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Ceviche, by any name, is party fare

(ran NP edition)

Most people would associate a Texas cookoff with barbecue or chili. In San Antonio during the 4th annual New World Food and Wine Festival, some leading chefs had another kind of cookoff.

They called it "The Ceviche Sessions."

If you think ceviche (sometimes spelled seviche or cebiche) is simply raw scallops marinated in lime juice, think again. There are endless creative ways to add this fresh seafood delicacy to your culinary roster.

"You don't need a recipe," said Ben Berryhill, executive chef of Houston's top-rated Cafe Annie. "Cook with your senses. Mix it with cucumber for a cool salad, or make it spicy if it's for the Super Bowl crowd."

At an elegant dinner, serve ceviche in a martini glass topped with an olive or on small dishes. At a cocktail party, pass it around on chips. It can be sauceless, just small pieces of fish slightly pickled to preserve freshness and zing, or saucy with tomato and chili. Add crunch and color with vegetables.

Elisabeth "Lisa" Wong, owner and executive chef of Rosario's Mexican Restaurant in San Antonio, made ceviche with tilapia, serrano chilies and oregano.

Rene Fernandez, co-owner and executive chef of San Antonio's Nuevo Latino restaurant Azuca, where the cookoff was held, marinated tuna in sour (Seville) orange juice rather than the more traditional lime juice.

"Ceviche means to saturate," said Berryhill, who made a crab meat and shrimp ceviche saturated with chipotle ketchup. (Shrimp, by the way, is one of the few fish that needs to be cooked first, as do lobster and squid.)

Ceviche has become the signature "cocktail" of Nuevo Latino cuisine in the United States and is served at raw bars as well as on dinner menus. At Azuca, the "Ceviche Trio" is always on the menu. Three little mounds of three different seviches _ shrimp, bay scallop and sea bass _ are served on a wooden board.

"It's the best appetizer we sell," Fernandez said. He plans to add a ceviche bar at Azuca, to accommodate the popularity of this dish.

"Ceviche originated in Peru," explained Fernandez, who worked his way through Latin America in the early stages of his culinary career.

"Every country has its own version. Acapulco ceviche is the most renowned _ they use mackerel marinated in lime with tomato and Tabasco.

"In Guatemala, they use more of a white fish with onions, cilantro, diced chili peppers and green peppers."

The strangest ceviche Fernandez encountered was in Brazil.

"It was not called ceviche," he said, "but they used a 300-pound fish _ I can't recall its name _ and marinated it with lime and orange and added onions and garlic."

Ceviche made a big impression on Wong 10 years ago in Acapulco. "I had had it before," she said, "but this was the first time I really noticed it."

At Rosario's, which is also famous for its prize-winning salsa, the ceviche were originally made with a tomato base, which is more traditional to Mexican cuisine. They have since added other types to the menu.

You can use any fish to make ceviche as long as it is absolutely fresh. Ask for sushi quality when you buy, and smell the fish to be sure it's fresh.

Fish such as sea bass, snapper, mahi mahi and halibut that keep their shape and texture are best. Steaklike tuna keeps its firmness, too, but soft fish such as sole, can become mushy. A sharp knife is essential, to cut the fish without tearing the flesh.

In most of Latin America ceviche is marinated with lime juice, but in Ecuador it is made with the juice of bitter Seville oranges.

"You can use any citrus juice to marinate fish," said Wong, who opened her first restaurant in 1981 right out of high school and has since been honored as a young culinary entrepreneur in San Antonio.

She suggested any combination of orange, lemon, even grapefruit. However, don't add grapefruit by itself or it will be too bitter. Wong uses grapefruit in a favorite ceviche she likes to make at home.

"This one is sea scallops with one part lime, two parts lemon, and some grapefruit juice," she explained. She adds freshly grated ginger, too.

"The marinating time depends on the fish," said Fernandez, but "four hours max" is a rule he follows.

The chemical process that occurs when the acid of the citrus comes in contact with the fish is similar to what happens when fish is cooked with heat. Citrus acid changes the look from translucent raw flesh to the firm, near-flaky opacity of cooked fish, but the texture is chewy and completely different from fish cooked with heat.

Use enough juice to cover the fish so it "cooks" evenly. Drain the juice from the fish after it marinates and rinse it under cold running water to stop the cooking. Always make ceviche the same day you use it or it will continue to marinate and get mushy.

According to Berryhill, making ceviche should be creative with no need for exact measurements.

"Use your head, use your palate. You can always add more. It's not rocket science," he quipped. "The one rule: it's gotta be super cold."

Was there a winner at "The Ceviche Sessions"?

It was hard to tell because the audience ate everything up. Judge for yourself with the three recipes here.

Cafe Annie Gulf Coast

Crab Meat and Shrimp Campechana

For the Chipotle Marinade:

5 ripe tomatoes, seeds removed and coarsely chopped

4 red bell peppers, stems and seeds removed and coarsely chopped

2 white onions, peeled and coarsely chopped

6 cloves of garlic, peeled and coarsely chopped

2 cups white wine vinegar

2 cups sugar

1 cup water

2 tablespoons kosher salt

3 chipotle chilies (from a 7-ounce can)

For the Campechana:

1 pound precooked jumbo lump crab meat, shells removed

1 pound fresh shrimp, shells and veins removed

Chipotle Marinade

Juice of two limes

1 red onion, skinned and diced small

{ bunch cilantro, chopped (reserve a few sprigs for garnish)

1 avocado, peeled and sliced, for garnish

To make the marinade: Combine tomatoes, red bell peppers, onions, garlic, vinegar, sugar and water. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer for 45 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool. Add salt and chilies. Puree in food mill or blender until smooth.

To make the Campechana: Put the shrimp in a pot with about 2 quarts of lightly salted room-temperature water and bring to a simmer. Remove from heat and drain before the water boils.

Cover the pot and let the shrimp cool.

Chop the shrimp and crab meat and combine with chipotle marinade, lime juice, onion and cilantro, using as much marinade as needed, mixing all together gently. Chill for at least 30 minutes to 1 or 2 hours for the flavors to marry.

Garnish with freshly sliced avocado and cilantro sprigs and serve with fried tortilla chips.

Notes: "Campechana" describes a way of marinating fish, similar to ceviche, that originated in the Campeche region of Mexico's Gulf coast.

In this recipe, the marinade is a 2-quart recipe, more than you will need, but it can be refrigerated for two to three weeks.

Makes 4 to 6 appetizer servings, or 8 to 12 canapes.

Source: Recipe from chef Ben Berryhill of Cafe Annie, Houston.

Rosario's Ceviche Fina

1 pound fresh tilapia fillets, cut into strips 2 inches long by \ inch wide

} cup freshly squeezed lime juice

3 serrano chilies, seeded and cut into thin strips

1 cup thinly sliced red onion

1 tablespoon salt

\ tablespoon freshly ground pepper

1 tablespoon dried oregano

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 large avocado, diced or sliced for garnish

Tostada chips

Place the fish in a large glass or ceramic mixing bowl and add lime juice, serrano chilies, onion, salt, pepper and oregano.

Mix ingredients gently and marinate in the refrigerator for about 45 minutes. Then place the mixture in a strainer to drain off excess lime juice. Rinse thoroughly in cold water.

Toss mixture in olive oil and season to taste.

Garnish with fresh avocado and serve cold with tostada chips.

Makes 4 to 6 servings as an appetizer, or 8 to 12 as canapes.

Source: Recipe from Elisabeth Wong, chef of Rosario's Mexican Restaurant, San Antonio.

Azuca's Yellowfin Tuna Ceviche

1 pound fresh sushi-grade tuna, diced in {-inch pieces

1 quart plus 1 cup sour orange juice (see note)

1 cup lemon juice

1 cup diced jicama

2 medium tomatoes, diced

2 green unripe mangos, diced

1 medium yellow onion, diced

1 bunch cilantro, chopped

4 serrano chilies, chopped

{ cup salad oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Fried yucca chips or other chips, as desired, for serving

Marinate tuna in 1 quart sour orange juice and the lemon juice for 4 hours in the refrigerator. Stir the fish every hour, allowing juice to marinate the fish on all sides. The juice will become thick.

In a nonreactive metal bowl mix jicama, tomato, mango, onion, cilantro and chilies. Add the oil, 1 cup of sour orange juice and salt and pepper to taste. Reserve.

Remove fish from refrigerator, drain it, and rinse thoroughly under cold water. Using a rubber spatula, gently fold the fish into the reserved mixture, being careful not to break the fish pieces. Chill for another hour and serve with fried yucca chips. (You can substitute any crisp chips.)

Note: Sour oranges (also called bitter or Seville oranges) are basic ingredients for marmalade and Grand Marnier. They are available at produce markets and Latin specialty stores. If you can't find sour oranges, substitute two parts regular orange juice to one part lime juice.

Makes 4 to 6 appetizer servings, or 8 to 12 canapes.

Source: Recipe from chef Rene Fernandez of Azuca restaurant, San Antonio.