I love mackerel. It’s a cheap, oily fish, packed full of omega 3 fatty acids. It’s best eaten fresh, unless you want to pickle or smoke it.
When I was ten years old my family packed me off to a Gaeltacht, a district in the west of Ireland where the Gaelic language was used as the primary language. They were, usually, remote, backward regions where, it appeared to us ‘townies’, they were still awaiting the arrival of the 20th century. And this was in the ’60s.
Now the Gaeltacht I got sent to was on a small Atlantic island, off the west coast of Galway, so remote, then, there was one ferry to bring you out there but no pier to land you. Instead, you were disembarked from the ferry, which carried livestock as well as humans, into small, fishing dinghies, called currachs and then rowed ashore, with the chickens, maybe a goat, too.
Students were put up in the houses of the locals, for which their family paid and it was a major source of income for the islanders. We were, usually, roomed three to a room and when you weren’t in the house, for meals and sleeping, you were in the local school or wandering and exploring the tiny island.
Happily, one of my companions, with whom I was roomed, was from the same school as me so that made the loneliness less painful and the adventure, more fun. The other boys in the house were from different parts of Ireland and, in our case, from different parts of Dublin.
We soon learned there were ways of playing our more working class backgrounds to our advantage. For example, we got an egg for breakfast every morning with a couple of slices of toast and a bowl of cereal. So far, so good. The eggs were, almost inevitably, boiled. The bean a tigh or woman of the house, kept chickens so the eggs were fresh. We soon found out the boys from the posh districts of Dublin couldn’t deal with the notion of fresh eggs, as in, straight from the chickens walking around in the yard. We played that up and so got more eggs than our share.
Evening meals were always mackerel, freshly caught, gutted and thrown on your plate, most likely with a boiled potato and, either baked beans or frozen peas. I could never get enough of them.
These days, I buy my mackerel from my local fishmonger and there’s always plenty of it, a testimony to its popularity. I buy them whole and if you do, check these signs. First, the eyes, are they clear? If they look milky, forget about it. Then check under the gills and again, look for signs of wear and tear. A little blood is fine but if it looks off colour, murky, then, again, forget about it. Touch the skin. If it’s good and firm, that’s fine. If it feels, even just a tad slimy, forget about it.
The best way to cook a mackerel, I believe, is to fry it. You could barbecue them, too. You can also cook them in the oven, bake, broil or roast, whatever you like, they are, in the end, all the same.
Years of experimenting has given me two favourite recipes, one is mackerel with mustard and that involves frying a mackerel fillet in butter and oil, skin down, to get it brown and crispy, then putting it in a warm oven, while you cook the sauce, a traditional white sauce with mustard and anisette or pastis.
Heat a skillet. add a knob of butter and melt until it sizzles. Season the mackerel skin with salt and black pepper and add to the pan. Turn down the heat. The mackerel will cook nicely, but not stick to the pan. Cook it until the edges are cooked then turn it over for half a minute, befor putting it back, flesh side up and placing in a warm oven.
Drain off some of the oily mixture in the pan and add another knob of butter, until melted. Add a small drop of milk and stir, to create a roux. Add more milk and keep stirring until the flour and butter combine in to a silky smooth sauce. Now add a spoon of mustard, English, Dijon or wholegrain and stir, again. Next, add a splash of pastis or anisette and stir, again, until combined. When you’re satisfied with the consistency of the sauce, plate your mackerel and pour the sauce on top. Delicious.
My other, favourite mackerel dish is to cook and serve it whole with a gremolata, a mixture of herbs, onion and seasoning. This method is best, baked. Brown the sides of the fish in a pan, first, then stuff the inside with the gremolata – I like finely chopped red onion, a clove of garlic, lemon juice and a bunch of parsley, chervil and mint – then placed it in the oven, heated to 180°, for ten minutes.