Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Vello's Pickled Pinfish

Up until a few years ago, I knew pinfish only as a bait variety occasionally pitched on handmade signs along roads near Florida backwaters. Little did I realize that these pinfish were the same thing as the little "sailors choice" fish that Vello Tou and I would pull in on tiny hooks from the Intercoastal waters east of Oak Hill, Florida. Fresh from the hook, we'd often slice off little filets for bait. Most, however, we kept to bring home along with with plenty of similarly minuscle grunts, mangrove snapper, and spot. Upon returning to his house in Oak Hill, Vello would set up a little table in the back yard and clean any larger fish we were fortunate enough to have caught. Then he'd go to work on all those tiny ones, each of which rendered two less than bit-size skinless filets, one from each side. When done, he'd insert these tiny filets into zip-lock bags, add water until the bags were full, and place them in the freezer to be available for pickling at a later time. A native of Estonia, Vello, who's 94 now , grew up in a culture where pickled fish were a staple.

Once pickled, the different species are almost indistinguishable from one another in both appearance and taste. If taking on a project like this here in the Mid-Atlantic, I'd attempt to source some very small Norfolk spot as fresh from the water as possible and certainly well before their arrival at the bait store.

Vello pickles his fish in wine that he makes himself---from grapes, elderberries, cactus, even tangerines---whatever kind of homemade wine he goes with isn't a big deal to him, though to use vinegar is out of the question. My advice would be to choose any wine that's white and reasonably dry. Here's how Vello does it:

Fileting tiny fish like this---skin off---can be tedious. Needless to say, you need a sharp knife and a lot patience that should ultimately prove to be well rewarded. You also need plenty of filets, a couple dozen at the barest minimum assuming a small container. Glass, plastic, even tupperware is fine, as long as it has a tight fitting lid. The other ingredients needed are as follows:
Kosher salt
Dry white wine
McCormick pickling spice ground into a very coarse powder
Onion slices.
Sprinkle some kosher salt on the bottom of your container. Add a layer of filets, and sprinkle a bit more salt, some pickling spice, and a few reasonably thin onion slices atop. Next add a second layer of filets and top them similarly. Continue this process until the container is no more than 3/4 full in order to allow space should the absorption of wine cause the fish to expand. Add wine to barely cover. Then cover the container and refrigerate for at least a week, checking occasionally to determine whether more wine should be added to assure the filets remain moist.

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