Why It Works
- Gently heating the aromatics in the olive oil draws out their flavors and aromas.
- Steaming the mussels in their own liquid makes them plump and tender, ready to absorb all of the marinades flavors.
At the height of Spanish mussel season every July to September, seafood packers make the most of the harvest by preserving them in tins as escabeche, a type of pickle. Vibrantly red from pimentón and glossy with olive oil, these pickled whole mussels can be enjoyed in endless ways: as pintxos atop toasted bread, or perhaps incorporated into appetizers, sides, and main dishes.
Unlike escabeches made with sardines or tuna, which are often made from scratch in homes and restaurants, mussels escabeche is much more common in its tinned form. But mussels enthusiasts should take note: they taste even better homemade. “Canned mussels are often a little too soft and overcooked,” Chef Sergi de Meià, president of the Catalan Cuisine Institute and one of the leaders of the Slow Food movement in Catalonia. “It’s important to cook them carefully so they have more texture, to contrast with the flavors of the escabeche.”
De Meià opts for mussels of the Ebro Delta in Catalonia, which are a touch smaller than Spain's other famous mussels from Galicia—“but sweeter”, he says—for his escabeche. He simply heats de-bearded mussels in an empty pot until they release their revered “mussel liquor” and steam in its vapor until plump and juicy. The liquor can be saved to be used as a stock in other dishes, like paella.
The escabeche marinade can be made while the mussels steam by infusing olive oil with garlic, herbs, spices, and other aromatics. De Meià emphasizes the importance of using good olive oil and vinegar. “I use the local olive oil that is golden in color, with a soft flavor, and vinegar made from very good wine. The sweetness of the escabeche should come from the vinegar,” he says.
The method for making escabeche dates back several centuries, with one of the earliest recipes appearing in the 1324 medieval cookbook Sent Soví. It starts with a fish stock made with onion, olive oil, salt, and parsley. "With this stock you prepare an almond milk,” Francesc Castro, journalist and co-founder of Aborígens, a company that creates educational culinary trips about Catalan and Spanish food culture, says of this ancient version. “You then take fried fish, cook it with spices, add the milk and olive oil, and check for sweetness and sourness. You can then add salt, and raisins soaked in wine or vinegar.”
Although the ingredients for escabeche have changed somewhat since the 14th century, the core principle of balance has not. “Today, we cook it with onion, garlic, and carrot for sweetness...and use paprika, vinegar, pepper for sourness,” says Castro.
Also important is properly highlighting the main ingredient, typically oily "blue" fish like sardines and mackerel, white fish, shellfish, or game meat like partridge, beef tongue, and rabbit. Lighter fare often calls for more subtle olive oils and fewer spices, while heftier flavors stand up to strong vinegars like grenache vinegar and more generous additions of herbs, spices, and sweeteners like honey. As Castro explains, “escabeche has Arab origins as a recipe used for preserving. [Looking at recipes today] you can see both Muslim and Roman influences.”
Examining escabeche recipes over time offers a glimpse into Spanish history, trade routes, and farming and hunting patterns. Back in the days of Spanish monarchy, kings would be served specialty escabeches that had “rich flavors like ginger and cinnamon...spices that came from the Middle East,” says de Meià. Pickling methods, he says, became popular partly because it was too hot for many fermentation methods, and “to conserve the local specialties when at their best moment—blue fish is popular because the season is so short [July to September]; for game it is wintertime, November and December.”
Canned escabeches have long been a major fixture among homes and restaurants alike. Castro describes “having vermouth in the old days...it was on Sundays after church service, as a big social event among relatives and friends. Still nowadays, even without church, you don’t feel guilty when drinking and eating cured, tasty anchovies.” Beyond the household, escabeche was first served in “humble food houses, or cases de menjars, as we say in Catalan,” he continues. “But in recent years, modern taverns and ‘gastrobars’ are serving more escabeches...[from] foie gras to oysters to chanterelles.”
“Every village and every house has its own escabeche,” de Meiá says. “There is a saying in Spanish that translates to my mothers’ is one in the world—essentially that every mother has her own version.” (As he says this, Mrs. de Meià looks up from preparing periwinkle snails in the kitchen and waves to me over Zoom.) His version for mussels (and other fish and shellfish) includes moscatel or grenache vinegar, olive oil, black pepper, sweet paprika, lemon zest, lemon juice, and fresh garlic with the skin on. When I repeat this to make sure I heard him correctly, he laughs. “That’s my favorite part! You cook the garlic in the marinade, and it conserves the inside. Then you can pop out the cloves and eat it with the mussels!”
After making a batch of escabeche with de Meià’s recipe, I can very much understand why this preservation process has become such an integral part of Spanish culinary repertoire, especially as a staple for creating pre-meal aperitivos. Watching the mussels transform over the course of two days was nothing short of magical. “Mussels are like a sponge, it keeps its sea flavor and also absorbs everything else,” de Meià says. “It’s pure alchemy.”
This recipe is adapted from Chef Sergi de Meià, who consulted with the author for this article.
- 2 pounds (900g) mussels, scrubbed and debearded (see note)
- 1 cup (200g) light and mild high-quality extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 head garlic (about 1 1/4 ounces; 35g), separated into unpeeled cloves
- 2 sprigs rosemary
- 5 sprigs thyme
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
- Peeled zest of half a lemon, cut into thin strips
- 3/4 teaspoon sweet paprika
- 1/2 cup (100g) high-quality red or white wine vinegar, such as grenache or moscatel
- 1/2 tablespoon Diamond crystal kosher salt; for table salt, use about half as much by volume or the same weight
In a large pot or Dutch oven, add mussels, cover, and set over medium-high heat. Let cook until all mussels have opened, about 8 minutes.
Remove mussels from heat, uncover, and let stand until cool enough to handle. Shuck mussels into a medium heat-proof bowl; discard shells. Reserve mussel "liquor" for another use, such as for stock in a sauce, broth, rice, or pasta dish.
Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan, combine olive oil, garlic, rosemary, thyme, bay leaves, cinnamon, black pepper, and lemon peel and set over medium-low heat until fully heated through and gently bubbling, about 8 minutes.
Remove oil from heat, then add paprika, vinegar, and salt.
While marinade is still hot, pour over shucked mussels and stir to combine. Wrap bowl with plastic wrap and let mussels marinate in refrigerator 2 to 3 days before eating.
Make-Ahead and Storage
The mussels can be refrigerated in their marinade up to 5 days.