Red mullet escabeche
Escabeche is a versatile method/dish that can apply to fish, meat, vegetables and even leafy greens. The origins of escabeche cross many borders, with it found in Latin American cuisine and also in African dishes. This version is less an escabeche and more a warm vinaigrette. I use it as a form of fresh preservation, mostly with seafood. It takes the product to its prime and prepares it to be eaten, ideally at room temperature, at any time of the day.
Despite being an iconic fish of the Mediterranean and the basis for such dishes as bouillabaisse, red mullet is not often used in Australia. But it’s a fish that lends itself incredibly well to an escabeche. And while there’s no doubt red mullet is labour intensive, little fish deserve the attention they demand. The slightly oily character (like a mild sardine) adds a pleasant depth of flavour through the acidic dressing. The fine pin bones that remain in the fillet are easily removed with fish tweezers, although they are small enough to ignore. Red mullet is regularly available in fish markets, but sardines can be used in this recipe if you can’t source it.
Another less common element in this particular recipe is the use of the bones to help flavour the stock/dressing. Commonly the fish is kept whole and scored so the flavour permeates both the flesh and the dressing, but this technique intensifies the flavour of the dressing, making it arguably the most delicious part of the dish once combined with the fillets and the vegetables. It is also what I use to dress the leafy greens I often serve with escabeche. This is a very elegant meal of two parts.
Red mullet escabeche
1kg red mullet (whole or fillets with bones)
500g small tomatoes
1 onion, finely sliced
2 cloves garlic
1 tsp coriander seeds
200ml light flavoured olive oil
100ml red wine vinegar
200g sugar snap peas
1 bunch parsley stems
juice and zest of 1 lemon
salt and pepper
100g cooked farro
Preheat the oven to 180ºC.
Fillet and clean the mullet but retain the bones and any scraps. Roast the bones with the scraps for about 20 minutes or until the bones are golden and dry.
In a pot, place half the tomatoes, the onion, one clove of garlic and the coriander seeds together with the olive oil. Place the roasted bones on top and cook on the stove over a medium heat for about 15 minutes, stirring regularly. Deglaze with the vinegar then add the water. Bring the liquid to a rapid simmer and then let it cook for about 30 minutes. Strain the liquid off, ensuring you extract the oil from the bones by pressing the solids lightly, then set aside.
Prepare the red mullet fillets by patting the skin dry with paper towel. Lightly cover the bottom of a heavy-based pan with oil and put the fish in skin-side down once the pan is warm. Cook over a medium heat until the skin starts bleeding colour. It will become obvious as the red oil starts to form around the edges. Flip the fillets very briefly before transferring them to a shallow tray. The fish should not be cooked all the way through.
Bring the stock/dressing back to the boil. Slice the shallot and remaining garlic clove very finely then add them to the liquid with the remaining tomatoes, snap peas and parsley stems. Finish with the lemon juice and zest and the white pepper. Check for seasoning.
To cook the farro, simmer it in water for 25 minutes. Mix it through the escabeche dressing and pour this over the top of the red mullet. Let the lot rest for at least 60 minutes before serving.
Serve with green leaves or vegetables.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 3, 2020 as "Stunning mullet".
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