Escabeche, tiny fish with a vast presence

Photo: The Chronicle

Photo: The Chronicle

On the Adriatic coast in Puglia, Italy – Matthew Accarrino’s family home – there’s a saying, “Little fish is good fish.”

Anchovies, sardines and tiny branzini are a major part of the cuisine, says the chef of SPQR in San Francisco, and it’s these little fish that benefit best from the pickling technique popular throughout Southern Italy called scapece, an offshoot of the Spanish escabeche.

“Just like every culture has their noodle, every culture has their version of marinated fish,” says Accarrino. “The whole concept of escabeche is introducing flavor and helping offset the fishiness of these small fish.”

Escabeche is a classic seafood preservation method that Bay Area chefs have embraced in both classic and modern ways.

A happy marriage of frying and pickling, escabeche traditionally refers to seafood and meat that is first cooked and then kept in a vinegar brine. There are also versions of escabeche with vegetables. Overall, it’s an ideal technique to use for late summer dinners and outdoor meals.

“Usually the escabeche is better the day after, and you eat it at room temperature,” says Daniel Olivella, chef-owner of Barlata in Oakland, who grew up in Catalonia, Spain. That means you can make a batch of seafood or vegetables en escabeche one day, then pack them for a picnic the next.

“The most traditional escabeche that I grew up with was sardines,” says Olivella, describing how the fish are first floured, then fried with garlic cloves in oil.
Whether vegetables or little fish, escabeche gets the appetite going. At Barlata, Olivella’s mussels en escabeche are a take on the mussels served out of a can at bars in Catalonia, an important part of the pre-lunchtime ritual called el vermut, or “the vermouth.”

“You get a bag of chips and open a can of mussels en escabeche and serve them with toothpicks,” says Olivella, describing how it’s done in Catalonia. “Then you get yourself a sherry or a vermouth with soda.”

It’s a tradition, like escabeche itself, we could happily learn to adopt here.

— Escabeche recipes on page G8
Zucchini alla Scapece

Serves 6

This dish is adapted from “Cosi si Mangia a Napoli,” an old cookbook from Naples, and one of my favorite vegetable recipes. You first fry the zucchini slices until tender, then layer them with garlic, mint and vinegar, which infuse and lightly pickle the zucchini over the course of a day or two.

2 pounds medium zucchini, sliced into 1/4-inch rounds
1/2 cup olive oil or light vegetable oil
— Kosher salt
3 cloves garlic, very thinly sliced
3 sprigs fresh mint leaves, sliced very thinly into chiffonade (3-4 tablespoons)
3 tablespoons white wine vinegar + more as needed

Instructions: In 1 or 2 large frying pans, pour enough oil to come up to about 1/4-inch; heat over medium heat. Place one layer of zucchini in each pan and fry until tender and lightly golden, about 4 minutes per side. Use a slotted spoon to transfer to paper towels to drain if you like (or put them right in the baking pan). Finish cooking the remaining zucchini slices.

Place a single layer of zucchini in a small baking pan. Liberally salt the layer and add a generous amount of the garlic slices and mint leaves, then repeat with the remaining zucchini so that each layer gets salted and sprinkled with garlic and mint. Drizzle the top generously with the vinegar, wrap tightly, and let refrigerate marinate overnight or up to 2 days to marinate.

To serve, bring to room temperature. Place in a bowl and season with extra salt and drizzle with vinegar to taste, then transfer to a serving bowl.

Nutrition information: The calories and other nutrients absorbed from brines vary and are difficult to estimate. Therefore, this recipe contains no analysis.

Chiles en Escabeche (Pickled Chiles)

Makes 5 pints

Adapted from “The Art of Mexican Cooking,” by Diana Kennedy, this rendition of the classic Mexican condiment brings in seasonal peppers for a new take on the pickled jalapenos, onions and carrots you see with almost every Mexican meal. This is very spicy; for a milder pickle, remove the seeds and veins from the chile peppers before marinating. The pickles keep for at least one month, refrigerated or can be canned in water bath.

1 pound jalapeno chile peppers, halved or quartered through the stem
1/2 wax, Hungarian, Gypsy, or colorful bell peppers, deseeded and cut into strips
1 pound carrots, peeled and sliced diagonally 1/8 -inch thick
3 tablespoons kosher salt
1/2 cup safflower or other mild vegetable oil
1 large white onion, thickly sliced
10 peppercorns
6 bay leaves
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon cumin seed
4 whole cloves
4 cups apple cider or other vinegar
8 cloves garlic, peeled
6 fresh thyme sprigs
1 teaspoon sugar

Instructions: Have ready about 5 pint jars and lids cleaned well in sudsy water and rinsed.

In a large bowl, combine the chiles, peppers and carrots. Add the salt and toss to combine; let sit for 1 hour.

Drain the vegetables, reserving the juices.

Heat the oil in a large, deep frying pan over medium-high heat. Add the onion, the drained vegetables, peppercorns, bay leaves, oregano, cumin seed and cloves. Cook, turning often, until the vegetables are softened, about 10 minutes.

Add the reserved vegetable juices, vinegar, garlic, thyme and sugar. Bring to a boil and simmer, stirring often, until the jalapenos are soft and lose their bright green color, about 8 minutes.

Distribute the vegetables and thyme sprigs into the jars then pour the pickling liquid on top. Let cool, then cover and refrigerate until ready to serve.

Nutrition information: The calories and other nutrients absorbed from brines vary and are difficult to estimate. Therefore, this recipe contains no analysis.

Serves 4

This recipe is from Matthew Accarrino of SPQR restaurant in San Francisco, who prepares sushi grade albacore tuna lightly seared over an open flame, tataki-style. You can use a propane torch or gas stove top, with the grate removed, to cook the tuna. You will need to soak the raisins overnight and soak 4 wooden skewers in water for at least 30 minutes before cooking the fish.

1/2 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup cold water
1 cup ice
1 lemon, sliced
12 ounces albacore tuna (or hamachi), sushi quality, trimmed, skinless and blood line removed (see Note)
2 small Japanese eggplant, halved lengthwise
— Kosher salt
— Olive oil for cooking eggplant + 2 tablespoons for onions
4 white pearl onions, peeled and sliced into 1/16 -inch thick rounds, ends discarded
1 small pinch saffron threads
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons white wine
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
2 teaspoons small capers, rinsed
1 tablespoon golden raisins, covered in hot water and then soaked overnight
— Herbs for garnish (wild wood sorrel and flowers, flowering cilantro or anise hyssop)

Instructions: Place the soy and water in a large bowl with the ice and lemon.

Cut the tuna into loins or strips about 1 1/2 to 2 inches in diameter and 5 inches long. Skewer lengthwise with a roasting fork or pre-soaked wooden skewers. Salt the tuna on all sides. Using a propane torch or stove top flame on high, place directly over the flame. Cook, charring lightly on all sides, 20 to 30 seconds per side, or longer if the flame isn’t too strong. Slide the fish off the skewer and into the soy ice bath; let chill for 5 minutes, then remove, pat dry and refrigerate. Repeat with the remaining fish.

Score and lightly salt the eggplant; let sit for 15 minutes to purge bitterness. Pat dry and set aside.

Preheat the oven to 350°. On t he stovetop, in a pre-heated ovenproof skillet over medium heat, add a film of olive oil. Place the eggplant cut side down and cook over medium heat until caramelized and beginning to soften, about 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer to the oven and cook until the eggplant is soft and caramelized, 4 to 8 minutes. Return the pan to the stovetop and finish cooking over medium heat for a few minutes more. Gently remove the eggplant to a platter, cut side up and sprinkle with a pinch of salt.

Wipe out the pan and return to the heat on low. Add the 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Add the pearl onions and cook until soft, about 2 minutes. Add the saffron and cook briefly. Sprinkle in the sugar, then add the wine. Turn off the heat, add the vinegar and swirl to combine. Stir in the capers and drained soaked raisins, and season with a pinch of salt. Let cool to room temperature.

To serve: Cut the chilled tuna into 1/4-inch slices, and arrange on plates with the eggplant. Spoon the scapece over top and garnish with herbs. Serve immediately.

Note: Sushi-grade albacore tuna and hamachi are available at Tokyo Fish Market in Berkeley. Sushi-grade ahi tuna is the next best alternative.

Per serving: 223 calories, 21 g protein, 17 g carbohydrates, 8 g fat (1 g saturated), 40 mg cholesterol, 125 mg sodium, 4 g fiber.
Sidra Pickled Sardines

Serves 6 to 8

This recipe for sardines en escabeche is from Bridget Batson, chef of Gitane and Claudine in San Francisco. For this version, instead of cooking the sardines, Batson cures the whole fish first for 2 days, then filets them and pickles them in a brine made with Poma Aurea Sidra, a hard cider from Spain, and Calcot onions, a Spanish variety grown by a few local farmers. The entire process takes about 4 days.

Sardines & cure
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup kosher salt
1 pound sardines, scaled and gutted
— Olive oil
Pickling liquid
2 cups Poma Aurea Sidra (see Note) or sparkling apple cider
1 cup cider vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
1 Calcot onion, white only, or 1 shallot, thinly sliced
10 coriander seeds
5 black peppercorns
2 oregano sprigs
2 strips orange zest
1 small baguette, halved lengthwise
— Olive oil
1 garlic clove

For the sardines: In a small bowl, combine the sugar and salt; generously sprinkle over the sardines, inside and out. Reserve the remaining salt mixture.

Place the sardines on a small rack set over a rimmed baking sheet to allow any liquid to drain off. Wrap the whole thing tightly, and refrigerate. On the second day, turn the sardines over and reapply the salt mixture. Return to the refrigerator and cure until firm to the touch, about 2 days total, depending on their size. (Larger sardines could take 2 1/2 days.)

Rinse the sardines, pat dry, and filet: Remove the head and tail, then pull the spine out from the inside to remove the bones. Separate into fillets.

Lightly coat a shallow container with olive oil to keep the fish from sticking. Arrange the sardines in the container, skin side up.

To pickle: In a small pot, combine the cider, cider vinegar, sugar, onion or shallot, coriander seeds, peppercorns, oregano sprigs and orange zest; simmer a few minutes, until the sugar dissolves. Remove from heat, let cool, the pour the cool brine over the sardines. Refrigerate for 2 days.

For the toast: Brush the baguette with olive oil, and place on a baking sheet. Broil until golden brown on all sides, about 2 minutes per side. Remove from the oven and rub the cut side with the garlic clove.

Cut the baguette into 6 to 8 pieces, and serve with the sardines.

Note: Poma Aurea Sidra, a Spanish hard cider, is available at the Spanish Table and occasionally at K&L Wine Merchants.

Nutrition information: The calories and other nutrients absorbed from brines vary and are difficult to estimate. Therefore, this recipe contains no analysis.

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“You pull everything out. In the same oil, you add the vinegar, bay and thyme, then turn it off and put in the pimenton. That emulsion of hot vinegar you just pour on top of the sardines, and let it cool off.” Like duck confit, the sardines could keep in the oil for several days, at least, without going bad.

Escabeche was introduced to the Iberian Peninsula by the Moors; in turn, Spaniards most likely brought the method to Southern Italy starting in the Renaissance, when Spain occupied the region. Spaniards also brought escabeche to Latin America and the Philippines; the technique shows up in other parts of the Mediterranean.

Bridget Batson prepares sardines en escabeche at Gitane, the San Francisco restaurant that celebrates the food of the Iberian Peninsula. Sometimes instead of frying them, she will cure the sardines in salt and sugar until firm. She then brines them in a combination of cider vinegar and Spanish hard cider.

“Everybody’s got a different form of it, no doubt about it,” says Batson, who might add carrots or radishes to the pickling liquid to garnish the plate, and has made escabeche with anchovies and mackerel.

Accarrino explains these oily fish “have a softer texture to them. That’s why you see people lightly cooking them and then marinating them.” The cooking firms them up, while the brining imparts flavor.

For a modern take on scapece – with cues from its Northern Italian counterpart, in saor – Accarrino makes a sauce with eggplant, wine, vinegar, capers and raisins to serve with local albacore tuna that he lightly grills so that only the outside is seared, Japanese tataki style.

“Yellowfin and bluefin tuna all have a cleaner, less oily taste than albacore,” he says, which is why albacore in particular benefits from the vinegar-based sauce.

In Italy, Accarrino also learned to make zucchini alla scapece, a traditional Southern Italian dish that also works with eggplant, especially in Sicily, where it’s called a scapici. It calls for frying the vegetables first in oil, then layering them in a dish with salt, raw garlic, mint and vinegar to marinate.

The Mexican escabeche of chiles and carrots has a more intense flavor than North American pickled vegetables, because you first fry the vegetables with herbs and spices in oil. The carrots and onions become soaked with the flavor of fresh herbs and burn with just enough chile heat to make you want to go back for more.

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