Public television chef and restaurateur Ming Tsai, known to many for his show, “Simply Ming,” may live in Boston but this week he seemed to make himself right at home in San Antonio.
Ming was in town for several days to produce the WGBH-TV show for his 11th season, which started last week. He also appeared at a reception as part of the KLRN Chef Series.
Wednesday’s shoot at the Culinary Institute of America, San Antonio, was one of four that Ming and crew were doing. Also that day, he visited John Besh at the New Orleans chef’s San Antonio location of Lüke.
“John Besh is a great guy, and he really has embraced San Antonio – and San Antonio has embraced him,” Ming observed. “You’re lucky to have him.”
On Thursday, the crew would visit Johnny Hernandez’ La Gloria on the Pearl campus, followed by a shoot at Los Barrios with chef and owner Diana Barrios Treviño.
Wednesday, the award-winning chef’s guest for the segment was CIA chef and instructor Elizabeth Johnson. (Ming, of course, was a guest in her kitchen.)
Focus, minding the details, issuing a few directions and, of course, admonishments to the small group gathered to watch, were part of the action. But, the crew moved with good-natured precision under the watchful eye of executive producer Laura Donnelly, and Ming Tsai was as relaxed and personable as his on-screen persona.
The main attraction (besides Ming, of course) was Johnson, a Latin Cuisines Specialist, who would demonstrate the unique way Peruvians make their famous ceviche. But, the show would start off with cocktails — pisco sours (made with the priciest pisco around — Pisco Mosto Verde).
Introducing Johnson, Ming cracked a joke about her name not seeming to sound traditionally Peruvian and issued a mock threat to onlookers about turning off their cellphones.
“If anyone’s cellphone goes off, I’ll look at you in a really mean way. Even if I am drinking Pisco sours,” he said.
The first part of the Peruvian show (after the icy pisco sours were poured) would focus on the two chefs “shopping” for ingredients, which were arrayed in vibrant colors on one side of the work table.
Johnson pointed out the plantain, yucca, fresh hearts of palm, Peruvian purple potatoes, bowls full of limes, red onions, chiles large and small, a variety of Cape gooseberry, dried bonito, nuts and more. Also, there was cocona, a small acidic fruit that gives this dish its name, Cocona Ceviche.
The camera crew took their places, the audience settled down and Donnelly was focused on the small screen in front of her.
“Ready, ready … action,” she said, and the show was on.
The ceviche demonstration began with Johnson introducing the amazing variety of ingredients, many of which we’d call “exotic.” Johnson picked up a cob of corn – but unlike any corn most of us had ever seen. The kernels were big, knobby and misshapen (at least compared to the corn we know). “It’s all starch, not sugar,” Johnson said.
One of the main differences between ceviche as we know it and the Peruvian dish is how the ultra-fresh, raw fish is treated. Instead of an acid bath of lime juice to cure the fish, salt is used for the same purpose. Lots of salt.
Johnson asked Ming to salt the fish — “until you think it’s over-salted.” After he did so, turning the fish (bonito) around and around in a large ice bath, she told him to add even more.
“You’re not cooking with acid, you’re curing with salt,” said Johnson. This, as both chefs noted, would bring the fresh-fish taste, especially the umami sensation, to the fore.
It’s not that acid isn’t important for this style of ceviche — it is, to the point that Johnson crafted not one, but two levels of acidity for the flavorful “broth” that the ceviche swims in called leche de tigre, or tiger’s milk.
Starch is added in the form of plantain, potato, the big corn kernels. A bit of habanero added heat to the profile, celery its perfume, dried bonito offered a smoky accent and a touch of dried kelp, from an inland lake, layered in another earthy element.
Lime juice was, of course, an important part of the liquid portion of the dish, along with another acidic ingredient, aguaymanto, a type of Cape gooseberry. This liquid is delicious in itself, and is consumed — either with a spoon or drinking from the bowl — after the main ingredients are gone.
When the ceviche was completed, Ming tasted it and declared it the best he’d had.
Ming then took over, and with Johnson’s help, made a breaded, nut-crusted fish on a colorful bed of purple potato hash, with fresh hearts of palm salad and a light vinaigrette. Johnson returned the compliments for his “perfectly moist” fish.
Yes, the audience and cooking assistants all had a taste of everything afterward — and yes, it was simply delicious. We got to sample the exotic nuts, berries and starches, and agreed with Ming that the ceviche made with salt-cured fish was worth every bit of the effort.
The shoot was done in three or four efficient segments and took three to four hours. In the end, Ming thanked Johnson, gave the audience a friendly wave and said his benediction — “To all of you out there, peace and good eating.”
Photographs by Bonnie Walker
A recipe for the Peruvian Ceviche will be provided as soon as SavorSA gets it. The shows done in San Antonio will probably air in the first few months of 2013.