The Power of Acid

Sunday, April 24th, 2016

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In the early days of my cooking career, butter was king. I was cooking on the line, many years ago, and the Sous Chef asked me “Did you add butter to this?” I can not tell you today what the “this” was but my answer was no. His response was “Why do you think everything tastes so good here? Always add butter!”

So my career pushes forward and I believe in the power of butter. Butter makes everything great! Butter is the secret ingredient Chefs have been using that elevates cooking! More butter! I learn the cuisine of the Chef’s I work for. I believed in the French techniques that are the building blocks of every culinary students education.

But as things so often do, something changed. The change started with lemons. We all know a little squeeze of lemon on seafood is divine. But watch what happens when you add a little lemon juice to cooked greens. It changes the way they taste. It can take the edge off of bitter notes. It can brighten the flavors of any dish. What about other citrus; limes, grapefruit, oranges? What can they do to a dish? Then one day, I read in Thomas Keller’s landmark The French Laundry Cookbook that he adds a small amount of vinegar to his cream based soups to round them out. Vinegar!

So it goes, as the years move ahead I am exposed to more and more cooking techniques that maximize acids in cooking. In the world famous Blue Hill at Stone Barns, I am exposed to a pantry that stocks beautiful French tarragon vinegar and I see why acid is king. It was such a powerful element in Dan Barber’ s cooking. My understanding of flavors had changed, and my food has been better for it. Throw in my travels to Mexico and my studies in Latin cooking, and the transformation was complete. I still love butter, but to say the least, it is not how I approach crafting a delicious dish.

There is no dish that highlights the power of acid better than ceviche. The high acid dish transforms raw fish into a bright, complex, easy to make meal. Origins of ceviche are debated (almost as much as it’s spelling’s) but Peru is the capital of ceviche today and variations can be found though Central and South America. When making ceviche look for high quality fish.

Spring Halibut Ceviche with
Pico de Gallo Agua & Avocado

Serves 2-4 People

6 ounces of Halibut Filet (most mild white fish will work)
1 cup Pico de Gallo Agua, recipe follows
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
1 Tablespoon cucumber, small dice
1 Tablespoon jalapeno, small diced
½ Tablespoon cilantro, minced
Half of an avocado, diced

Cut the halibut into small bite size pieces and place in a non-reactive bowl . Pour ½ cup of the Pico de Gallo Agua over the halibut and mix together. You want to make sure the fish is just submerged by the marinade, so use extra of the Pico Agua if needed. Place mixture in the refrigerator and let the fish marinate for about 15 minutes. Stirring a few times throughout to insure that all of the fish gets marinated.

To assemble the ceviche I like to drain the marinade from the fish and replace with fresh ½ cup of Pico de Gallo Aqua. Mix in the salt and avocado. Place ceviche into your serving container. Top with fresh cucumber, jalapeno, and cilantro. Serve with tortilla chips and margaritas.

Pico de Gallo Agua

Yields about two cups

2 medium tomatoes, chopped
3 Tablespoon of white onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, chopped
2 Tablespoon of jalapeno, seeds left in and chopped
6 Tablespoons of fresh lime juice
1 sprig of cilantro
¾ teaspoon kosher salt

Place all ingredients in a blender and pulse until only small chunks remain. You just want the juice from the ingredients so don’t let it become a smooth puree. Pour mixture into a strainer set over a bowl and gently press on the solids to release all the liquid. Discard the solids that remain. Pico de Gallo Agua will keep for 5 days in the refrigerator, and when mixed with beer makes a delicious michelada!