Fresh Anchovies Marinated in Sherry Vinegar
- Seitons en escabetx
Anchovies (seitons in Catalan) are something that I’ve always avoided because I’d only ever known the salty canned kind my dad would order with abandon for his Caesar salads. The fresh ones were a novelty for me when I arrived in Spain. It took me a while to try them, but now I’m hooked (ha. ha.). Prepared en escabetx (conserved in vinegar), these anchovies make a great light dish for a summer evening.
Believe me when I say that nothing about this sounded good to me at first. I love food and I’m a fairly adventurous eater, but I couldn’t put this idea of fish and vinegar together in my mind in a way that seemed the least bit appetizing. But trust me on this one. My friend Anna invited me over for dinner one day, asking me when I arrived, “Do you eat seitons en escabetx?” In my mind, I instantly converted seitons into setas, the Spanish word for mushrooms, so while I thought it a bit weird that she had made us pickled mushrooms for lunch (en escabetx means pickled), I nodded vigorously nonetheless. Imagine my surprise when she yanked the tupper out of the fridge and cracked it open under my nose, mere centimeters away from a slippery pile of silver-skinned fish covered in pale purple onions, bay leaves, and loads of fragrant peppercorns. It was one of those lost in translation moments, the kind where we both looked up from the container and locked eyes in momentary shock, and then instantly burst out laughing, because what else can you do? Needless to say, both our fears were unnecessary. She remained the perfect hostess and I the perfect eater when we devoured the whole bowl together.
Anna insists on eating the bones. They’re good for your skin! They’re good for your hair! She pitched me all through our meal, but having arrived at her house with what I suspected was a fish bone already lodged in my throat from the day before, I laboriously dissected all my anchovies down the center, removing the spine and tail, leaving Anna disappointed in me for being so un-Catalan. Generally, when you buy anchovies here, they arrive scaled and gutted (without heads) with spines and tails intact. That said, you can gut and debone your own before marinating if need be. I went home that night and watched about twenty YouTube videos on how to do it, and it’s actually a snap (refer to said YouTube videos here, because I’m not in the business of teaching fishmongery, yet). The ones I bought from the online supermarket arrived already scaled sans heads or guts, thankfully.
Because the anchovies need to marinade for a while, it’s best to make them the morning of, if you’re going to serve them for dinner. Anna made ours the morning of too, but since we eat lunch at 3 here, they had already been marinating about 7 hours by the time we had them. The leftovers will keep in the refrigerator for two days.
If you know anything about Sherry, then you can perhaps imagine how delightful the addition of sherry vinegar is in this dish. If you’re not familiar with it, Sherry is a fortified wine from the Jerez region of Andalusia that’s similar to Port. In fact, you could substitute port wine vinegar in a pinch, although I’m not sure how more likely it is you might have that hanging around your cabinets instead. Sherry is made with white wine, whereas Port is made with red wine and a bit of brandy, but both are aged in old casks for a long time (up to 30 years), which gives them both a woody, complex bouquet.
Long ago, when the wine from Jerez accidentally fermented into vinegar, it was either tossed out or given to friends and family to cook with. However, it eventually experienced a revival and is now carefully cultivated and marketed as an expensive addition to our condiment cabinets. It’s sometimes hard to find (even I had to go to the special import store to buy it), but Spanish stores like La Tienda and iGourmet sell it online. You don’t have to go for the expensive reserva stuff. The $7.99 bottle will do just fine. Remember, like Italy, Spain has along history of peasant food culture and subscribes to the philosophy of making due with what you have. You can use the rest in salads, soups (like gazpacho), and other marinades. If you can’t find sherry vinegar, you could probably sub it with champagne vinegar or maybe some cider vinegar with sherry thrown in to sweeten it up.
If you don’t have time to marinate them, you can eat them just simply fried with a sprinkle of sea salt and a squeeze of lemon, the way they’re served in most bars here. That’s the perfect seaside treat. But I recommend you carry on with the marinade. I promise it will be worth your time to try it.
20 (about 8 oz/250 g) fresh whole anchovies*, scaled and gutted
1 large (or two small) onions*, sliced
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
8-10 cloves garlic
1 cup sherry vinegar
2 cups + 1 tablespoon olive oil
½ cup flour
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon sea salt
Rinse the anchovies in water and then salt them generously on both sides. Dredge them lightly in flour, coating both sides evenly, shaking off an excess flour.
Heat the 2 cups olive oil in a pan over high heat. When it’s hot (i.e. it sizzles when you flick some flour into it), lay the anchovies in and fry them until they’re golden brown, flipping to make sure both sides are evenly cooked. They’ll need only a couple of minutes on each side at most. Remove from the oil and let them drain on a paper towel while you prepare the marinade.
For the marinade
With the flat side of a wide knife blade, crush the garlic, leaving the skins on. In a skillet, heat the tablespoon of olive oil, then add the garlic, peppercorns and bay leaf, stirring for a minute or so until the spices begin to release their aromas. Add the onions and sauté until they are soft and start to turn golden. Pour the vinegar over, and then add the fish. The marinade doesn’t have to completely cover the fish.
Wait for it to cool down and then transfer the fish in the marinade to a small covered bowl. Leave in the refrigerator to marinade for 8-10 hours, or up to 24 hours if needed, although you can eat it right away.
Serve with a side salad and good bread. And wine. Always wine.
*You can have the fishmonger clean and gut the fish for you. That’s very common here, where the fish come whole and need to be prepared for each individual customer. As soon as you select your fish, fishmongers ask how you want it. Sometimes I tell them, and sometimes I ask them how they recommend preparing it. Once that’s decided, they get down to the messy business of cleaning the fish. When I order anchovies or sardines, the process is a quick one. They scale the fish, and then in almost one deft move, they remove the head and guts, leaving the fish whole. While not the most appetizing process, it’s something that I’ve become quite mesmerized by, and watching my local fishmonger work has taught me that it’s really quite easy to do yourself, especially with small fish.
**The onions we use in much of our cooking here are Figueres onions, which come from the region north of Barcelona. They are small, pale purple, and slightly sweet. They’re great to use in escabetx because they don’t overpower the rest of the ingredients. You could play around with different varieties, but I would stay away from the common yellow onions with a sharp bite, and try something slightly sweeter and more mild.