Monday, May 21, 2012



Do you know escabeche? It's a type of pickled fish, but the fish is kind of fried and oily before you marinate it, unlike ceviche, which is raw fish pickled in lime juice, which I also love. If “pickled fish” doesn’t rock your boat, well, I don’t know what to tell you. I, for one, am pretty much living for the day when I get invited to Scandinavia (hint hint) and/or a domestic smörgåsbord (hint hint) so that I can eat myself sick on various forms of herring. And if you’re considering inviting me, but aren’t convinced of my dedication, I just spent an hour figuring out how to do those two special Swedish symbols. I will totally be an asset to your smörgåsbord! Or to your Scandinavian country! (hint hint)

Anyways. This is not a Scandinavian recipe. It is a South American recipe, which, according to the Larousse Treasury of Country Cooking, is from Peru. 
My note, which is from 1992, says, "exquisite." I appear to have radically departed from the recipe, I'm noticing, given that I flour the fillets rather than crumbing them, and have long omitted the raw onion and pepper garnish. Also the cilantro, which would be great, and which I will use next time.
And it is absolutely delicious: velvety fish fillets in a puckery, aromatic dressing that’s fragrant with bay and allspice. It’s a perfect example of why I sometimes like to follow a recipe—otherwise I just use various combinations of the seasonings I love most (smoked paprika, garlic, lemon, parsley) without stretching towards the less familiar ones. This escabeche is a recipe I’ve been making for years, ever since we lived in Santa Cruz and bought red snapper from Shopper’s Corner for $2.99 a pound. Also, ever since I inherited this cookbook.

Doesn't this cover really make you realize how much cookbook styles have changed? You just don't get that "Yum!" feeling. And then there's the back, which shows a bunch of aging celery, some brown bananas, and a raw rack of lamb. 
I was inspired to make it again over the weekend because we bought into three weeks of a Cape Cod fish CSA, and in this week’s share was: sea bream!!! Sea bream. The newsletter did nothing to attenuate my skepticism. “Sea bream!” it said. “It’s just so darned sustainable! There’s actually more than enough to go around!” “That’s just not a terrific selling point,” I said to Michael, “its radical underfishedness. Or this note—that it’s a by-catch from the squid harvest. Like, Oops, we got some sea bream! We’ll give it to those CSA idiots.” But really it was the name: sea bream. Ew. I pictured something gastropod-ish. Slug-like Maybe because it sounds like sea cucumber? Or because I once ate some bad urchin, and a friend said it tasted like brie of the sea? Which sounds kind of like sea bream? I don’t really know. Does it help that its other name is scup? No. Not really.

But do you know what? All was forgiven. Because a) the sea bream was good and fresh and supremely normal and it made fantastic escabeche, and b) we also got these:

I don't even want to talk about these anymore.
I know. Scallops are my favorite thing in the entire world. “What would you eat if you could eat anything in the world right now besides scallops?” Ben often asks me. And I’m like, “I don’t know. Scallops?” I won’t torture you by going on and on about them, because who can afford to buy scallops if the purchase is not offset by the inclusion of weird bottom-feeding trash fish? Nobody.

Serves 4-6
Active time: 25 minutes; total time: 1 hour 10 minutes

Did Birdy eat this? No. Of course not. She ate potatoes and salad and a large pile of Feta crumbles. “You could be a pescatarian!” we encouraged her, and she said, “Yeah, but I hate fish.” Good point.

1 ½ pounds white fish fillets (snapper, cod, bass, hake, or SEA BREAM)
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/3 cup olive oil
1 large onion, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, chopped
½ cup water
1 bay leaf
8 peppercorns
¼ teaspoon allspice
½ cup wine vinegar, either color
½ cup flour
Black pepper

Rub the fish with the salt, and leave it in a colander while you prepare the rest of the ingredients—around half an hour or so.

In a large pan, over medium heat, heat the oil and sauté the onion and garlic until they’re translucent and just starting to turn golden, around 10 or 15 minutes.

Bring the water, bay leaf, peppercorns, and allspice to a boil in a small pot and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the vinegar and the onions and garlic (remove them from the pan with a spatula or slotted spoon so that you leave the oil behind) and simmer for 5 more minutes, then turn off the heat.

Put the flour on a plate with some black pepper,  and dredge the fillets, shaking off any excess flour. Fry the fillets in the oil left in the pan, over high heat, until they’re golden brown on the bottom, around 2 minutes. Flip the fillets and fry until cooked through, another 2 minutes or so (if the fillets are super-thick, you might want to turn the heat down a bit so they cook through without burning).

Remove the fish to a platter and pour the onion-vinegar mixture over it, then leave it to marinate at room temperature for at least half an hour (cover it if it’s going to be longer). Garnish with something green (parsley or cilantro or chives or celery leaves) and serve. Leftovers are, possibly, even better.

Salted scup.

Scup ready to flour.

Dredged scup. (Now there's an appealing phrase!)

Frying onions.

And then back in time, before the onion was cut up.

Sea bream in a pan.

Sea bream on a plate.

But now it actually looks delicious, right? That's because it is.


  1. I grew up near the Cape and used to accompany my dad fishing along the beach a lot when I was about Birdie's age. I remember him catching scup, though it was nowhere near as exciting as the day he caught a bluefish that bit his finger and it bled a LOT...or the day he caught a blowfish that promptly expanded into a freakish ball. I had forgotten the name "scup" until I read this, and it brought back many memories of good times with my dad. It makes me want to make this recipe for dinner tonight - though I do not know if the local coop or fish market carries scup/sea bream....

    1. Oh, that must have been a lovely time!

  2. Meh...not much of a pickled fish fan, but those scallops made me long for the days before I had a shellfish allergy. I do love other Scandinavian foods, though. My favorite thing right now is gjetost, which is a goat cheese from Norway. They sell it on Amazon--it's sweet and delcious.

    1. Okay, I just read about it and am going to buy some. It sounds delicious. Also, I like the brand "Ski Queen." Like an Abba song.

    2. It IS delicious - and not only available on Amazon. You may be able to find it at Whole Foods or another place with a decent cheese section. I think I even found it at Stop and Shop once. My favorite Norwegian friends eat it on buttered raisin toast. Mmmmm.....

    3. I wasn't able to find it at World Market, and we don't have Whole Foods here in Daytona Beach (the armpit of Florida--which is already America's wang, so go figure). Ski Queen is the best name, ever! Also, I love that gjetost is pronounced like, "Yay! Toast!"

  3. I love fish, but won't cook it at home because of the smell. Do you have a secret for keeping the house from reeking of fish for days after cooking?

    1. Emma, I think if the fish is really fresh, then (ideally!) the house won't smell. But sometimes it does, and I hear you on this. Should we look it up on Martha Stewart? I bet she has a good solution.

    2. Erin K.6:53 PM

      That's why we always cook fish on the grill outside - you could fry it on the grill too...I actually also have to make Indian food outside on the grill as my spousal-unit can't stand the curry spices and onions cooking.

  4. HA! is that one scallop for each of you? or is that plate just for you?

  5. A fish CSA is super cool. We don't have those here in the middle of the continent. However, I do attend a Sweedish Baptist church (no one calls it that anymore; they haven't preached in Sweedish since the 1940s) and we have pickled herring at the advent brunch every year.

  6. How cool is a fish CSA?
    Here in the Mountain West we're more likely to participate in a roadkill CSA, of sorts.
    Did Birdy eat the scallops?

  7. Here's a question from a non-cook: what's the difference between "rubbing the fish with salt" and just, um, salting it? I mean, I know that in one case there's rubbing & in the other, not. But why not just sprinkle it with salt? Does it make a difference? And does one just grab a handful of salt and, like, scrub (not scrup, haha) the fish with it?
    Sorry if this sounds delerious. I've been stuck under a napping, feverish baby for the last, oh, 80 hours.

  8. Mandy3:24 PM

    Interesting--I wonder if "escabeche" just means "pickled?" Because down here (Texas), Escabeche refers to pickled jalapenos, cauliflower, and carrots that are served tableside in Mexican restaurants. YUM!

  9. Anonymous4:13 PM

    Very nice post: combining food, concept of sustainable fish, and weaving a nice story of what you did with it.