These caballas en escabeche or pickled mackerel are an example of an ancient food preservation technique that is no longer needed because fridges are used for this purpose, but it is still prepared because the result is simply delicious.
Escabeche is both the finished dish and a food preservation technique used in Spain since the Middle Ages (Arabs are said to have imported it from Persia during their rule) mainly for fish and seafood, although different meats, mostly game, can be made into escabeches as well and sometimes vegetables. The food is cooked and then preserved in a spiced vinegar marinade.
The marinade and cooking liquid is typically made of 2-3 parts olive oil, 1 part white wine vinegar and 1 part white wine or water, although various proportions are used to the taste of the cook. It is also typically seasoned with spices like peppercorns, cloves, sweet pimentón and bay leaf, and accompanied by onion, garlic and often carrots.
Besides the preserving effect of vinegar, olive oil rises to the top of the liquid, isolating the food by creating a protective seal. Present escabeches need not be as acidic as they used to be, as the food is normally going to be kept in the fridge.
Oily fish like mackerel is perfect for escabeches; the vinegar mellows the sharp flavor of the fish and renders it soft, delicate and aromatic.
- 2 pounds (1kg) gutted mackerel or clean mackerel fillets
- 1¼ cup (300ml) Spanish extra virgin olive oil
- ½ cup (120ml) white wine or cider vinegar
- ½ cup (120ml) white wine or plain water
- 1 large onion
- 1 carrot
- 4 garlic cloves
- 1 tsp sweet pimentón
- ½ tsp black peppercorns
- 2 bay leaves
- 6 cloves
- Salt to taste
- Parsley for garnish
- Descale and clean the fish if needed. Gut the fish and get rid of the head too if the fish haven't been gutted previously. Cut each mackerel in two to better acomodate the pieces in the pan.
- Rinse them thoroughly in cold water to wash away as much blood as possible and pat them dry with kitchen paper. Set aside.
- Pour the olive oil in a large pan or an earthenware cazuela, and heat it to medium-high (180ºC-355ºF). When warm, add the onion peeled and cut into quarters, the skinned garlic cloves, the sliced carrot and the cloves.
- Fry lightly, then add the sweet pimentón and stir-fry, only 1 minute or otherwise it will develop a bitter taste.
- Then add the vinegar, the wine, salt and the bay leaves. Simmer this marinade 10 minutes.
- Add the fish pieces (there's no need for the cooking liquid to cover the whole thing) and cook for 4-5 minutes on each side, until the fish is cooked through.
- Leave the mackerel to cool and rest in the cooking liquid for at least 24 hours before serving.
- Serve along the vegetables, cold or slightly warm, or atop some fine bread slices.
Tips for perfect caballas en escabeche or pickled mackerel:
- As usual, quality is key to a great escabeche tapa: pick the freshest and plumpiest mackerel you can find.
- We always stress not to use any other paprika powder instead of the true sweet pimentón from Spain. It simply won’t do. We even advise you to skip the pimentón if you can’t find the real thing.
- Use a fine Spanish extra virgin olive oil in this recipe; you can play with the different flavors and varieties.
- Serve this escabeche on small toasts of bread or crackers. Also potato chips make a great tapa.
- If you feel daring, use Sherry vinegar for the marinade if you can find it; this vinegar is stronger and with a lot more character than plain white wine vinegar.
- Feel free to use more vegetables for the escabeche than instructed; they are great on bread too.
- Try this very same recipe with chunks of tuna fish or salmon. You won’t regret it.
Caballa en escabeche or pickled mackerel is a great way to add fish to your diet; it can be eaten warm or cold and it makes a great weeknight meal as well as a perfect weekend brunch on a good bread. Pair it with a chilled dry Sherry and enjoy…