A coveted recipe from Jamaica is finally shared
Whatever you do, says Francine, don’t put it in the fridge right away. You’ll lose the alchemy of hot vinegar because the skin – and the bones, if you’re using whole fish – sheds its collagen, creating less of a sauce and more of sheer lushness. She even saves the dish overnight for lunch the next day. (After that, refrigerate.) Once, a skeptic took a bite of the leftovers, then continued eating, standing silently at the counter with his head bowed, as if saying thanks.
In Jamaica, fresh fish is everything. “The way you got the ice cream truck?” Francine said. “We had the fish guy. “He was riding his bike around the neighborhood with a fish cooler buried in the ice. Traditionally, the escovitch calls the whole red snapper, but living in New York, Francine has learned to adapt. She found that the recipe works for almost any fish, but light, sweet flesh is best.
There are other adjustments. When preparing the dish for non-Jamaicans, Francine will often add ground allspice rather than whole berries. “Someone always thinks they’re meant to be eaten,” she says of the innocent but slightly bitter little orbs. Growing up in a Jamaican household, you make the mistake of only biting them once.
Using fillets is faster, but Francine is longing for the whole fish. “We’ve made food so convenient now,” she says. “It takes a bit of the fun out of it. She wonders how to teach her 13-year-old son to eat a whole fish. She learned at a young age, not because someone told her but because she saw others release the flesh. “You don’t talk much while you have dinner that night, because you have to be careful,” she says.
Francine’s escovitch includes an unorthodox ingredient: raisins. “Jamaicans, don’t come to me,” she said. Her husband was born in Milan, and on a family trip to Venice she tried a plate of sarde in saor, deep-fried, vinegar-dripping sardines filled with onions, raisins and pine nuts. Here it was kinship. Back home, she experiments. The pine nuts were wrong – they took the dish too far. But escovitch recipes allow adding sugar. “There was room for more sweetness,” she said, and so, the raisins.