Los Angeles chef Jocelyn Ramirez remembers when it hit her: She and a friend were making a salad for dinner, and her friend brought out some hearts of palm. “I took a bite, and thought it had the texture and even a little bit of the taste of crab meat,” Ramirez said. She filed it away.
The memory came in handy when she started moving toward a plant-based diet. She had been experiencing thyroid problems she wanted to treat through food, and she had made vegan smoothies for her father as he recovered from cancer. “To be honest with you, seafood was one of the hardest things to transition from,” she told me in a phone interview.
Eventually, Ramirez, 37, started developing recipes for her plant-based catering company, Toto Verde, and a cookbook, “La Vida Verde,” which was published this year. She based many of the dishes for both on recipes from her Mexican abuela, but her grandmother grew up in Mexico’s landlocked state of Zacatecas, not near the coast. So when Ramirez wanted something that would easily stand in for seafood in a traditional ceviche, she thought about other childhood memories: trips to California crab shacks, her mother’s tilapia ceviche. Then, she remembered those hearts of palm and their crab-like flavor.
Hearts of palm, a.k.a. palmitos, are vegetables harvested from the center of some palm species native to Central and South America. They’re packed in brine and remind me a little of canned artichokes. But once you marinate them in lemon juice and olive oil and fold in avocado, tomato, cucumber, jalapeño and cilantro, and scoop them up with tortilla chips or layer them on tostadas, the ceviche vibe is unmistakable.
When I tested her recipe, I polished off a serving and proceeded to nibble on it for days thereafter, using it in much the same way I would any salsa: dolloping it onto tacos and salads and grain bowls.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit, Ramirez hit pause on her efforts to start a restaurant. She transitioned her catering business into one focused on education – perfect for someone who had previously worked in academia. She created virtual cooking classes and ingredient kits. Her book, in a way, is her response to customers at events who would taste her food: “They’d say, ‘If I could eat this way every day, I could totally be vegan.'”
Now, with her instruction, they can.
Hearts of Palm Ceviche
Makes: 4-6 servings
One (14-ounce) can hearts of palm, drained
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice from about 2 to 3 lemons
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon fine sea salt, plus more to taste
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste
1 globe tomato, stemmed, cored and diced (1 cup)
Flesh of 1 Hass avocado, diced
1 medium Persian cucumber, peeled and diced (1 1/2 cups)
1/2 jalapeño chile pepper, stemmed and finely chopped
1 small bunch fresh cilantro, finely chopped (1 cup)
1 teaspoon black sesame seeds, for garnish (optional)
Tortilla chips or tostadas, for serving
1. Cut the palm spears into 1/2-inch slices. (Some of the pieces will separate into rings; that’s okay.) Add to a medium bowl, along with the lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper, and toss to combine. Taste, and season with more salt if needed; it should taste a little too salty, but will balance out once you add the other ingredients. Cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes and up to 2 hours.
2. Add the tomato, avocado, cucumber, jalapeño and cilantro to the bowl with the hearts of palm and, using a spatula or your clean hands, carefully fold the mixture to combine, trying to keep the hearts of palm from breaking. Taste, and season with more salt, if needed.
3. Transfer to a serving platter or bowl, top with the black sesame seeds, if using, and serve with chips or tostadas.
NUTRITION: Calories: 155; Total Fat: 13 g; Saturated Fat: 2 g; Cholesterol: 0 mg; Sodium: 679 mg; Carbohydrates: 9 g; Dietary Fiber: 3 g; Sugars: 2 g; Protein: 3 g.
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Adapted from “La Vida Verde” by Jocelyn Ramirez (Page Street Publishing, 2020).