Whatever you do, Francine says, don’t put it in the refrigerator right away. You’ll lose the alchemy of the hot vinegar as the skin — and bones, if you’re using whole fish — relinquishes its collagen, creating not so much a sauce as sheer lushness. She even keeps the dish out overnight to have for lunch the next day. (After that, refrigerate.) Once, a doubter took a bite of the leftovers and then kept eating, standing in silence at the counter with bowed head, as if saying grace.
In Jamaica, the freshness of the fish is all. ‘‘The way you have the ice cream truck?’’ Francine says. ‘‘We had the fish guy.’’ He would bike around the neighborhood with a cooler of fish buried in ice. Traditionally, escovitch calls for whole red snapper, but living in New York, Francine has learned to adapt. She has found that the recipe works for almost any fish, but light, sweet flesh is best.
There are other adjustments. When making the dish for non-Jamaicans, Francine will often toss in ground allspice rather than whole berries. ‘‘Someone always thinks they’re meant to be eaten,’’ she says of the innocent-looking but slightly bitter little orbs. Growing up in a Jamaican household, you make the mistake of biting into them only once.
Using fillets is quicker, but Francine is wistful about whole fish. ‘‘We’ve made food so convenient now,’’ she says. ‘‘It takes away some of the pleasure.’’ She wonders how to teach her son, who is 13, to eat a whole fish. She learned at a young age, not because anyone told her but because she watched others free the flesh. ‘‘You don’t talk a lot while you’re having dinner that night, because you need to pay attention,’’ she says.
Francine’s escovitch does include 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, sardines deep-fried and dripping vinegar, heaped with onions, raisins and pine nuts. Here was kinship. Back at home, she experimented. The pine nuts were wrong — they took the dish too far afield. But recipes for escovitch allow for stirring in some sugar. ‘‘There was room for more sweetness,’’ she says, and so, the raisins.