Bluefish Escabeche

Today after work, I left Stony Brook’s Southampton campus (where the ALES Lab is headquartered) and drove 15 minutes to the end of the eastern spit separating Shinnecock Bay from the ocean, to go fishing. This is one of the perks of working at Southampton. The spit is crowded with enormous mansions fronting the beach and a helipad serving Manhattan commuters, but at the end is a small blessing of a county park. On my second cast from the riprap at the edge of the channel, I pulled in a bluefish (Pomatomus saltatrix). Deep breath: kill it with a blow to the head, cut the gills to bleed it out. Dinner.

I decided to make an escabeche, a Spanish preparation where the fish (or meat) is browned and then quick-pickled in a hot brine. This recipe is from the restaurant I was working in when I started this blog four years ago. It is not precise, and can be adjusted for different amounts of fish. It will be good with any strong-flavored, oily fish: bluefish, mackerel, tuna, sardines, maybe even salmon. Milder species will get lost in the spices. The quantities below are roughly what I used for one medium bluefish, though I didn’t measure exactly.

Clean, fillet, and scale (but leave the skin on)

  • medium bluefish, or other oily fish

Cut the fillets crosswise into pieces about an inch wide. In a dry pan over medium-low heat, toast until fragrant and a little browned (but not burned):

  • 2 tbsp whole cumin seeds
  • 2 tbsp whole coriander seeds
  • 2 tbsp whole caraway seeds
  • 1 tbsp paprika

Put the spices in a coffee grinder or mortar and pestle and grind until coarsely broken up. Add to spices:

  • 1 tbsp salt
  • 1 tbsp sugar

Put the spice mixture on a plate and gently roll the fish pieces around in it to cover on all sides. Put the pan back on medium-high heat, and once it’s hot add

  • 3 tbsp olive oil

Lay the fish gently in the pan, skin side down. If the pieces don’t all fit confortably at once, do them in batches. Cook for a couple of minutes, then flip over and cook on the other side for about a minute. Timing will depend on the thickness of the fillets, but you should aim to cook the fish almost but not totally through (the hot brine will cook them the rest of the way). As they finish, remove them with a spatula and put them in a pyrex bowl or baking dish. It’s okay to stack them on top of one another.

Once all the fish are done, add some more oil to the pan and sautee

  • 2 small or 1 large red onion, cut into 1/8 in-wide rings
  • 2 cloves of garlic, sliced

until they are soft and just a little browned. Pour in

  • 2 cups white wine
  • 1 cup white wine vinegar

Simmer 5 minutes, or more, allowing the liquid to reduce a little. Pour over the fish in the dish and let cool to room temperature before serving. Garnish with

  • chopped parsley or cilantro

Serve the escabeche with something starchy: tonight I just boiled some red potatoes; at the restaurant this came as an appetizer piled over a few big croutons. I also sauteed some grape tomatoes as a side. The escabeche will easily last a week in the fridge because of the preserving qualities of the acidic vinegar. Let it warm up to room temperature again before serving it.

Now that you’ve worked up an appetite, I can show you what the fish was hungry for. Before I cut off the fillets, I had to do a quick gut-content analysis: eight bay anchovies (Anchoa mitchilli), all fresh. Yummy.

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