(and why ‘processed’ isn’t a dirty word)
You know when you go to a restaurant and there’s some item on the menu that you’re sure you’ve heard of, but for the life of you, you can’t really say what it means? Then you sit there wondering whether or not you should ask the waiter just what verjus is, or if you should just dive in and order it? That was me this month with escabeche. I felt like I should know what it was, and I thought it had something to do with fish… and… marinating? But that was about as far as I could get.
Escabeche, which is popular in many Spanish-speaking countries around the world, is a seared/cooked meat (often fish) that is marinated in a mixture of oil, vinegar, and flavourings (herbs, spices, etc). I first learned about it while reading Maricel Presilla‘s amazing bible of Latin cooking – Gran Cocina Latina (this recipe is loosely adapted from a similar version from Veracruz found in the book). Now if you’re anything like me, your brain is probably suggesting the concept of ceviche as it searches for a definition of escabeche (ceviche is sometimes spelled cebiche, which just makes it even more confusing). The two dishes are similar in some respects, but very different in others. In ceviche, an acid (vinegar, lime juice, etc) is used to ‘cook’ raw fish, but no heat is involved. In escabeche, the food is cooked first, then marinated in oil and vinegar afterwards. Ceviche is something of a short-lived product; the end product is prone to spoilage if not eaten fairly quickly, and the textural quality degrades the longer the curing marinade is left on. By contrast, escabeche is designed to last for quite a while, and you can’t even really eat it until you’ve let it sit in the marinade for hours or more. In fact, escabeche is remarkably stable stuff – you can literally make it a week ahead of time.
Now there’s a decent chance I just made some of you uncomfortable. A Week? What kind of meat can you make a WEEK ahead of time? Not only that, but when you do make it (or serve it, depending on the situation), you’re supposed to let it sit out on the counter for HOURS. How often do you see a fish recipe that tells you to cook it, then leave it on the counter for 5 hours? People start freaking out when you tell them to do that with food. But our notions of spoilage and the risks around food poisoning have become distorted by decades of factory processing in the food world. Industry has done a very good job of convincing consumers that foods are unsafe unless they’re frozen or preserved in some fashion. As more and more people push back against industrially processed food, there’s a growing idea that healthy foods must be ephemeral. I’m reminded of an episode of the Simpsons where the family’s organic vegetables begin to wilt and rot while still on the checkout counter at the grocery store. Because food processing has become a dirty word among health-minded cooks and eaters, we are quick to forget that there are big differences between processing food in the home and many of the high-complexity methods utilized in factory settings. The goals are the same (make food last longer), and in broad senses many of the methods share underlying scientific principals, but the execution is often very different. To explain what I mean, I’m going to talk about just why you can make escabeche a week ahead of time – and why it’s time to change what we think when we hear the words ‘processed’ and ‘preserved.’
WHAT KEEPS FOOD FROM GOING BAD?
This is a subject that can be simple or complex, depending how deep you want to go. Basically, foods go bad because of a combination of internal factors (enzymes and other compounds that break down a food from within), and external factors (bacteria, fungi, the rat that bit one of my cucumbers on the vine last year, etc). Internal factors are particularly common in fruits and vegetables – an apple WANTS to rot and fall apart so that its seeds can get to the ground. External factors are common in all kinds of foods, primarily because bacteria and fungi want to eat your food just as much as you do. Food processing aims to stop or slow these factors.
Cooking the escabeche kills a lot (but not all – never all) of the bacteria and fungi, especially on the surface of the fish. This helps to sterilize the fish. Obviously this effect is temporary – leave the cooked fish out on the counter on a bare plate and it will be re-colonized by microbes in the air, and they’ll break down the food.
Cooking also inactivates enzymes like protease that might be in the fish, preventing them from breaking down the tissues of the fish itself. This factor is not so important in the short term, but fairly important in the long term.
On the opposite side of the equation, you’ve got the elimination of heat – a concept we’re all quite familiar with now, and one which was once a significant luxury. Bacteria and fungi grow slowly in cold environments (though they obviously still grow – we’ve all found something fuzzy and awful at the back of the fridge). Putting cooked food in the refrigerator retards spoilage, allowing us to hang onto foods longer – if you refrigerate the escabeche before serving it, you’re taking advantage of this. Ironically, the prevalence of this type of preservation is probably at least partially responsible for our uncertainty and unfamiliarity surrounding other methods. A refrigerator is easy to use, and it doesn’t add any flavour to foods, unlike oils, vinegars, salts, sugars, etc.
The well-cooked fish is now a much more neutral environment. You’ve eliminated a bunch of the factors that would like to spoil the fish. Now we need to prevent others from showing up. The refrigerator is part of that process in the long term, but there’s a lot more going on with the escabeche.
Creating an Inhospitable Environment
Bacteria and fungi are everywhere. That’s not meant to sound scary – in fact it’s fundamental to the existence of life on Earth. But as far as food preservation is concerned, the ultimate goal is to eliminate as many of these spoilage agents as possible, and prevent the remaining ones from replicating. This is important because bacteria and fungi spoil your food by succeeding. Eat, reproduce, repeat. One bacterium would never spoil your food, but logarithmic growth means that a single bacterium turns into billions over a very short period of time, and this prokaryotic collective can render your food inedible in no time. Fungi don’t work exactly the same way, but the idea is similar – grow, eat, repeat. (Hopefully the aforementioned rat isn’t a problem in this setting). Heating gets rid of a lot of spoilage agents (in some cases, like pressurized canning, nearly all of them), but food preservation is largely concerned with making things very inhospitable for the remainder.
Water Activity – Like us, bacteria and fungi need water to do their thing. Water availability is measured in terms of something called ‘water activity,’ which is measured between 0 (absolutely no water is available) and 1 (pure, distilled water). Most bacteria require water activity of 0.91 to live, while most fungi require about 0.7. What does this mean for food? If you leave a cracker on the counter, it’s probably going to be fine for a VERY long time. It has very low water activity. But get that same cracker wet (even with pure, distilled, clean water) and it will start to mold up pretty quickly. Foods with high water activity spoil faster. But the difference is not just wet vs. dry – other factors can reduce water availability too. Sugar and salt make good preservatives because they want to suck up water to such a degree that they’ll draw it out of the cells of bacteria and fungi. That’s why a salted piece of meat can sit out at room temperature for a year or more – the surface of the food is salted to the point of utter inhospitability. It might as well be the surface of Mars as far as bacteria are concerned.
Cooking the escabeche eliminates some of the water, while the oil (which doesn’t mix with water) helps keep any additional water (e.g. in the air) away from the fish.
Acidity – Spoilage agents like to live at very specific pH ranges. Too high or low, and their metabolic processes don’t work (the same is true of us incidentally). Vinegar is a very popular preservative because it creates a highly acidic environment that’s extremely inhospitable to most bacteria. The vinegar in the escabeche does precisely this, in addition to adding a distinctive and pleasing sour tanginess. For what it’s worth, sourness is actually a hallmark of acidic compounds.
Oxygen – Most bacteria and all fungi require oxygen for their metabolic processes. If you can eliminate oxygen from your preserved food, you can prevent a lot of spoilage. In the case of the escabeche, olive oil creates a low-oxygen environment around the fish that prevents bacterial proliferation.
While oil is great for creating low-oxygen environments, it’s not enough on its own. Some bacteria live just fine without oxygen, Clostridium botulinum, the VERY dangerous species that causes botulism poisoning. The spores of this bacteria are incredibly hardy and can survive boiling temperatures, but it can’t replicate in an overly salty and/or acidic environment. In the escabeche, the combination of vinegar and oil creates a one-two preservation punch.
So now that your fears have, hopefully, been soothed by science (science is really good at both reducing AND inducing terror), let me point out a REALLY great reason to make escabeche – you cook once (and note that it only takes about 15 minutes), and you could literally eat this all week. Pull a piece out, leave it on the counter (or microwave it for expediency) and voila. Serve it with green rice, make tacos, add some beans – it’s all good, and it’s all easy.
To close I want to say one last thing about just what we’re doing here: we’re turning fresh food into preserved and processed food. There’s a really good chance that the word processed makes you feel spectacularly uncomfortable, but let me explain. Fantastically fresh food is sublime; there’s nothing like a strawberry fresh from the garden, or a fish filleted moments after it’s been caught. But many successful animals, ourselves included, have figured out that it’s a good idea to keep some extra food around for those times where fresh food is scarce. It behooves us to think of ways to feed ourselves not just now, but tomorrow, next week, or next year. When we cook, can, pickle, smoke, freeze, ferment, dry, or otherwise preserve and/or modify our food, we are processing it. It’s bizarre to think of our food that way but it’s true. The problem is not the word ‘processed,’ it’s the quality of the food going in, and the end-goal of the processor.
Escabeche isn’t crazy. It’s just a different way of thinking about food – in fact, it’s an older way of thinking. True, it still uses the refrigerator to stay safe for a week (or more – I’m actually being conservative). But the other processing and preservation methods actually make it shockingly stable even at warm temperatures – after all, this recipe is originally from Mexico. It’s simply an example of how we can apply scientific principles to create great food that also happens to be rather enduring. Sadly, many of us are more familiar with these principles as they are applied to some spectacularly unhealthy foods, and that really needs to start changing. When I put up 12 jars of pickled peppers in the Fall, I’m making preserved, processed food. And that’s not a bad thing. Instead of recoiling when we hear the p-words, it’s time to reclaim them and differentiate them from the industrial processes used to sell us heavily modified, nutritionally poor, environmentally questionable ‘food.’ Processed and preserved food can be good, even great food – especially when you’re the one in charge.
Now that we’ve covered what escabeche is and why it’s safe, let’s talk about the actual prep a little. This is easy stuff – no real complicated factors at play here. I like cooking fish steaks here (bone in, obviously), but you could do this with fillets as well. If you do, make sure to reduce your cook times.
Believe it or not, this is actually a low-spice meal, despite all of the jalapeños. The fish itself doesn’t soak up a lot of heat, though the pickled peppers and onions have a nice heat. You can actually double the amount of jalapeño called for if you want to, and you can garnish with extras (or serrano peppers, as I did).
The peppercorn blend adds a lot of flavour to the dish, so don’t skimp out there. I used a medley of green, white, black, and pink peppercorns, but you could use any combination therein. I wouldn’t personally recommend using only pink peppercorns though, as they lack the piquant bite of the true peppercorns (i.e. black, white, and green).
This is a pretty simple meal on its own, so you’re going to want to choose accompaniments to work with it. Fortunately, you can go in a lot of different directions. To serve the steaks as a meal (i.e. one-ish per person), I’d serve up some roasted cherry tomatoes, maybe some pico de gallo, and perhaps a good Mexican rice like this arroz verde. Another great option is break the steaks into pieces and serve them in tacos (as shown below), turning this from a meal for 4 to a meal for 6-8. You can top with a bit of the marinade, tomatoes, some diced peppers, and the same pico de gallo if you want. Feel free to use your imagination, but stay away from overly fatty toppings like cheese – they don’t play well with the tart/oily marinade.
Nutritional info is given for a single serving (1/4 total recipe) and does NOT include tortillas or any sides. If you serve this as an appetizer, or make tacos with it, you’ll need to adjust the nutritional information accordingly.
Note that this nutritional calculation assumes that you’ll be consuming about half of the liquid portion of the marinade (i.e. the oil and vinegar) with the fish. I can’t imagine serving all of the marinade on the plate, but if you used the excess to flavour rice, pasta, etc, you’ll be increasing the calories and fat somewhat.
See the note above about the quantity of marinade served.
No ingredient pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe. Like to see one? Let me know in the comments below or by email.
No pantry pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe. Like to see one? Let me know in the comments below or by email.
Halibut steaks are cooked and then preserved in olive oil, vinegar, jalapenos, and spices to create a simple, healthy, and easy make-ahead meal.
- 4-5 small halibut steaks (about 800 g total)
- 4-6 large jalapeno peppers (about 150 g) finely diced
- 1 large white onion (about 250 g) sliced into rings
- 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil divided into 1/4 cup portions
- 1/2 tsp oregano
- 1/2 tsp ground cumin
- 2 bay leaves
- 1.5 tsp mixed peppercorns (see note)
- 1/2 cup white vinegar
- Heat 1/4 cup of olive oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add the halibut steaks two at a time and cook until crispy and golden (about 2-3 minutes). Flip the steaks and cook the other side similarly. Remove the finished halibut from the pan and repeat with the remaining steaks. Set all of the fish aside in a deep dish, ideally just large enough to hold everything in a single layer.
- Allow the oil to return to heat back up for about 30 seconds, then add the onions, garlic, and jalapeños. Saute for 2-3 minutes, then add the oregano, cumin, bay leaves, and peppercorns. Cook for an additional 3 minutes. Add the vinegar and bring the mixture to a simmer. Simmer for 5 minutes.
- Transfer the cooked vegetables, spices, and vinegar to the dish with the halibut. Pour the mixture over the fish, then add the remaining olive oil.IF EATING THAT DAY: Set the fish aside and marinade at room temperature for 5 hours.IF EATING ANOTHER DAY: Set the fish aside at room temperature for 2-3 hours, then refrigerate for up to 1 week. Return the fish to room temperature or (slightly warmed) before serving.
- The fish can be served as is with some of the marinated vegetables, roasted vegetables, rice, or any other side you might enjoy. It can also be cut into pieces and served in tacos along with the marinade, roasted tomatoes, cilantro, etc.
Mixed peppercorns - I used a medley of black, white, green, and pink peppercorns to make this, but you could use only black pepper or a mixture of your own choosing.