For the hunting and fishing types, this is typically the most non-eventful part of the year until the perch and shad start running and turkey season opens up. This is also about the only time of year a chef in these parts can take a break from work. This year I took my annual spring break trip down to Florida to see friends and family. If you’re looking for non-stop salt or freshwater fishing action, Florida is the place to be just about any time of year. There are all kinds of species to target in Florida, but one species in particular that we share in common with our neighbors to the south is sheepshead. Sheepshead are a type of porgy that typically like to lurk around rocky structures, bridges, reefs and wrecks. They are beautiful striped fish with powerful shell-crushing jaws that they use to prey upon various types of shellfish and crustaceans. The meat is tender, mild, white and flaky, making it a very versatile fish for a variety of cooking applications.
I met up with my cousin on the west side of Florida with the itch to get fishing as soon as possible. We set out to nearby Sanibel Island. It didn’t take us long to find a nice spot where the locals were scoring sheepshead left and right. It was a bridge crossing a small river inlet with a low and incoming tide. I found a good spot just under the bridge on a river bank strewn with salty sun-bleached shells. We fished shrimp on top and bottom rigs. Some of the locals were lucky enough to snag a few snook, but the sheepshead were plentiful. We fished all day, through the incoming and outgoing tides under the hot gulf sun. It was a great day of fishing. We left the beach later that afternoon with two plump striped sheepshead and headed to the grocery store.
Something about that tropical Florida heat just made ceviche seem like the perfect way to prepare my beautiful freshly caught sheepshead. I picked up some limes, cilantro and red onion and set to work. Ceviche is a preparation of fish that hails from South America, where only the freshest fish is used. To make a ceviche, you don’t cook the fish with heat, you essentially pickle it in an acidic solution like lime or lemon juice. The raw fish is minced, tossed in citrus juice, seasonings, and a variety of vegetables. You can add all sorts of things to jazz it up: avocado, tomato, citrus segments, radishes, bloody mary mix, you name it. For my ceviche, I like to keep it simple. I just use some fresh lime juice, salt, cilantro, and some minced shallot or red onion. Ceviche is one of my favorite ways to eat fish. It’s super clean and delicious and perfect for a warm sunny day.
You may be thinking, wait…it’s not cooked? Not to worry, it’s perfectly safe to eat. Ceviche is not ‘raw’, technically speaking. In ceviche, the acid (in this case lime juice) denatures the proteins. This causes the proteins to take on a meatier texture and has the added effect of creating a hostile environment for the growth of bacteria. That being said, I wouldn’t recommend ceviche or any other dish that hasn’t been cooked with heat to those who are pregnant, very small children, or the elderly because they may have immune systems that are more susceptible to potential pathogens. Otherwise, ceviche is a perfectly safe and delicious way to serve fresh fish, especially on a warm sunny day. Ceviche is best served within a few hours of being made.
1 6-8oz sheepshead fillet
2 limes, juiced
½ small red onion, finely minced
1 bunch cilantro, finely minced
Clean the sheepshead of any skin, bone, or connective tissue. Finely dice the fish and place it in a mixing bowl. Cut the limes and add the juice. Add salt, onion, cilantro and any other ingredients you may be using and stir to thoroughly combine. Give the ceviche about 5-10 minutes to ‘cure’. You’ll notice the fish start to turn a bit more opaque and will take on a slightly firmer texture. Serve with tortilla chips and your favorite beer and enjoy!
Chef Tom Deptula