Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Mackerel Escabèche

I am not a religious person, unless it comes to food. How else can one explain the connection between a play group for 3-6 month olds, a geeky gathering called "Tech Dinner", and escabèche? Let's face it, a fish dish this good could only be sent to me from the culinary goddess* who controls our dinner fate and makes sure we end up at the right place at the right time for optimal yumminess.

You might be wondering what exactly is "escabèche." Don't worry -- I am getting there. The chain of events that lead to it started when Sammy and I tried to get into a play group at Isis for 3-6 month olds. By the time it occurred to me to sign up, our default Isis location in Arlington had no availability and the only option was one last spot all the way across the river from us in Brookline. I don't really know why we Cambridgians have a psychological problem with crossing the Charles River. It's not that big as Sammy and I found out after snatching that last spot in Brookline Isis.

On our first trip to the playgroup, we made a wonderful discovery. The Wulf's Fish market is right on our way home! I've heard about Wulf's for years from many of my Boston-side-of-the-river students and readers, but that darn Charles River has always prevented me from going there. A few months ago, I even had the brother of the owner in one of my classes and promised him that I'll finally get my act together and go check out Wulf's. Richard, in case you are reading this, I am sorry it took me so long, but last week, Sammy and I stopped by Wulf's on our way home, and I just wanted to tell you what a great time we had with Alan and Richie. The fish all looked fabulous and since I couldn't make up my mind between the scallops, sardines, and mackerel, I bought all three.

Wulf's Fish Market is located at:
407 Harvard Street, Brookline, MA

In my excitement of discovering that there is still at least one great fish market on the Boston side of the river, I totally forgot that Jason had to go to a Tech Dinner the following night and wouldn't be home for dinner. For those curious, Tech Dinner is a monthly gathering of Boston area software geeks. There is a test to get into it: you have to know what ldconfig does. I think they have that in place to keep the wishy-washy usability engineering folks like me out, but that's beside the point. What all those tech diners probably didn't realize is that besides discussing the hot tech topics of the day last monday, they also inspired one of the coolest fish dishes I've come up with in a long time.

We worked our way through scallops and sardines, but 2 days after my trip to Wulf's, 2 whole mackerels were still sitting in my fridge. There was no way I could eat them all by myself while Jason was at Tech Dinner, so I decided to cook them and use them as leftovers the following day (once fish is cooked, its fridge life increases by 2-3 days). I have no shortage of ideas for how to use fish leftovers: burgers, cakes, pâtés, salads, etc. But I had a must-try-something-new itch, and that's how I thought of escabèche. It's a Spanish dish of cooked fish that is marinated in a spiced vinaigrette type dressing and served cold. To tell you the truth, I've only read about it and never actually tasted it, but the idea sounded intriguing. I didn't have time to find a recipe. Sammy was taking a nap and I had to act fast. I broiled mackerels until golden, filleted them, mixed up a dressing of lemon juice, olive oil, thinly sliced preserved lemons and red onions, and arranged the fillets in this marinade to sit until the next day.

"See what Tech Dinner inspired me to do?" I told Jason the next day as we were sitting down to have dinner. "I learned a whole new cooking technique for fish!" Jason agreed that escabèche is another great benefit of Tech Dinner. The fish was fantastic -- luxuriously delicate flakes with piquant little accents of lemon and onions. I know it's not a very seasonal comment, but this would be just perfect for a summer picnic. Before I get you completely uninspired to try this, may I also suggest the Feast of Seven Fishes for Christmas as a good occasion to serve escabèche?

Mackerel Escabeche

Fish substitutions: whole branzino or dorado, or bluefish fillets

Serves 4 as appetizer or 2 as main course

For broiling mackerels:
2 whole mackerels (about 1 Lb each), ask your fishmonger to clean them as described here
1 Tbsp olive oil
Salt and pepper

For the marinade:
3/4 cup very thinly sliced red onion
The skin from 1/8 of preserved lemon, sliced paper thin (or zest of 1 lemon)
Juice of 1 lemon
3 Tbsp olive oil
Salt and pepper

  1. Line a broiler pan with foil and preheat the broiler.
  2. Season the mackerels inside and out with salt and pepper. Drizzle the skin on both sides with olive oil, place in the broiler pan, and broil for 4-5 minutes on each side. Cool until comfortable to handle. Fillet the fish. You might find this guide on cooking, testing the doneness, and filleting whole fish useful. I strongly suggest removing the row of small pin bones from all the fillets to save unsuspecting diners from this tricky task.
  3. In a shallow non-reactive container that can hold the fish fillets in one layer (like an 8x8 pyrex dish), combine red onion, preserved lemon (or lemon zest), lemon juice, and olive oil. Season very generously with salt and pepper and mix well. Taste the marinade to make sure it is salty enough. This fish dish should have the saltiness level of smoked fish, which is quite intense, and is best served in appetizer size portions. Place fish fillet into marinade flesh side down, cover the container and refrigerate for at least 1 day (or as long as 3).
  4. Remove from the fridge 30 minutes before serving to bring to room temperature.
* of course, it might be a god too, but I'd like to think of her as a goddess :)


Peter M said...

Good show's looks like Escebeche is like a reverse marinade...many possibilities!v

michael, claudia and sierra said...

hello! i'm just finding your blog and i'm now a huge fan. this disj sounds amazing. something i'd love...

Heather Bucell said...

Wow, this looks great-
and it happens that I've actually been craving/eating a lot of mackerel lately: the smoked Duck Trap (both herbed and peppered varieties) from Whole Foods. Great with rosemary crackers at lunch. I'm going to strive for some time to make this!
Somewhere it's mentioned that mackerel is a real "fish lover's fish".

Thérèse said...

Actually escarbèche is a Belgian speciality too... from the southern part of Belgium. It could seem odd, but it's just due to history: Belgium was a part of the Spanish-Netherlands empire under Charles the Fifth, so I guess they had some sort of inter-regional influence in (not) cooking fish dishes. The marinade is quite similar to the one used for another Dutch/Belgian fish speciality: the "maatjes" (I think it's also called soused herring or something like that). We used to take one by the quail and bite it starting from the head (quite wild).

Love your blog!

Thérèse said...

oups sorry it's tail not quail...

Helen said...

Hi Thérèse!

Welcome to Beyond Salmon :) What an interesting story about how Escabèche ended up in Belgian cuisine. I believe there is an Italian version too, but its name escapes me.


Trevor said...

It's amazing how tasty you make mackerel look.