Friday, July 15, 2011

You Will Eat Mackerel

Dear reader, in the present installment of Culinary Propaganda, I offer you three lines of argument for why mackerel (fig. 1), a surprisingly underappreciated fish, will be on your plate. I also suggest a few particularly delectable ways to enjoy mackerel, including an original Szef Bartek recipe.
fig. 1

The first line of argument is about being a responsible consumer of seafood. The global stocks of many species of fish have been considerably degraded over the last century, and some are on brink of total annihilation. Mackerel is not among these. On the North American Atlantic coast, it has long been and continues to be considered a junk fish. Few commercial fishermen seek it out as their primary target. Most are caught as by catch and are used as bait or for fishmeal. A friend originally from the Canadian east coast told me that, when she was growing up, fishermen there would ridicule anyone who wanted to eat mackerel.

Mackerel is also widely distributed on the other side of the Atlantic, where it receives only a modicum of respect. Certain Northern Europeans, including my own countrymen, occasionally eat it, mostly in smoked form (fig. 2).

fig. 2

As a sidenote for my fellow Montrealers, mackerel is not only a sustainable fish, but it could also be the closest thing we have to a locally caught saltwater fish. Its range starts in the Saint Lawrence River estuary, which is only a few hundred kilometers downriver from our city. The only hitch is that few fishmongers seem to have fresh mackerel. I have seen some at La Mer (1840 René-Lévesque E.). I have also found frozen raw mackerel from the Magdalen Islands at Loblaws, of all places. However, smoked mackerel, using fish from Canadian waters, abounds in local grocery stores. Yes, run-of-the-mill grocers like Metro and IGA carry them. You will look in the fish or the deli section.

The second line of argument has to do with the nutritional value of mackerel. Like other small, oily fish such as herring and sardines, mackerel are rich in those much sought after omega fatty acids, particularly those of the #3 variety. At the same time, they are free from (or certainly very low in) mercury and other fat soluble toxins that tend to permeate the flesh of larger predatory fish, such as tuna and swordfish. Pregnant and breastfeeding ladies, take note.

The third and most important line of argument in favour of mackerel is about its outstanding culinary properties. Mackerel’s flesh is firm, dark, and pleasantly flavourful, but not as pungent as herring or sardine. Mackerel are actually members of the tuna family and their flesh, after being skinned and boned, is surprisingly similar—like a miniaturized, albeit oilier, version of tuna. In my experience, where only small chunks or flakes of fish are required, canned mackerel can very successfully stand in for canned tuna.

Even when whole, mackerel is an easy fish to prepare. Its skin is free from scales and requires no cleaning. It can be left on for cooking but, if desired, it is very easy to remove. Another plus is that mackerel has rather large, thick bones for a small fish. After cooking, the backbone and spines will practically fall off of the flesh. And there won’t be any nasty, esophagus-puncturing surprises. If you want to cook boneless flesh, they are a cinch to filet, also thanks to the coarse nature of their bones.

Mackerel in the Kitchen
Mackerel take especially well to frying, roasting, and grilling. As they are robustly flavoured fish, they are best complemented by strongly flavoured garnishes and sauces, with lots of spice and acidity. Anything tart and tomato based, especially with garlic, will go with mackerel. Mackerel also make an excellent base for escabeche—a Spanish technique for preparing fish that involves frying fish along with aromatic vegetable then dousing the whole lot in wine and vinegar and letting it pickle overnight, to be served cold (try this excellent recipe). If you get some really fresh mackerel, you could also trying curing them in a mix of salt, sugar and dill—basically gravlax (or gravad lax) with mackerel in place of salmon. Hugh Fearnsly-Wittingstall, the food writer with possibly the most criminally British name, calls this “gravad max” (recipe here).

Mackerel, like salmon, also takes extremely well to smoking. In fact, mackerel in smoked form seems to be a lot more available, at least where I live, than in the raw form. This is not surprising, given how delicious it is—more delicious, I think, and certainly a lot cheaper than smoked salmon. I most often enjoy smoked mackerel on butter-smeared piece of toast or crisp bread, with a little squeeze of lemon juice. But I would also highly recommend trying it atop a bagel with cream cheese, in lieu of lox. Indeed, smoked mackerel makes an excellent substitute for smoked salmon pretty much in any situation where the latter’s pink colour is not crucial to the aesthetics of the dish.

More recently, I have also taken to experimenting with substituting bacon with smoked mackerel—with great success, I must say. The most fruitful of my adventures in substitution has been in realm of potato salad. A favourite simple recipe involves combining boiled young potatoes with a vinegary homemade mayo, diced bacon, dill, and green onions. Recently, I tried replacing the diced bacon with shredded smoked mackerel. This turned out to be rather tasty. I have since made a few additional embellishments to the recipe, such as replacing white wine vinegar with lemon in the mayo (lots of lemon!) and adding anchovies and capers for a flavour boost. I have codified and reproduced this recipe below for your benefit, dear reader. Obedience will be rewarded, trust me.

Szef Bartek’s Smoked Mackerel Potato Salad
Smoked mackerel should not be too hard to find. As noted above, they are readily available in grocery stores here in Montreal. For those of you residing in other cities, you are very likely to find some at a Polish, Russian, or German delicatessen near you.

  • 1 kg young potatoes (use young Yukon Gold if you can find them)
  • 1 tbsp salt
  • 2 smoked mackerel filets (approximately 250 g), shredded (fig. 3)
  • 1 bunch dill, chopped
  • 1 bunch green onion, white and green part, thinly sliced
  • 5-10 anchovy filets (optional)
  • 3-4 tbsp capers* (optional)
  • 1 quantity lemony mayo (recipe below)
    fig. 3

    *I prefer capers packed in salt to those packed in the vinegary liquid. In the latter type, I find the vinegar overwhelms the capers' floral perfume. They are after all unopened flower buds. If you get salt packed capers, rinse them thoroughly to remove the salt. You can soak them in water for a while to further  desalinate them.

    1. You must wash the potatoes thoroughly, scrubbing any black spots of dirt. If the potatoes are more than 3 cm in diameter, cut them in half. If they are more than 5 cm in diameter, quarter them.
    2. You will put the potatoes in a pot and cover them with water. You will add 1 tablespoon of salt. You will cover the pot and place it on maximum heat. When the potatoes come to a boil, you will turn the heat down to medium.
    3. While the potatoes are boiling, you will prepare the mayo (see below). After 15 minutes, you must check the potatoes’ tenderness with a fork. If fork does not penetrate easily, you will continue boiling them. You will check again every few minutes until fork penetrates easily. You will drain the potatoes and wash with cold water to cool them down.
    4. Once the potatoes are cool enough to touch (it is okay for them to be slightly warm), you will place them a bowl. You will now add all of the remaining ingredients to the bowl. You must mix thoroughly. You will check the seasoning and add salt and pepper as desired. Your mackerel potato salad is now ready to serve.

    Alternative Versions

    Szef Bartek’s Bacon Potato Salad:
    As noted above, this salad was derived from a recipe that involved bacon. Should you wish to make the bacon version, replace the mackerel with the same quantity of bacon and omit the anchovies and capers. Cut the bacon into small dice or strips and fry them until just slightly browned. Drain the fat and let the bacon bits cool before adding them to the salad.

    Szef Bartek’s Chorizo Potato Salad: Another variation on the theme I have tried and enjoyed very thoroughly involves using Portuguese chorizo instead of bacon. Likewise, cut the chorizo into small dice and brown it slightly in a frying pan; drain and cool before adding to the salad. A few drops of sherry vinegar before serving will give the salad a nice zing.

    Lemony Mayo
    Dear reader, if you have never made mayonnaise yourself, this recipe is likely to be quite an eye-opener. You will see how ridiculously easy it is. All you require is a small prep food processor or an immersion blender with a small receptacle. A full size food processor will not work as there will not be enough material for the blade to catch early on in the process.

    Note that lemon juice can be replaced lime juice or a vinegar of your choice. White wine vinegar in particular makes for a nice mayonnaise. Add some garlic to this recipe and you an aioli on your hands.

    • 2 egg yolks
    • 1 tbsp Dijon mustard
    • 2-3 lemons, juiced
    • 1 cup of olive oil
    • salt
    1. You will put the yolks, mustard, and lemon juice in the blender receptacle.
    2. Turn on the blender and begin pouring in the oil slowly. Continue blending and gradually pour in the rest of the oil.
    3. You should now have a thick emulsion. You will taste it to check the seasoning. Add some salt if necessary.
    You’ve got mayo.

    Good appetite.