I must admit to suffering a little pang of disappointment, in intensity just a bit less than a hunger cramp, at the Friday-night events of the recent Boca Bacchanal wine and food festival. Not by the setting -- a series of dinners, each prepared by a renowned chef and paired with a distinguished winery, were held at Boca Raton's most sumptuous private homes. The dinner I attended was thoroughly lovely, with appetizers and cava (Spanish sparkling wine) passed in a living room dominated on either side by a grand piano and a huge bricked fireplace, and a multicourse dinner served poolside.
Nor was I let down by the cuisine, in my case cooked by Alice Weingarten of Alice's at La Te Da in Key West: clams on the half shell topped with chorizo; spicy pink conch bisque splashed with Stolichnaya vodka; tropical fruit shortcake with passion fruit Chantilly cream -- a delectable mix of southwestern, Caribbean, and Old World flavors. Indeed Weingarten, a formally schooled CIA chef and a member of the James Beard Foundation, is to be congratulated not only on her oft-described "fusion confusion," but her generosity of spirit: She'd been tapped as a substitute to replace the chef who originally was booked for this particular dinner, one Douglas Rodriguez.
Therein, of course, lay my nugget of gastronomic distress. Not that I wasn't grateful for Weingarten's selflessness and goodwill; after all, for her trouble she had to endure a five-hour car ride, thanks to an accident on the single-lane road down in the Keys, on her way to Boca. And she was still cheerful enough to describe every course for us, after which sommelier-in-attendance Laura DePasquale explained the wine pairs.
Still I had been looking forward to sampling Rodriguez's fare, a privilege I haven't had since his early days at Patria in New York, right after he left Miami's groundbreaking Latin-fusion restaurant Yuca. Now the widely acknowledged originator of Nuevo Latino cuisine and author of cookbooks such as Latin Ladles and Latin Flavors on the Grill, Rodriguez owns Alma de Cuba in Philadelphia as well as several NYC restaurants, including Chicama and the newly opened Chispa. Yup, the latter boasts the same name as Robbin Haas's forthcoming eatery, a coincidence that is rumored to be sparking some legal issues.
It was the then-upcoming opening of Chispa that prevented him from participating in the Bacchanal and assuaging my craving for his cooking. At the time, I had no way of knowing that I'd be able to satisfy myself the very next day, when a review copy of Rodriguez's freshly released cookbook The Great Ceviche Book arrived via U.S. Postal Service.
In the simplest terms, think of The Great Ceviche Book as the gastronomic equivalent of a vibrator -- an extremely useful tool for the passionate home cook at every level of experience. The book opens with a definition of ceviche, one that may be familiar to us here in South Florida but still illuminating: "Generally speaking, ceviche is any mixture of fish or shellfish that is 'cooked' by the acid of a citrus marinade ... and typically enhanced with chilis, onions, and cilantro. It is an ideally straightforward dish for today's style of eating, one that relies primarily on the highest-quality ingredients and skillfully precise, simple preparation rather than over-the-top creativity or elaborate, strongly flavored sauces or spices."
Simple, yes, but the variations are as endless as the regions, from South America to Polynesia, that claim to have originated the marinated dish. Rodriguez presents 60 representative recipes ranging from "Honduran Fire and Ice Lobster" to "Chino Latino Black Bass with Dried Scallops." He gives a good intro to each version, explaining its origins or the inspirations he took to develop it, then deconstructs the steps clearly and precisely. Indeed, he notes, his recipes could be causeways to your own. As long as you have the proper tools, that is, which in the end don't really amount to a huge investment: a very sharp knife, a cutting board, a plastic Japanese mandoline (for creating thin-as-skin uniformity), a citrus reamer, and a nonreactive glass or stainless steel bowl (so the fish doesn't pick up metallic flavors). "Conquer the basic formula," he writes, "and you'll soon be sailing your own ship."
The element I like best about the book is Rodriguez's nod to our region. Though born in New York and a resident of that state now, he began his professional career in Miami and received national kudos for his work at Yuca, which revolutionized fine dining in Coral Gables back in the late Eighties and early Nineties. Those of us who were around then -- which doesn't mean we're old, so get your mind out of the nursing home -- still tend to think of him as a native son (and keep our appetites as sharp as ceviche knives in case he returns).
Rodriguez even thanks the staff at Norman's, Captain Jim's Seafood, and Sunray Seafood, all in Miami, for their advice on sourcing and purchasing ceviche-worthy ingredients. As such, it seemed only right to reprint a couple of Rodriguez's recipes that were designed with Miami in mind:
Snapper with Tangerine
"There seem to be countless varieties of snapper; from living in Florida, I'm personally familiar with at least five or six. For this ceviche, it is ideal to use a smaller fish, one under two pounds, since the bigger the fish, the tougher the meat. Although most snappers do not vary much in flavor once they are cooked, the different snapper varieties can have a surprisingly wide range of tastes when eaten raw. Genuine red snapper would be my first choice for this dish."
1/2 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
1 tablespoon salt
1/2 cup freshly squeezed tangerine juice
1 tablespoon finely chopped pickled jalapeño chilis
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh oregano
6 fresh cilantro leaves, julienned, or 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh cilantro
3 shallots, thinly sliced
1 1/2 pounds skinless snapper fillet, cut into 1/4-inch dice
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
In a nonreactive bowl, whisk together all the marinade ingredients. Add the snapper and gently toss. Cover and refrigerate for one hour. When ready to serve, drizzle with olive oil. Serves 6.
Salad-Style Conch with Bell Peppers and Tomatoes
"My very first experience with ceviche was eating conch ceviche, or conch salad, as they call it in Florida, after moving to Miami with my family at the age of 14. I grew to love the Key West-inspired dish and quickly realized it was a staple on most local restaurant menus. Back in Coconut Grove, the original Monty's Stone Crab and Seafood Restaurant had a great version of conch salad that always satisfied my cravings. At the time, I didn't realize I was actually eating a ceviche."
1 1/2 pounds conch meat, cleaned and cut into 1/2-inch dice
1/2 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
1 tablespoon salt
1 small red bell pepper, seeded and diced
1 small green bell pepper, seeded and diced
1 small red onion, diced
3 plum tomatoes, seeded and diced
1 tablespoon coarsely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh cilantro
3 dashes Tabasco sauce
1 teaspoon salt
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh cilantro for garnish
In a nonreactive bowl, toss the conch in the lime juice and one tablespoon salt. Cover and refrigerate for at least one hour and up to three hours. When ready to serve, gently toss the conch with the marinade ingredients and garnish with the chopped cilantro.
(Reprinted with permission from The Great Ceviche Book by Douglas Rodriguez;2003. Ten Speed Press.)