Craving the Coast: Escabeche de pescado
This week I was missing Peru, a lot. I was especially missing all the seafood flavors from the coast. One dish in particular that reminds me of home and family is Escabeche de pescado, a vinegary fish stew. Fish filets are lightly fried and then topped with pickled red onions that have been infused with garlic, Peruvian peppers, and red wine vinegar. Makes my mouth water just thinking about it!
The first time I remember ever having this dish was at a family party in the Boston-area. My tío Ricardo had brought it to share and, because he was one of the best cooks in the family, I was immediately curious. I remember gingerly walking over to it, pulling back the plastic wrap and asking my tía María Elena what it was. As she explained it, I found myself poking it with my fork and pushing the onions around to see what else was inside. When I revealed the fish buried below I could see that it had absorbed all the juice from the pickled onions and it had a deep, beautiful reddish color to it. She told me to help myself. so I set my plate down beside the platter. I had already begun building my plate of food so I took a small piece with some of the onions, making sure it did not touch anything else beside it, and sat down to eat my meal. I ate everything else on the plate and saved the escabeche for last. When I finally took a bite, my mouth burst with the most amazing bright flavor. I was sorry I had waited so long to enjoy it. Never again!
While this stew is known as having come from the regional cuisine of the coast of Peru, the style of this vinegar dish arrived to Lima with the Spanish. The origins, however, are much older and, in fact, escabeche is said to be the descendent of the Persian Sikbaj (Sik= vinegar, Baj - stew).. Sikbaj is a vinegar stew and recipes for it have been documented from as far back as the 13th century. It could have been made with meat like lamb, eggplant, or other veggies. It could have been naturally sweetened with dried fruit or enhanced with honey. And in most cases, the recipes were heavy on the vinegar. The Peruvian escabeche de pescado takes the Spanish and Persian dish, lightens the vinegar a bit, and blends it perfectly with flavorful and spicy peppers that are indigenous to the Andes.
Having traveled to Peru, and having lived there for a time, I know now that this is as much a dish you would consume at home as find on menus in restaurants. It's a simple dish, yet visually stunning and packed with flavor. Served with bright orange camote (sweet potato), boiled eggs, botija olives, and the ají panca,-stained red onions, your plate is layered with earthy tones that will remind you of the many colors found in Peruvian textiles.
Local fish like the bonito are often used in Peru but here in the U.S. you can utilize whatever fish you prefer. When my craving hit, I happened to have some tilapia on hand so you will see this reflected in my recipe below. I can't wait for you to try this dish, amig@s! Buen provecho!
Escabeche de pescado -- Serves 4-6
Birdseye view of ingredients
6 filets of tilapia (3-4oz)
1/4 cup flour
4 medium red onions, large slices
2 large aji amarillo (fresh or frozen), medium slice
2 tablespoons aji amarillo paste (non-spicy, if desired)
2 teaspoons garlic paste
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon oregano
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1 cup fish or chicken stock
Salt to taste
Neutral oil for frying (vegetable, canola, etc.)
OPTIONAL: 2 boiled sweet potatoes for garnish, sliced
OPTIONAL: 3 boiled eggs for garnish, sliced in half
OPTIONAL: 6 botija olives for garnish (or kalamata olive)
Rub filets with a bit of garlic paste and then lightly season with salt and pepper. Set aside.
Place flour on a plate and lightly dredge filets in flour, shaking off any excess. Set aside.
In a large skillet, fill with just enough oil to fry filets, 2 at a time.
Fry filets lightly, about 2-3 minutes on each side. Let cool on paper towels to absorb extra oil. Place in serving dish once cooled. Reserve a few tablespoons of the frying oil.
In another large skillet, add reserved frying oil and begin sauteing garlic paste and aji amarillo paste for about one minute.
Add cumin and sauté for another minute.
Add aji panca and sauté for 2 more minutes. Add more oil if necessary.
Add pepper and oregano. Sauté for 1 minute.
Add sliced aji amarillo and saute for 2-3 minutes.
Add sliced red onion and toss in pepper mixture, sauteing for about 3 minutes. You want your onion to stay a little crunchy and keep their shape.
Add vinegar and stir.
Add about half stock and stir. Add the rest if you want a looser sauce. How much stock you add depends on your preference and how much sauce you want to create. (I used the whole cup for my recipe.) Taste for salt, add more if necessary. The sauce should have a bit of viscosity. If it is too loose, you could create a corn starch slurry and add to the onions so create a thicker sauce. I did not find it necessary.
Spoon onions and sauce over the fish. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2 hours or overnight.
Serve cold or at room temperature with rice, sliced sweet potato, sliced boiled egg and top with a botija olive (or kalamata olive).
Note: It is typical to make this the day before serving. It tastes even better the next day as the fish soaks up all the flavors!