that happens when food changes state from what we call raw to what we call cooked. The subject would otherwise be fairly boundless. If you don't believe me, ask yourself the following questions:

Am I cooking when I remove heat from sweetened cream and make ice cream?
Am I cooking when I whisk together oil and vinegar in that emulsion that we call a vinaigrette?
Am I cooking when I salt sliced raw cabbage and leave it at room temperature so that it undergoes lactic acid fermentation and becomes sauerkraut?

First stop, a few dictionaries of the English language. The majority such as the compact OED are fairly abolute: cooking is preparing food for consumption by application of heat. A few others such as Merriam-Webster, no doubt wanting to avoid absolutist traps, give more grey definitions along the lines of cooking is preparing for consumption especially by application of heat. Hmmm. A lot of leeway here.

So I decided to consult my well read copy of Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking which generally has the answer to most of my questions culinary. And what did I see in his discussion of seviche but the quotes around the verb cook? Subsequent reading in McGee leads me to understand that the acid in citrus denatures (breaks down) proteins in a way similar to what happens when you apply heat to those same proteins. But it also clear that because of the lack of heat, no Maillard reactions happen and those reactions produce the browning and flavors that we associate with being cooked.

So I am back to square one. I don't know if seviche is raw or cooked or in some hybrid state. But I do know that I love it and that it's just the perfect summertime dish. Here's a recipe that I devised after one that a Mexican prep cook made for me once upon a time. The thing that I took from him was the celery, sliced crosswise into kidney shapes,which adds great texture to the dish. The tequila is my own thing. I make this from scraps of flounder when we are running flounder as an entrée. Any mild white fish will do nicely.

Three Citrus Tequila Flounder Seviche

3 cups diced flounder, about 1 pound
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon toasted and ground cumin
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
1-½ tablespoons guajillo chile paste*
½ medium red onion, minced
2 green onions, sliced
1 large celery stalk, sliced crosswise into kidney shapes
2 cloves garlic, minced
Zest of one blood orange (or regular orange)
Zest of one lime
Zest of one lemon
Juice of two blood oranges
Juice of two limes
Juice of one lemon
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon gold tequila

Mix all ingredients well and let marinate under refrigeration for at least two hours. Serve cold in a martini glass rimmed with cumin salt and garnished with blood orange.

*To make guajillo paste, reconstitute toasted and seeded dried guajillos in warm water until soft. Drain and blend with sufficient fresh water to make a paste. Pass through a strainer to remove any skin and seed bits.

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