Today I donned an apron, toque and rubber gloves for an intense training session at the CIA. The mission: South American ceviche.
I'm not at Langley, but in San Antonio, at the "other" CIA — the Culinary Institute of America. The organization is recognized as one of the foremust culinary schools in the United States. In addition to its campuses in Hyde Park, New York, and Napa Valley, California, the school runs an outpost here in San Antonio, where students and professors specialize in food techniques from Central and South America.
In addition to training future chefs, the CIA offers a number of continuing education courses that are available to community members (visiting groups can arrange to take a class as well). Today, I joined a group of about a dozen other food enthusiasts for a hands-on class on South American ceviche. We entered the institute's brightly-colored Latin demonstration kitchen, where the staff had prepared aprons, toques (chef's hats) and recipe packets for us.
Chef Elizabeth Johnson-Kossick introduced herself as our instructor for the afternoon. A CIA professor, Chef Johnson-Kossick has spent large portions of time living in South America, and was intimately familiar with the details of the cuisine throughout the region. She spent a few minutes introducing us to the concept of ceviche — fresh fish flash-cured in lime juice — and teaching us about its different varieties in Columbia, Ecuador and Peru. She also gave us an introduction to some of the ingredients we would be using, such as striped bass, shrimp, Mexican limes and plantains.
After the overview, we split up into four smaller groups to prepare a variety of ceviches in the well-outfitted instructional kitchen. Each team got a specific recipe to work from, along with a tray full of all the ingredients and tools we would need.
My team was tasked with making two ceviches — an Ecuadorian-style shrimp ceviche and a Colombian-style ceviche with striped bass and coconut milk. Chef guided us through the steps of mashing garlic cloves into paste, cutting cubes of fish and combinging the multitude of ingredients to taste. It was amazing to watch as raw fish cured into a safe, edible food after just a few minutes of marinating in the lime juice.
After an hour or so of hard work, the teams reconvened to sample all of the different ceviches we had made. We topped the five different dishes with some traditional South American ingreidients, including chopped peanutes, fried plantains, toasted coconut shavings and popcorn. Each variety of ceviche brought its own blend of flavors and textures, but they were all cool, delicious and remarkably fresh.
One afternoon at the CIA didn't turn me into a world-renowned chef, but it did give me and my compatriots an introduction to a new favorite food, and the courage to try the recipes out at home.
Chef Johnson-Kossick gives an overview of South Ameican pepers.
Ahi tuna "tiradito" — a sashimi-style raw fish dish.
My plate of four ceviches and a fried plantain chip.