Has the man finally lost it? I hear you ask.
When I was young mackerel were viewed with much suspicion. Scavengers of the sea, my parents’ generation would describe them. Following that logic you could say exactly the same about crabs, lobsters and many other delicious marine life. The same generation would also consider coley as a fish suitable only for feeding cats, but it can now be found on the menus of many a high end dining establishment. The cynic in me says that that is related directly to the huge prices of other white fish; mackerel, on the other hand, I have always found delicious. As with most fish, freshness is everything. With mackerel it’s even easier to determine, with their vivid tiger stripes. With all fish, bright eyes and shiny skin are key – that’s much easier to detect with the distinctive appearance. Fresh fish, bizarrely, shouldn’t smell of fish, they should smell of the sea.
They are also fairly easy to fillet. If you are looking to teach yourself about fish, a mackerel makes a reasonable apprentice piece. There are now plenty of show-me-how videos online.
It’s an oily fish, rich in some Omega or other. It is good grilled or baked. Try seasoning with a little Dijon mustard. Or get your fishmonger to gut a whole fish and stuff with herbs and/or finely sliced onion. The fastest way, of course, is to fry, skin on. Season the flesh with salt and pepper. Heat olive oil in a pan till hot but not smoking. Put the fish in skin side down and cook for a minute on a high heat to crisp the skin. If necessary use a fish slice to keep the fillet flat and ensure even cooking. After a minute reduce the heat and keep an eye on the flesh, which will turn white. When there is about an inch (sorry, 2.5cm) of uncooked flesh, turn over and cook for no more than 30 seconds, then remove.
It makes an excellent sandwich, with or without a little potato salad.
Mackerel with rhubarb
Modern British chefs have been going on about this as though it were something new and innovative. Our ancestors (more specifically, those in England, who had no issues with mackerel) have been pairing its oily consistency with sharp fruit for years. Mackerel with gooseberry sauce is a classic West country dish. Not much use in spring, though. So, what fruit is sharp and seasonal? Rhubarb, of course. In effect, you are just poaching the rhubarb, but with less sugar than usual. The tartness will cut through the richness of the fish.
Take 2 medium stalks of rhubarb. Wash, top and tail. Cut into pieces about 2.5 cm in length and put in a heavy pan with about 1 – 2 tbsp of caster sugar, and a little water. Start with 100 ml and top up if need be. If you were making a sweet compote you would add more sugar, and need hardly any water. Some recipes add a little ground ginger. Poach very gently until the rhubarb is completely broken down. Blitz with a hand blender and check the sugar. Some recipes will tell you to sieve this – for me that would give you too thin a sauce. Set to one side and warm gently before serving with the mackerel.
If you want to wait for gooseberry season, cook 250g of gooseberries in 100g of water. Add 2 tbsp of sugar, 30g of butter and 1tsp of crushed fennel seeds. Cook until the gooseberries pop open.
Can’t get good fresh mackerel? Try smoked.
Smoked Mackerel Salad with Beetroot, Grapefruit and Horseradish
Smoked mackerel is readily available. I would avoid the peppered versions, as the delicate flavour is overwhelmed. The horseradish cuts through the oiliness, as does the grapefruit. You can use orange in place of grapefruit if you prefer, but I like the extra acidity of the latter. Beetroot adds colour, and crispy potato cubes or warm croutons add texture. This is an incredibly simple and attractive dish.
Ingredients (serves 2)
Salad leaves of your choice (try mixing up basic lettuce with others of colour and flavour, eg rocket or spinach or watercress or radicchio); vinaigrette of choice (a lemon based one is good); 1 fillet smoked mackerel, broken into chunks; 1 medium cooked beetroot (not pickled) cut into bite sized chunks; grapefruit segments (not tinned – see last week’s column on how to segment citrus) – allow about 3 to 4 segments per person (cut in two if they are large); cubes of crisp fried potato or bread croutons (optional); creamed horseradish sauce – shop bought is fine.
Have all your ingredients ready, but don’t assemble until the last moment. Your potatoes will go soggy, and the beetroot colour will start to leech into everything else. Best to serve on individual plates as opposed to a single salad bowl. Lightly dress the salad leaves with the vinaigrette; Scatter on the fish, beetroot and grapefruit. Add the potatoes or croutons fresh from the pan. Dot the plate with generous blobs of horseradish sauce.