Monday, May 24, 2010

What In The World Is Aguachile?


If, like me, you're a lover of fish and seafood in their near-raw state, it's possible you've heard of aguachile. No? Then it's possible you've had it under the guise of ceviche, seafood carpaccio or pickled sashimi, but the truth is, it may have been closer to aguachile. What is aguachile, exactly? Well, it means "chili water" and I think of it as the spicy, tart cousin of ceviche, the method of cooking where acid cooks seafood in place of heat. In the case of aguachile the star ingredient is only barely permitted to cure in its sour soak before being served icy cold and almost entirely raw. Unlike ceviche, the purpose of aguachile is not to use the acid as a cure, but as a flavoring agent. The acid is either infused or in some cases blended with chiles for a spicy bite that stands up to the ice cold seafood. Sweet rock shrimp and gorgeous diver scallops make perfect foils for aguachile because of their natural sweetness and soft texture. Quality and freshness of ingredients is of the utmost importance when making aguachile, since you will essentially be eating them raw.

Shrimp are typically halved lengthwise, rendering them thin and flat, while scallops can be cut into halves or thirds, and (my favorite) pounded thin, carpaccio-style, if they're large. The main ingredient should essentially be sitting in a puddle of liquid, be it lemon, lime or yuzu, barely covering the protein (as the photo above demonstrates, the lime juice puddle is just barely detectable around the edges of the scallop). The only other necessary ingredients are cilantro, onions and chilies, which depending on your mood or preference can be chopped finely for added crunch, or all blended together like a jalapeño pesto, spooned over the protein. I generally go for the former because I like to savor each ingredient on its own and find the flavors to be cleaner that way.

If you decide to take on aguachile (and I highly suggest you do) I recommend you start by buying the freshest possible shrimp/scallops/fish, at a farmers market if at all possible (these guys actually catch what they're selling and know exactly how long it's been out of the water). Don't feel bad about being picky, and ask the fishmonger if you can smell what you're buying—it should smell of the sea and not at all "fishy". Ask where it's from, and in the case of scallops, if they're "wet" or "dry". Anyone that's tried searing scallops only to end up with a watery pan and no crust was using "wet" scallops, which are soaked in phosphates during transport to help them retain moisture and look like the plump, picture perfect scallops we'd all like to see in the market—not mention add to their weight, and therefore what you paid for them. I've fallen for these plump beauties many a time, and the truth is they'll never form a crust and should be avoided. Always go for "dry" scallops and you won't have a problem with flavor or texture.

Once you're set with ingredients, make sure to keep your proteins refrigerated until you've prepped everything else so they're nice and cold for serving. Squeeze lemons or limes into a container and also keep refrigerated while you chop the remaining ingredients. The scallops in aguachile pictured above are simply sitting in a lime juice bath that marinated on its own with red and green jalapeños, chives in place of onions (because it's spring) and micro cilantro (because...well, my cilantro plant is still tiny). While the spicy-sour mixture chilled in the fridge I got to halving scallops and pounding them thin between two pieces of cling wrap, setting each piece on a plate in one thin layer as I went. When I was done I retrieved the lime mixture from the fridge and poured it over the scallops along with a few fresh sprigs of the cilantro and chives, and served it immediately. It made two very generous portions and could absolutely have been divided into four appetizer portions for entertaining. I like mine extra tart and quite spicy (which is really what it should be) so I made use of any leftover lime mixture by pouring it over my own plate. Here's the simple recipe I made, a great base to start from if you're new to aguachile, but that can easily be expanded upon with spicier peppers, various proteins and a variety of herbs.

Diver Scallops In Aguachile

1/2 lb dry fresh diver scallops, halved lengthwise
1/3 cup lime juice
1 jalapeño, finely minced (I used half a red and half a green for color)
1 Tbsp finely chopped cilantro, divided
1 Tbsp finely chopped chive, divided

1. Combine lime juice, minced jalapeño, half of the cilantro and half of the chive in a small bowl or measuring cup. Refrigerate.

2. Meanwhile, place a scallop half between two pieces of cling wrap and lightly pound flat using a mallet or heavy bottomed pan (they should be 1/8"-1/16" thick). Place on your serving platter or plate. Repeat with all pieces until they are flattened.

3. Pour an equal amount of the refrigerated mixture onto each plate and top with the remaining cilantro and chive. Season lightly with sea salt and serve immediately, or chill for up to 15 minutes before serving (any longer and the scallops will be completely cured and you'll have ceviche). Enjoy!


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