Escabeche is simply the Spanish word for 'pickled' and usually refers to fish that's been fried first, then marinated in a flavoured vinegar.
Variations of the dish, using a panoply of different spices and flavourings, can be found all over Spain and Latin America. There's some debate - even among ourselves, it must be said - as to whether it's a dish that works best with white or with oily fish. Nick's in the white fish camp, while Hugh backs the oilies. Try it yourself with whiting or red mullet, as an alternative to sardines, and see what you think.
At River Cottage we spent years experimenting with our own escabeche recipes without feeling we'd really hit on a winner. The perfect spice combination eluded us. Eventually, we tried the dish with a set of seasonings that we always use in our merguez sausages: chilli, coriander, caraway and cumin. Known to us as the 'four c's', these are a classic combination in North African cooking.
With the strong links between Spanish and Moorish food, we thought, why wouldn't it work? It certainly did, and the result is punchy, colourful, rich and intense - a dish we're truly proud of. This is how to make it.
For the dry spice mix
For the marinade
1. Put a heavy-based frying pan over a medium heat.
2. Add the whole spices for the dry spice mix and toast for a few minutes, until they just start to pop.
3. Put them in a large mortar (or a coffee or spice grinder), add the salt and sugar and grind to a fine texture.
4. Make sure the sardines or mackerel are dry to the touch, patting them dry with kitchen paper if necessary. Lay them on a board or large plate and dust with the spice mixture, making sure they are evenly covered - the idea is to treat the spice mix like seasoned flour.
5. Put a large, heavy frying pan over a medium heat and add a glug of olive oil.
6. Add the fish (you will need to cook them in batches) and fry gently, colouring and crisping them lightly on each side - 3-4 minutes, turning occasionally, should do it, but don't fret about cooking them right through, as the cooking will be completed by the hot marinade.
7. Transfer the fried fish to a deep dish for marinating. If you use an ovenproof dish, you won't have to transfer the fish to another vessel when it comes to reheating them later.
8. Leave the frying pan on the heat and add a little more oil. Throw in the coriander, cumin, caraway and chilli for the marinade, then add the sliced onion, garlic and bay leaves. Fry for 4-5 minutes, until the onion is soft and ever so slightly coloured.
9. Pour in the wine and vinegar, bring to a simmer and cook for 5 minutes, using a wooden spoon to scrape up any caramelised bits from the base of the pan.
10. Pour the hot marinade over the fish, making sure they are completely covered.
11. Leave to cool, then chill for at least 6 hours before serving (it will keep in the fridge for a couple of days). It is best served at room temperature or slightly warm, rather than hot or cold. So either take it out of the fridge a few hours before you serve it or reheat it gently in a low oven, in its marinade.
12. Serve with flatbreads, such as pitta or homemade tortillas, or toasted sourdough, and perhaps a simple cucumber and lettuce salad. The flesh of whole fish will have to be wrestled off their fragile bones, but if you've used mackerel fillets, you can just eat the lot. In both cases, the skin is perfectly edible.
Also works with: Sardine, Red mullet, Scad, Black bream, Grey mullet, Pollack, Pouting, Whiting, Gurnard
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