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A Splash of Sour

Cook anything, marinate it in vinegar and you have escabeche. "Cook" seafood in citrus juice and you have ceviche.

June 27, 1996|ZARELA MARTINEZ | Martinez owns the New York restaurant Zarela and is the author of "Food from My Heart" (Macmillan, 1992)

The first time I ate escabeche is engraved forever in my mind. I was 8 and visiting my grandmother at Santa Anita, her ranch in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico, during the cattle roundup. This is the bittersweet time of the year when the calves are separated from their mothers. They are branded and have their ears notched to identify them, and then they are dehorned.

The male calves also have their testicles cut off. I watched as the cowboys removed them and placed them in a blue enamelware pot. When it was full, they took these huevitos de toro, or "little bull's eggs" (aptly called "mountain oysters" in English), to my grandmother, who promptly breaded and fried them and put them in a vinegary sauce flavored with bay leaves, peppercorns and jalapen~os. The next day she had a party to serve escabeche de huevitos.

Few people in the United States know what "escabeche" means, even though anyone who has had pickled jalapen~os has eaten one.

Basically, escabeche is a cooked ingredient marinated or pickled in a vinegar sauce seasoned with herbs and spices. There are all kinds of escabeches--meat, poultry, fish, shellfish, vegetable, even fruit. They are light and delicious and have many layers of flavor.

But flavor is only part of their charm. They are great for entertaining, because they can be made ahead and are usually served at room temperature. Best of all, escabeches are easy to make.

The cardinal rule for escabeche is to use the freshest ingredients and the best vinegar you can get.

The quality of the vinegar is more important than you might realize. The ideal vinegar is one that has been allowed to mature without pasteurization or preservatives. Low-quality vinegars will give a hard edge to the dish instead of a mellow, subtle finish.

The flavor of the vinegar will determine the flavor of the dish. I prefer to use white wine vinegar because it is subtle, but sherry vinegar adds a pleasing woody tone. Pineapple and cider vinegar can lend a fruity note. But stay away from balsamic vinegar: It overpowers the other ingredients.

In any case, you must dilute the vinegar with an equal amount of water or other liquid to reduce the acidity. My mother uses a strong bay leaf tea with an intense herbal flavor. If a recipe calls for it, I also like to add oil perfumed with fresh herbs.

Let the escabeche sit for a few hours, preferably overnight in the refrigerator, to develop the flavors fully. Then let it come to room temperature before serving.

Because all sorts of foods can be prepared in this way, the recipes I give here are basic ones. The technique is the important thing; once you learn it, you can change the ingredients to suit your taste or according to the ingredients you have on hand.

I must caution that pork, veal and beef will be relatively tough, and they'll develop a gray color if left in the marinade too long. Try poultry, fish and shellfish instead.

My mother is known for her sensational chicken escabeche. At my New York restaurant, Zarela, we often serve mussel escabeche as a special.

We also top grilled fish and fried oysters with red onion escabeche. Other vegetables lend themselves beautifully to this treatment.

I like to keep pickled vegetables--cauliflower, carrots, new potatoes, pearl onions, heads of garlic--in the refrigerator at all times for a quick snack. You can even make fruit escabeche. My cousin Hector makes a delicious version from fresh peaches in a chipotle chile-vinegar sauce.

The technique, like the name, goes back to the ancient Persians, who called it sikba^j (literally, vinegar stew). Originally, it was probably a way of preserving food; the acetic acid in the vinegar is a hostile environment for microorganisms. The dish spread to the Arab world during the Middle Ages, and the Moors took it to Spain. They pronounced the name something like iskbej, and the Catalans, who spell it escabeitx, introduced it to the rest of Spain.

By any name, the process remained the same throughout its travels: Stew, poach or fry pieces of meat and let them rest in vinegar for a day or two to develop flavor.

There are no medieval Arab recipes for vegetable escabeches, but there is a fish version, samak musakbaj (literally, fish made into sikba^j). The fish was fried and covered with vinegar seasoned with celery leaves, coriander seed and saffron. Interestingly, the modern Italian dish scapece alla vastese follows this recipe almost exactly.

Vegetable escabeches were apparently invented in Spain, possibly for periods of abstinence such as Lent. The Spaniards took the escabeche technique to the New World, and today it is found in some form or other in every Latin American country. (And not only there. In the English-speaking islands of the Caribbean, it's called scovetch.)

Another dish that's widespread in Latin America is also based on marinating food with an acidic ingredient and has a similar name: ceviche (also spelled seviche or cebiche).

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