We tend to think of the organic traffic from the new world to the European continent as a one way street. Without the bounty of the Americas " potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, vanilla, avocado, chocolate, squash and, of course, tobacco " our lives would be pretty dreary. In return, we gave them wheat and smallpox.
But this is to forget that the greatest of all South American dishes " ceviche " would never have been invented if the Spanish settlers hadn't brought citrus fruit with them. Granted, the indigenous Peruvians made some early attempts at a marinated fish dish. In Inca days, fresh fish used to be brought in every day from the coast to the mountain-top capital of Cusco, 3,400m above sea level. A team of athletes would sprint, carrying the precious cargo, from hut to hut, passing the fish to each other like a relay baton until it reached the city.
After all that, the Inca chefs would marinate it in salt, chilli, and the vile chicha " a low-alcohol beer brewed from corn. Chewed, spat-out corn. What rejoicing there must have been when the first lime landed in Peru, probably in the stores of a Moorish chef working for the Spanish nobility. Lime juice is the central element of this actually very simple dish: it both flavours and "cooks" the fish, its acid turning the flesh opaque before your eyes.
There are four simple rules to making great ceviche:
Use very fresh fish.
Don't leave the fish in the juice for too long. It will "over-cook", losing its texture and becoming too acidic. With a delicate white fish, such as the one we are using, 10 minutes is plenty.
Seasoning is everything. And by seasoning, we mean salting. Taste the fish after 5 minutes in the juice and salt again if necessary.
Serve it with something sweet to balance the citrus. In the typical Peruvian lunch, or almuerzo, this would be a robust chunk of roast sweet potato. But sweetcorn, avocado, olive oil, and even sweet fruit such as mango can be used. I once served an autumnal ceviche as a canape at a party on rounds of roasted pumpkin.
Once you have mastered the basics, you can play with the formula; all you need is a sharp fishy element and a sweet element. I've had success with finely sliced scallops and pea shoots; finely sliced shrimp with mango and avocado; and even wild salmon with very finely sliced fennel.
Ceviche also produces a bonus gift. Save the marinating juices and use them to make leche de tigre (literally "tiger's milk"), by mixing them with ice-cold vodka and serving them as shooters at the start of the meal. It's much better than smallpox.
We have served our ceviche with watercress, turning it into something of a salad. Omit the leaves if you want something that looks more traditional.
500g megrim sole fillets, skinned and trimmed
1 tsp salt
Juice of 6-8 limes
For the dressing
1 beefsteak tomato skinned, de-seeded and finely chopped
½ red pepper, finely chopped
½ yellow pepper, finely chopped
½ red onion, finely chopped
2-3 red chillies, finely chopped
2 tbsp coriander, finely chopped
2 tbsp olive oil
Salt and black pepper
2 avocados, peeled, stoned and cut into wedges or chunks
1 bunch watercress
1 Remove any bones from the fish fillets and cut into 1cm-thick slices.
2 Place in a shallow glass (or other non-reactive) dish, sprinkle with the salt and cover with lime juice. Place in the fridge for 10 minutes.
3 Combine all the other ingredients, except the avocado and watercress, in a large bowl and season well.
4 Drain the lime juice from the fish by placing in a sieve (reserve the juice in the fridge to make leche de tigre). Mix with the other ingredients in the bowl.
5 To serve, arrange the avocado and watercress on a large serving platter. Top with the ceviche and serve.
3 cobs of corn, cooked
2 egg yolks
2 tbsp creme fraiche
125g plain flour
3 tbsp polenta
1 tsp baking powder
Pinch of bicarbonate of soda
1 tbsp chives, chopped
1 bunch spring onions, finely chopped
Salt and black pepper
Butter and oil, for frying
1 Remove the corn kernels from the cobs with a knife and set to one side.
2 Combine the egg, yolks, milk and creme fraiche. Whisk until combined.
3 Sieve the dry ingredients together into a large bowl. Pour in the egg and milk mix and whisk till you have a thick batter. Add the corn, chives and spring onions, then season well. (For a nutty flavour, heat 1 tbsp of butter until brown, then add to the batter).
4 Heat a knob of butter with a little olive oil in a nonstick pan until hot. Drop tablespoons of the mix into the pan and fry for 2 minutes on either side until golden brown. Do it in batches. Keep the cooked fritters warm in an oven set to 100C/225F/gas mark ¼.
Baked sweet potato
4"6 sweet potatoes
1 tbsp fresh ginger, finely grated
Salt and black pepper
2 tbsp chilli sauce
3 tbsp creme fraiche
1 Preheat the oven to 190C/375F/gas mark 5. Prick the sweet potatoes with a fork. Roast on a baking tray for about 45 minutes, or until tender. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for 5 minutes. Split each potato in half lengthways, then fluff up the flesh with a fork.
2 Arrange on a serving plate and sprinkle with grated ginger. Season and drizzle with chilli sauce and creme fraiche.
- Henry Dimbleby is co-founder of the natural fast-food restaurant chain Leon@henry_leon. Jane Baxter is a chef and food writer based in Devon @baxcooka