It’s a marinade. It’s a brine. It’s a main dish, a side dish, and a condiment. Escabèche is a transcontinental method of preserving and flavoring food that has crossed your dinner table more times than you’d think. And like the most interesting dinner guest, it always looks great and has a lot to say.
Traditionally escabèche is said to have Persian roots—specifically, a dish where meat was preserved in vinegar and a sweetener like date syrup. That dish inspired other cultures to do the same. The marinated meat (or fish or vegetables) is itself escabèche, but when you add it to a plate of grains or vegetables, the whole dish becomes escabèche—the marinated meat has, in theory, marinated everything on the plate.
Escabèche should be highly flavorful and have a perfect level of acidity to balance out what you plan to pair with it. That acidity usually comes from vinegar, but wine is also used. Vinegar pickles, and escabèche are similar in that they both have vinegar used for brightness and preservation, but most escabèche today take a less practical and more immediate turn down the culinary road:
In Spain, where the word escabèche was first coined from the original Arab dish al-sikbaj, boquerones en escabèche is a popular dish. Anchovies are quickly marinated with vinegar and white wine but also garlic, bay laurel, and olive oil. (Here’s a version that uses sardines.) Another popular escabèche in Spain is pan-roasted chicken dressed in paprika, white wine, vinegar, and lots of garlic.
Elsewhere citrus or fruit juices are used, as in the Philippines, where pineapple juice is used in fish escabèche, or in this fusion-y recipe, which calls for orange juice.
Yuca en escabèche is part of the cuisine in Puerto Rico, where peeled, boiled pieces of yuca root are marinated in vinegar, olive oil, olives, and sliced onion. Which reminds me of this French Provençal-style potato salad that has capers, green onion, plus vinegar, wine, and olive oil.
And you know those floating pieces of jalapeños and carrots in that garlicky brine at your local taqueria’s salsa bar? Well, that’s a Mexican version of escabèche. It’s usually made with carrots and/or other vegetables like onion or nopal. But I find the jalapeños to be the star of this escabèche, and a good starting point to making escabèche at home.
In my refrigerator, you can usually find some sort of peppers en escabèche. I find their uses endless. In summer I’ll make an escabèche with a mix of sliced sweet-and-spicy peppers to dress wedges of tomatoes. Sometimes I’ll roughly chop that pepper escabèche to make a relish I can spread on turkey sandwiches. I also make an escabèche with smaller whole peppers like in my recipe for Pork Chops and Padrón Chiles en Escabèche. The recipe is at once a marinade for the peppers and vegetables but also for the pork chops, infusing its brine into the chops once they’re done roasting.
Can you simply buy jars or cans of marinated peppers instead? Sure. But homemade escabèche tastes better, and you’ll have more control over the cooking time and flavor profile you want. Besides, all the marinade ingredients are probably already in your pantry: vinegar, olive oil, and water are the only requirements. Beyond that you can be creative with what you have. I like to include herbs—preferably fresh, but dried herbs like thyme or parsley work too—sliced or whole garlic, a blend of spices, and, of course, salt as needed.
There are no strict rules for your escabèche, but a good starting point for a vegetable-based escabèche are the ratios of liquid. You want bright acidity that’s at the tip of your tongue but not so aggressive it makes you pucker. Try this to start: Heat a cup of vinegar to one cup of water over low heat, then add salt, a little sugar or honey, some tablespoons of olive oil, whole black peppercorns or fennel seed, and maybe oregano branches. Once the salt and sugar are dissolved, take the brine off the heat and add some prepped veg: peppers, onions, carrots, whatever—just keep it all bite-size. Taste the brine and adjust the flavor knobs. Does it have too much vinegar? Too much water? Does it want some other spice or more salt? In my recipe I decided that I wanted less water, more vinegar, and more olive oil for a richer, more robust escabèche to pair with the sweet pork chops. But ultimately this escabèche is yours—make it taste good to you.
This method of making escabèche is good for enjoying the day you make it, but I also recommend making a big batch that you can refrigerate. In the fridge the spices and other aromatics settle over time and work their way through the vegetables. I usually keep mine in the refrigerator for up to a week and a half, tasting and stirring the mix every day or two to help keep the vegetables submerged in the brine and the flavors mingling.
You may want to try making the classic Mexican jalapeños en escabèche for your first batch, but I’d quickly move beyond that. Try thin rings of sweet Italian peppers, or blister some green beans in olive oil and add that to your brine base. Blanched cauliflower florets and chunks of grilled squash work too. The possibilities of what an escabèche can be are endless, and unlike its original purpose of preserving food for long lengths of time, escabèche’s charm can be on your table tonight.Christian Reynoso
Originally Appeared on Epicurious