Ours pals Chris and Grant hail from northern Minnesota, land of 10,000 lakes, most of which have great fishing. Among the various options to go after, panfish are a personal favorite. They’re fun, feisty, and you can harvest a very decent catch relatively guilt free, ’cause those suckers breed like there’s no tomorrow.
But wait a minute, you ask, what are panfish anyway? Great question! The term has some wiggle room is the broadest answer; panfish mean different things to different regions and fishers. Some folks will tell you it means any species that, fully grown, fit well in the ol’ cast iron frying pan, while others claim it’s because the fish themselves are frying pan shaped. I’ve heard Crappie, Blue Gills, Sunfish, Perch, Pumpkin Seeds, and Small Mouth Bass all referred to as pan fish. To me, any of these small, plentiful species qualify for the term.
Anyway, I digress; back to why Chris got in touch. She wrote, “We caught lots of Crappies. The fillets are thin and the flesh is quite soft, but they’re nice and sweet. Any tips?”
Sure do; while a simple butter poach is lovely, or a sauté in olive oil, lemon, and dill, sometimes it’s fun to go a bit farther afield and try something new. Ceviche is the ticket. This favorite of the coastal Americas derives from an Incan dish of fish cured with salt and chiles, and marinated in passion fruit juice. The modern incarnation in its simplest form is fresh, raw fish cured in citrus juices and seasoned with chiles. Ceviche is fabulous with any white fleshed fish, and that certainly includes the pan varieties.
If you’ve never tried making or eating ceviche and are maybe a bit squeamish about it, don’t feel bad, so was Chris; she wrote, “Have never had anything like that before, so I was wary. Not anymore! I knew you wouldn’t steer me wrong!” (That’s my kinda endorsement).
Nonetheless, what makes folks nervous is the lack of cooking involved in making ceviche. Technically speaking, cooking requires heat, so ceviche isn’t cooked, but it’s not raw either; it’s fish cured in a citric acid bath. Fact is, both processes initiate a chemical reaction called denaturation, which alters the proteins in the fish chemically and physically. The end result of either method is fish that becomes firm to the touch, opaque to the eye, and a ‘cooked’ taste.
So, how long should fish be marinated in citrus juices in order for denaturation to take place? That depends on the variety of fish you use, and how well you like your fish cured. Just a few minutes in citrus juices and your fish will start to go opaque, though the interior will still look raw and the flesh won’t have firmed up yet. Just as with cooking, you can marinate too long, leading to a tough texture and an overpowering citrus note. The key to even, dependable results is to always butcher your fish down to roughly bite sized pieces. Doing so increases the fish’s surface area and makes it easier for the citric acid to do its thing. Generally, the flakier and softer the fish, the faster it will cure in citrus. Watching for the complete opaque appearance and firm feel you expect when you cook fish will give you good results.
The freshness of the fish you choose to marinate is a critical consideration, because citric acid curing doesn’t kill bacteria the way cooking does. If you’ve got any concern about this, it’s best to freeze your fillets at or below -4° F for a good week prior to making ceviche. That will kill potential parasites like tapeworms and roundworms. Alternatively, you can do a quick blanch with your fish, dropping the fillets into boiling water for a full minute, then immediately plunging them into ice water to stop the cooking process, before you marinate it. This quick shock also helps softer fleshed fish maintain a firmer texture when cured.
There’s a world of variety waiting for you to explore once you wade in. Just varying the citrus creates truly unique dishes, so try lemon, lime, blood orange, grapefruit, or yuzu. Same goes with the chiles; from light heat and fruity to truly fiery, each one creates a different finish. A touch of a varietal vinegar does the same thing. A bit of mango in your finished mix beautifully compliments the sweetness of the fish, and on and on.
Here’s the one I did up for Chris; It’s a pretty classic swing at the dish, and super easy to make
1 Pound Fish
2 medium varietal Tomatoes
3-4 Green Onions (Sweet Onion is fine as a sub)
1 stalk Celery
1-2 Jalapeño Chiles (Again, you can vary the variety as you like)
1/2 Cup fresh Cilantro
Cut fillets into bite size pieces.
Place fish in a non-reactive bowl and cover completely with lime juice.
Refrigerate covered for 6-8 hours, until the fish has turned completely opaque.
When the fish is ready, fine dice all the remaining veggies and mix well, including the olive oil.
Discard the marinating juice from the fish.
Add the juice from 2 fresh limes and the cured fish to the mix and toss gently.
Serve with fresh tortillas, crema, guac, and ice cold beer!
Here’s Chris’ gorgeous plate, made with Golden Jubilee heirloom tomatoes.