The legendary chef answers the question…What did you eat today, Jeremiah Tower?
First we rose at 5 a.m. and filled the cooler with beer. I prefer an ice chest to a life preserver (the others had brought an inflated inner tube) since one gets to hang on in the same way when the boat goes down, but also have a few cool ones while scanning the near horizon for fins that are not dolphins. We didn’t get wet, and saw no fins. Just fishing line wound around a spool, a little lead weight, and a mullet scrounged from a fisherman at the mouth of the harbor to cut up for bait. Five kilometers out the fish started biting. Soon in the fish bucket there were jacks, French grunts, a few Spadefish, one remora, a puffer fish, three little grouper or “mero,” a Margate, and lots of grunt-looking fish that were named only in Mayan with a grin by our fisherman guide who kept saying “ceviche, ceviche” when I wanted to throw them back. Then I was nearly pulled overboard as something big (finally) hauled my line to the bottom. Our 15-foot “lancha” tipped dangerously to one side as everyone rushed to look–and I had a flash of having to use that cooler as a life saver. What came up, however, was perfectly harmless. A juvenile, quite rare green turtle with my hook snagged in a front flipper.
It took some work to get the hook out, but when I did and slid the turtle into the warm and turquoise Gulf waters, it was off like a shot. ‘Well, we will never top that’ was the consensus, just as something else snagged my newly-baited line. Up came an octopus. Years ago, after having a love session 60-feet down on a reef in Cozumel with an amorous pulpo, I had sworn to never kill and eat another of these amazing animals. Obviously greed overcomes life principles quite easily when octopus is concerned, since I did later eat it. Frozen 30 minutes to tenderize it, poached for another 30, then fried in olive oil and garlic, and finished with chopped cilantro, lemon zest, and chili seco. But it was the ceviche that won the day. Our same guide, Abram, and his two sons worked for an hour in the killing sun cleaning those little fish. I chopped the white onions (I like them very fine for ceviche), the small-leaf local cilantro, and the skin-on Roma tomatoes. It was the best ceviche I have ever had and it was not just the freshness of the fish. I noticed that Abram put the fish, fresh lime juice, cilantro and salt in the bowl and then waited 15 minutes to add the tomatoes. A final mix and salt correction and it was ready. I ate it with a spoon while admiring the knowledge to not add the tomatoes and upset or overdo the ceviche’s perfect acid balance. By the time it was finished the beer cooler was empty and shark fins erased from my mind. // Jeremiah Tower