Interesting fact: St. John’s Wood (in its abbreviated form here) is the only London underground station that contains none of the letters within the word “Mackerel”. Damon Albarn told me that. Sadly, I wasn’t having a drunken chat with him somewhere fancy. He was addressing the whole of Brighton Arena mid-gig with this nugget of information. Still not too sure why. Or even if it is true. Anyway, hopefully the below will be somewhat more informative!
Scorching mackerel over hot coals then serving with something sharp or sweet is for me the very best way to enjoy this perennially underrated fish. People can confuse rarity and expense with quality. Just because something is rare or expensive does not mean it is inherently good. Just because something is plentiful or cheap does not make it inherently less enjoyable. I would choose mackerel over caviar every time. Pairing something sweet and/or acidic with mackerel not only highlights the rich oiliness of the fish but also balances it. If you don’t have a barbecue (or can’t be bothered to light it), you can achieve some smokiness by frying very aggressively skin-side down in smoked olive oil, which quite widely available now online. You can really take it close to being burnt; it should feel primal rather than finessed.
Curing the mackerel first, aside from seasoning it nicely, will also make it less likely stick to a hot pan as it will draw out a little of the moisture content. If your non-stick pan isn’t great, another trick is to season it lightly with a little Maldon salt once you have added the oil and before you add the fish. Think of it like gritting a road; it will just form a slight barrier between pan and the fish. Go lightly though, as you don’t want the fish to be over-seasoned. I developed this technique as a young chef in a professional kitchen somehow devoid of non-stick pans! I won’t say where that was.
Mackerel do not have scales, so you only need to check for pin bones. If they haven’t been removed, simply run your knife either side of them at an angle, without piercing the skin, then using fish tweezers or your fingers, you can pull them away, going from neck end to tail end, in one simple manoeuvre.
In this dish, you want to cut the tomatoes into slices about the same thickness as the mackerel so the fish can sit happily on top and you can devour both layers at once to enjoy the contrasts. Wedges would be less harmonious or indulgent. Serve with some nice bread to mop up the juices.
2 Large ripe tomatoes
4 tbsp Olive oil
2 tbsp Chardonnay vinegar or white balsamic
1 Garlic clove, minced
4 Mackerel fillets, pin-boned
2 tbsp Caster sugar
2 tbsp Fine salt
2 tbsp Parsley, roughly chopped
2 tbsp Smoked olive oil
Pinch Maldon salt
- Slice the tomatoes into 1cm slices or similar thickness to the mackerel, then lay onto individual plates or a platter and season generously with salt and sugar.
- Mix together the oil, vinegar and garlic then spoon over the tomatoes and leave for an hour to marinade.
- Mix the sugar and salt together and season the mackerel fillets heavily all over. Leave for 30 mins to cure in the fridge, then wash off and dry on absorbent paper.
- Scatter the parsley over the tomatoes.
- Fry the mackerel very aggressively in smoked olive oil skin side down until the skin is very dark, then flip over and remove from the pan straightaway.
- Season with some lemon zest, grated on a microplane, a little lemon juice and some Maldon salt, then sit on top of the tomatoes and serve immediately: a plate full of flavour, colour and contrasts.