Whatever you do, Francine says, don’t put it in the fridge right away. You lose the alchemy of the hot vinegar when the skin — and bones, if you’re using whole fish — releases its collagen, creating less of a sauce than pure lusciousness. She even puts the dish out at night to have for lunch the next day. (Then put in the fridge.) Once a doubter took a bite of the leftovers and continued to eat, sitting silently at the counter with his head bowed, as if saying mercy.
In Jamaica, it’s all about the freshness of the fish. “Like you have the ice cream truck?” Francine says. “We had the fish man.” He cycled through the neighborhood carrying a cooler with fish buried in the ice. Traditionally, Escovitch asks for whole red snapper, but Francine lives in New York and has learned to adapt. She’s found that the recipe works for almost any fish, but light, sweet meats are best.
There are other adjustments. When making the dish for non-Jamaicans, Francine will often toss allspice in the ground instead of whole berries. “Someone always thinks they’re meant to be eaten,” she says of the harmless-looking but slightly bitter globules. Growing up in a Jamaican household makes the mistake of only biting it once.
Using fillets is faster, but Francine is wistful about whole fish. “We’ve made food so convenient now,” she says. “It takes away some of the fun.” She wonders how to teach her 13-year-old son to eat a whole fish. She learned at a young age, not because anyone told her, but because she saw others free the flesh. “You don’t talk much that night while you’re eating because you have to pay attention,” she says.
Francine’s escovitch contains one unorthodox ingredient: raisins. “Jamaicans, don’t come at me,” she says. Her husband was born in Milan and on a family trip to Venice she tried a plate of sarde in saor, fried sardines and dripping vinegar, topped with onions, raisins and pine nuts. Here was kinship. At home she experimented. The pine nuts were wrong – they took the dish too far. But recipes for escovitch allow for stirring in some sugar. “There was room for more sweetness,” she says, as were the raisins.