Mejillones en Escabeche is a very popular Spanish tapa of mussels pickled in vinegar, olive oil and pimentón. You will find these delicious molluscs in most bars, usually served straight from a tin, with lots of bread to dip into the sauce. The Spanish, along with the French and Portuguese have turned canning fish into an art form, something the English don’t quite understand. There are some canned products, especially sardines which improve considerably with age and usually command a higher price relative to quality and flavour.
Escabeche sauce predates canning and relates to a method of food preservation, using vinegar (and sometimes citrus juice), invented by the Persians several millennia ago. The word escabeche is derived from the Persian word sikbaj, meaning cooked in vinegar – al-sikbaj. Both the Greeks and Romans used vinegar as a preservative (the Romans used it to preserve fried fish and added it to their popular fish sauce Garum), so escabeche probably reached Spain long before the the Moorish conquest of Iberia. The Spanish added an extra taste dimension to escabeche when they discovered the Americas and brought pimentón (paprika) back to Europe.
Cooking and immersing food in a vinegar mixture with a pH value of 4 or lower stops food putrefaction, but it’s the time spent in the jar, post cooking, which really brings out the flavours of the ingredients. It’s common to find many foods preserved in escabeche, such as partridge, quail, mackerel, tuna and vegetables like aubergine (berenjenas), throughout the Spanish speaking world and beyond. In Argentina they even preserve the vizcacha a raccoon sized rodent in escabeche sauce. Like many old techniques for food conservation, the cooking and pickling process imparts a deliciously distinctive flavour and has therefore survived the invention of refrigeration.
Mejillones en Escabeche receta:
1 kilo mussels
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup water
a little ground black pepper
Debeard and rinse the muscles, under a tap, just before cooking – don’t soak them in water beforehand, it kills them! Heat the wine, water and pepper, in a large saucepan until boiling. Simmer the mussels (with the lid on the saucepan) for 3 – 4 minutes, until they have opened. Remove the mussels to a colander and allow to cool. Strain and reserve the liquor.
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 cup white wine vinegar
1/4 of an onion (julienned)
1/4 carrot (julienned)
4 cloves garlic (bruised)
10 black peppercorns
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon pimentón de la Vera dulce
1 teaspoon pimentón de la Vera picante
1 cup of strained mussel liquor
1 dessertspoon of sherry vinegar
Poach the carrot, garlic and onion with bay leaves in the olive oil for 5 minutes or until tender.
Add the pimentón with the black peppercorns and stir in with the vinegar. Simmer for a few minutes and allow to cool. Cooling can be facilitated by pouring the escabeche into a glass jug and standing it in cold water or ice. When cool, stir in a cup of the strained mussel liquor. In general, mussels are naturally salty and there should be sufficient salt in the liquor – you will probably not need any additional salt. Taste the liquor to be sure and adjust the escabeche seasoning if necessary. I added half the mussel liquor and tasted the escabeche before adding the whole cup (relative to salinity). Finally, I stirred in a dessertspoon of sherry vinegar. Some people may prefer to use a different flavoured vinegar or 100% dulce pimentón and enjoy the inclusion of a slice of lemon, pimiento, cloves, etc. Escabeche is open to customisation, so each to his or her own.
Remove the mussels from their shells and put them in a glass Kilner or jam jar/s, along with the poached vegetables and bay leaves.
Pour on the escabeche, through a sieve, muslin or coffee filter. The mussels can be eaten within 24 hours and the flavour will be enhanced over several days if kept refrigerated.
Make sure the mussels are completely covered by liquid and agitate the jar to get any air bubbles out. In theory escabeche should last for some time, but do follow basic food preserving recommendations if you intend to keep the escabeche longer than a week. Claudia Roden suggests that sardines in escabeche will keep for two weeks in the fridge, using an escabeche of dry white wine, vinegar and olive oil in equal proportions, so mussels should last for a similar time.
Allow the mussels to come to room temperature before serving and eat them with good quality bread to mop up the sauce. They go very well with a pre-supper fino sherry. Alternately, warm up the mejillones en escbache and stir into some spaghetti.
See here for my Paloma en Escabeche recipe.