I was in a moment of panic, which always happens about an hour before the guests arrive. My server was late due to a typical subway delay and I was alone, organizing platters for the 7 different appetizers we would be passing that night. The kitchen in the New York Upper East Side apartment was small and open to the heavily mirrored living room. I’ve long abandoned my desire for private space while cooking in people’s homes. Hosts tend to be nervous. They walk through my prep area, picking samples off my pre-staged platters and moving things from one counter to another just to subtly remind me I’m in THEIR home. I get it. I would be exactly the same way. I’m an intruder. An intruder for hire, but still. I would say that 85% are first-time clients and, though they’ve seen pictures and read reviews of my food and service, they’re just going on blind faith that I know what I’m doing.
For a second, I’m not sure that I do.
The halibut was cut, the mini crabcakes formed. The potato chips were fried, the bright red rouille and verdant mirin mint sauces poured into simple white bowls. I looked to my notepad to double-check my timing. I have schedules of how the party’s food service will progress, lists of adornments to pair with certain items, menus printed with special instructions highlighted. I treat myself like I’ve never done this before when I prepare for a party. I talk to myself like a slow-witted child. “Don’t forget to TURN THE OVEN ON.” It seems obvious because it is, but writing it down helps to free brain space for more pressing matters.
The woman who hired me and her mother were running around the apartment organizing last-minute things. It was a baby shower for the hostess and I overheard her sharp tones. “Gifts can go in the bedroom, mom. Coats in the hallway, drinks at the bar.” The grandmother-to-be shook her head repeatedly but said nothing.
The father-to-be had made his famous tri-tip roast beef sandwiches, which he was serving on a table in the living room. He had his station well organized, with a basket of sliced bread and bowls of jus and mustard. He was very excited and nervously moved the bowls around the table to see which position gave the easiest access to the tri-tip’s cutting board. I grinned at his set up. He caught me.
He came rushing into the kitchen.
“I don’t think I have enough bread for the tri-tip sandwiches. I’m going to run down to Gristedes (supermarket) to get another loaf or two. But what kind of bread should I get? I mean, they have focaccia and sourdough. They have pumpernickel and rye. They have artisanal breads in 20 different shapes and flavors. What do you think would be best for the beef? You, as a chef, what do you think? What would you do?!?”
He was practically hyperventilating at this point.
And I turned to him and it was as if I were possessed by Buddha himself.
“Look inside,” I said to him. “You’ll know when you see it. You’ll know what bread is right. You already know. Just look inside.”
I swear to god I have no idea where this voice came from. I honestly just didn’t want to deal with his sandwich. I didn’t want him to make me choose for him. I had stuff to do. I had problems of my own to solve. But all that whiny, panicky nonsense isn’t what came out of my mouth.
“Look inside,” I said slowly.
And this man… he looked at me with eyes wider than I bet they’ve been in years. His mouth agape, his face frozen with this new guidance, he nodded and walked out of his apartment.
20 minutes later, he opened the door with a bag full of bread and a huge smile on his face.
“I did it. I got there and I thought about what you said, and I knew exactly what to get.” He was giddy. He was empowered. It was incredible.
I don’t even feel like I can take credit for the thing I said that day. I was consumed by a spirit much more perceptive and enlightened than myself. It’s a pretty big concept for lil’ ol me to actualize, though. Why do I doubt myself so frequently? Why can’t I trust that the choice I make is the right one? I act as if the repercussions of my actions will bring doom and despair– end civilizations forever– when in reality, I’m making the smallest, most mundane picks. How much more enjoyable would every task be if you removed your apprehension? Look inside. You know what you like. You know what you’re doing. You didn’t get this far without amassing valid reasons for your preferences. It’s right there. It’s you in your life. Look inside.
The party was a huge success. The tri-tip sandwiches, served by the beaming father-to-be, were devoured; as were my chicken satays with mint mirin dip, lemongrass smoked salmon on homemade potato chips, mini crabcakes with basil aioli, white bean and balsamic crostini, grilled shrimp rouille, wild mushroom and cantal tartlets, and, last but not least, ramekins of ceviche.
This recipe has a special ingredient that many gourmet stores carry, but can also be ordered online. It’s called aji amarillo paste, which is an imperative ingredient for many Peruvian dishes and a phenomenal addition to your pantry. I use aji paste instead of fresh chili peppers and it works perfectly. I also bought goldenberries online because I didn’t know if I could find them in stores, but have since seen them at Whole Foods and other gourmet shops. They add a subtle sweetness to this ceviche, giving it a very well-rounded flavor profile in every bite.
This recipe serves 25 people small portions of ceviche, but would serve 10 people healthy dinner portions.
- 14 limes, all juiced, 5 zested
- 4 tablespoons aji paste
- 2 inches of ginger, peeled and chopped fine
- 4 cloves of garlic, chopped fine
- Large bunch of cilantro, chopped
- Salt and pepper to taste
- ½ sweet potato, cut into ¼ inch dice
- ½ red onion, sliced thinly
- ¾ cup goldenberries, cut into quarters
- 1 ½ pounds of fresh halibut, cut into ½ inch squares
- 1 avocado, cut into ½ inch dice
- Combine the lime juice, lime zest, aji paste, ginger, garlic and cilantro into a bowl. Season lightly and place in fridge for at least an hour to let the flavors come together nicely (the enzymes in the lime juice will soften the heat of the aji paste but not remove it).
- Bring a pot of salted water to a boil and fill a bowl with ice and water. Blanche the diced sweet potato for about 4 minutes and then toss into ice and water to stop the cooking process. Place the sweet potato, red onion, and goldenberries into a large bowl.
- About a half hour before you’re going to serve the ceviche, place the fish into the bowl with the sweet potato, onion, and goldenberries. Pour the lime/ aji liquid over and toss gently. Toss the avocado with the fish and season to taste. After a half hour, the fish will be “cooked” in the lime juice and the ceviche will be ready to serve.