Thursday, October 04, 2007

Pot luck or lucky pots?

This past weekend a friend of mine had a Pot Luck dinner at her place with a few friends. Personally, as this blog can testify, any chance I get to test my culinary skills is welcomed with open arms and watered maw agape. Yet, I can help and reminisce about past Pot Luck dinners I have attended or hosted and remember the some the sumptuous and not so sumptuous dishes guests have brought. One that always sticks out in my mind was when a friend of mine told me he was bringing chicken and I told him I was anxious to see what he would show up with. All guests arrived with a wonderful array of prepared entrees and like I film script Lawrence Kasdan couldn’t have written any better himself, my friend is last to arrive, chicken in hand...bucket of chicken in hand... red / white bucket in hand.

What would be an easy, yet impressive dish for me to prepare? The first time I ever had Ceviche, I was a pre-teen in Puerto Rico one of my cousins had just married a Colombian fellow and for some reason or another we were having a big dinner at my Aunt Violet’s house. Not that my family ever needed to have a reason for a banquette and with the abundance of great cooks in my family, I can remember many a gathering with no real cause for celebration other than eating. But Aunt Violet was end all/ be all authority of comida criolla and her house usually the rendezvous point for Rodriguez-es, Algarin-es, and the few Negron-es: Thanksgiving Day feasts, birthdays, the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics (the jet pack guy!), etc. In that house, it was the first time I ever saw ice-cream being made, compliments of barrel shaped contraption purchased through the Home Shopping Network.

This particular day Ceviche was on the menu, suggested and supervised by said Colombian fellow. A man, let alone a foreigner to Borinquen as the main chef was a rare sight, but my aunt conceded part of her kitchen for his sea fairing, citric adventure of To start, all the younger members of the family were ordered to gathered around a giant pot to do one simple task: squeeze as many lemons available into this pot; sounded easy enough until the squeezing began. Citric acid started shooting every where. Lips trembled as shrieks of stinging pain could be heard from our municipality of Juana Diaz to San Juan. More than a few set of eyes were speared with renegade juice beams immediately followed by reaction first, think second eye rubbing, forgetting that the fingers too were coated with the evil nectar. Cuts and hang nails on our hands and fingers revealed themselves and more horror flashed before our eyes, as bodies hit the floor convulsing in pain, misery. No dinner is worth this agony, or is it?

Medium-sized peeled shrimp (jumbo, tiger or popcorn-sized can work too)
meaty white fish (flounder, tuna, mackerel, snapper)
bell peppers (2 or 3 colors if possible)
cilantro / coriander
one whole onion
apple vinegar (or any vinegar that doesn’t have a strong flavor like balsamic)
4-6 lemons
1 orange
1 grapefruit
orange juice (or any citrus juice)
laurel / bay leaves
salt and pepper / seasoned salt / herbes de Provence

Now, this is yet another recipe where amount doesn’t matter. So for those of you who need to know exact amounts, don’t panic. The most important thing is that the shrimp and fish are completely submerged in juice at all times. First cut half the onion (anyway is fine, prefer into rings) and lay the onion down in square or round deep plastic container and make a “bed” for your fish and shrimp. Cut the fish into bit size morsels and lay it on its “bed”. The shrimp can be cut our left whole. If you leave them whole they swell up in the marinade and look impressive. Plus, when you bite into them you get a nice burst of flavor. Or, you can chop them up and it stretches the portion a bit more if you’re putting it out for a party. Lay the shrimp to rest with the fish.

Now, scatter 3 or 4 laurel / bay leaves whole among the seafood (remember these are for flavor, not eating). Crush your garlic with the broad side of a knife and scatter it too. Your garlic tolerance level will determine how much you use. Actually, when I made it last week, I forgot the garlic and it still turned out well. Dice your peppers and drop into the container. I like to use at least one red and one green pepper for color and appeal. If available and you have ample dicing time, throw in a yellow or orange one too. Chop the cilantro / coriander and drop it in, but save some of it whole for garnish. Dash your spice of choice to taste.

Next is the juice / marinade part. I’ve made it exclusively with lemon, but in Japan where the price of fruit sometimes calls for financial aid, I’ve had to make adjustments. So again, do it to your liking and particular taste. Just don’t ever use lemon juice from concentrate. I did that once and although the young lady I was trying to impressed honestly (I hope) enjoyed it, the taste of additive and preservatives stick to my tongue to this day. Keep it fresh, keep it real. Sticking to this recipe, squeeze your citrus into the container. You could try and remove the pips from the fruits, use a strainer or just warn your guests. I use a strainer, but I scoop out any wayward pulp and add it to the mix. Leave the fruit juice and vinegar (a small amount of vinegar should do) to top off the seafood so that it’s completely submerged in the marinade. Of course, you can play with the marinade and try different combos for flavor variety. Top of with a few more dashes of spice.

Store it in the refrigerator. How long you ask? Over night is best, but in a pinch, at least two hours should do the trick, especially if you also cut the shrimp. Take out at least 20 minutes before serving to shake out the chill, serve in a mid-sized bowl with a small ladle or a big spoon and garnish with the cilantro / coriander and some lemon / lime wheels. It’s a great choice to have as an appetizer, on a buffet table or that elusive third or fourth date at your place. Have it over salad or with toasted baguette.

The party folk enjoyed it and I got some compliments. There were no red and white buckets in sight.