Welcome back to Dirty Work, our series of dispatches from the MUNCHIES Garden. We're inviting chefs, bartenders, and personalities in the world of food and drink to explore our edible playground and make whatever the hell inspires them with our rooftop produce. In the last installment of the season, chef Alex Baker visited us to show us how escabeche is a recipe that can use just about any vegetable you have lying around to complete a quick, flavorful fish dish.
It’s obvious when some chefs visit our Test Kitchen that what they’re really thinking about is how badly they need to get back to their restaurant kitchen and get started on dinner prep. They blow through small talk, get right to cooking, let us snap some photos, then ask, “Are we good here?” with one foot out the door. But when chef Alex Baker from Manhattan’s Yves visited us, she was the opposite of in a hurry. In fact, it couldn’t be more obvious that she was luxuriating in spending some of her day off here with us.
She meanders the garden with a relaxed gait, tasting herbs and tomatoes at whim. She’s wearing a decidedly off-day version of chef’s whites, and we’re a little worried the “dirty” part of this Dirty Work column is going to ruin her nice white jeans while she digs up carrots and picks eggplants and hot peppers.
She’s going to be making an escabeche today—one of the last nice, full-sun days of the end of summer—so she’s looking for things that will take well to what is essentially a quick pickle in hot, acidic liquid. She settles on little bitty fairy tale eggplants, carrots of varying colors, heirloom cherry tomatoes, and pink radishes. She’s particularly taken with the radishes, fussing over every one she plucks from the ground. Lost in a moment, just her and one particularly perfect radish, she coos at it, “You’re so cute! You’re perfect!”
The main focus of the escabeche will be two fillets of Spanish mackerel, which she’s already got waiting for her inside in the kitchen, so we head back to let her get started. She requests a Taylor Swift station on Pandora, and then gets to work.
First, she slices up the rainbow of peppers she picked—some spicy, but none overly so. (They just never got a lot of spice on ‘em this season, we couldn’t quite figure out why. But thus are the mysteries of growing your own food.)
She sautees them in oil in a heavy cast iron pot, with a bit of sliced carrot, garlic, minced shallot, and a bit of salt. She stirs occasionally, letting everything soften, for about 10 minutes. Then she tosses in whole spices—peppercorn, bay leaf, a cinnamon stick, and chili flakes.
Escabeche is a dish that spans across many cultures, with numerous iterations and traditions for what does or does not go into the mixture and preparation. At Yves, the Tribeca restaurant where Alex helms the kitchen, she leans into lots of Mediterranean flavors and European techniques so an escabeche with those influences is pretty much always on the menu in some form, changing with the season. When she visited us, the current iteration of it looked a lot like this one, maybe sans peppers and ground cherries, she said. “You can put just about anything you want in there,” she said, referring to the pickling liquid.
I ask why she keeps the spices whole, rather than grinding them, especially since she doesn’t plan on picking them out before plating it. “I want the flavor from the whole spice, and I like how it looks on the plate. And if people don’t like it, fuck ‘em,” she said. They do soften a bit in the pickling liquid, but they’d still be quite a mouthful if you bit into a whole peppercorn, so she expects people just pick around it.
Next, she digs out our blow torch to thoroughly char the outsides of the eggplants and cherry tomatoes. They’ll soften a bit in the pickling liquid, but they won’t “cook” all the way, so she gets them just a little bit warm under direct flame. Even if she does this every day, today is her day off, and she’s just cooking for the hell of it and having a good time, and it shows on her face.
In the pot with the softened peppers and onions, she adds honey and white wine, cooking until the alcohol burns off. Then she adds a bit of fumet, or fish stock, and a quarter-cup of white wine vinegar, then lets the eggplant simmer gently in the liquid so it can start to absorb the tangy flavors.
In a glass baking dish, she lays out the raw mackerel and scatters the ground cherries, tomatoes, and some herbs around it, then carefully fishes the slightly-marinated eggplant from the pot and arranges that in the dish, too. Then the whole pan gets bathed in the hot, acidic pickling liquid.
Then we wait. And chat about the best place to get Trinidadian doubles in her neighborhood. (It’s A&A Bake in Bed-Stuy, if you’re wondering.) We also break out some ice cream samples we had received from Tillamook Creamery in Oregon, where Alex’s grandparents have a beach house. (“It’s my favorite place in the entire world,” she says.) Loading up on so much heavy cream and sugar might have ruined all of our palates for actually tasting any of this dish when it’s done so we all take a spoonful of the acidic liquid to get our taste buds back in check.
When the acid has done it’s job and the gentle heat had time to cook the flesh of the fish every so lightly so as to maintain it’s delicate, flaky texture, she pulls it out and keeps it skin-side-up in a separate dish. Then, she takes the blowtorch to that, too, to get the skin nice and bubbly and crispy, without overcooking the flesh. (She’s really enjoying charring the shit out of things, we notice.)
MAKE THIS: Mackerel Escabeche
She plates the mackerel first, then spoons out eggplants and peppers and radishes from the pot, and drizzles a sparing amount of extra liquid over everything, to not ruin that nice crispy skin. At the restaurant, she would serve this with some nice thick slices of grilled bread. “I like to use bread as a fork,” she explains. We’re on board with that.
The marinating liquid itself will keep in the refrigerator for up to a month, she explains, and it can easily be used as a base for a salad dressing, too. We’re looking forward to pickling any fish we can get our hands on with this little back-pocket recipe.