- mixed nuts and seeds
- fresh pomegranate
- 1 babygem lettuce
- clump of Moroccan mint
- clump of curly parsley
- 5 cherry tomatoes
- ½ cucumber
- cup of bulghar wheat
- juice of one lemon
- tblsp of extra virgin, olive oil
- ¼ grated carrot
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.
Every Friday, when I was a child, just before lunch, a small, blue Bedford van would pull up in our neighbourhood and the man who drove it, would open the two back doors and then shout, ‘Fresh herring, fresh herring.’
It was as sure as clockwork and people did set their watch by him, because when he hit the neighbourhood it was an hour from lunchtime and herring was on the menu. Strangely, herring disappeared from my diet since I moved from that town in Donegal in the north west of Ireland.
Of course, back then, in the 1960s, most Irish families ate fish on a Friday, particularly since it was a requirement of your pastoral duty as a Roman Catholic, to abstain from eating red meat. Herring was a good choice because it was cheap, readily available, nutritious and tasty.
It was about that time, too, that tastes were changing, particularly those of younger generations now exposed and completely susceptible to slick marketing and tv commercials. It wasn’t long before we all wanted to eat hamburgers, like they have in the movies or curries, particularly the kind that came in a packet and all you did was add the boiling water. But most of all, come Friday fish day, we demanded fish fingers, outraged and indignant that no-one had ever told us about these anatomical aberrations that were, clearly, tastier than a sea fresh herring, hopping on the griddle.
Strangely, although I went through my own phase of digital piscine rebellion, I never lost my yearning for fresh fish, in whatever shape or size. Now, I live on an island and you might think, for that reason, there’s plenty of fish available and eaten. Sadly, not enough of either, since the bulk of the fish caught in Ireland gets exported and much of the rest gets served for high dining in fancy restaurants or deep fried in batter by fish and chip shops.
The herring, unfortunately, lost favour with the Irish diner, largely because they almost disappeared from local fishmongers and that, in turn, because of EU quotas and over-fishing.
Of course, I’ve eaten plenty of herring since but usually of the ‘Bismarck’ variety, i.e. pickled and wrapped around a pickled gherkin or Scandinavian style in a dill and mustard marinade.
So whenever my local fishmonger has fresh herring in stock, I’m first in line and at 3 for a €1, well, I bought six and decided to pickle them. And while I was there, I grabbed a couple of mackerel fillets.
- six herring, gutted and filleted
- 1 cup of rice vinegar
- 1 tblsp sugar (or, as I use, a half tblsp of light, agave nectar)
- 2 cloves
- 1, finely chopped, onion
- 1 tspn ground white pepper, or half a spoon of white pepper corns
- pinch of salt
- 1 tspn of allspice, whole
First, you have to fillet the herring. Cut off the head and tail then slit the fish open, along the belly from neck to tail. Clean out the guts, then flatten the herring out, flesh down and rub the handle of your knife along the spine. Turn it ove, again, skin side down and the backbone should detach, easily.
Rub the fillets with sea salt and soak, preferably overnight, in cold water. Take the soaked fish fillets and wash off the salt. Mix the vinegar, onion and spices in a bowl. Cut the herring into bite size pieces and place in the mixture. I like to eat them on a bed of lettuce with some fresh cucumber and olives and a glass of crisp, dry, white wine.
When I eat prawns, they have to be spicy. This a recipe that’s packed with heat and flavour.
- 400g of tiger prawns, shelled and de-veined
- 100g of cherry tomatoes, halved
- 2 cups of coconut milk
- 1 tblsp of yellow curry paste¹
- 1 tblsp fish sauce
- 1 fresh chilli
- fresh coriander
- 1 lime
Heat half the coconut milk in a pot or wok and bring to the boil before simmering for ten minutes, to reduce. next add the yellow curry paste and continue to simmer, stirring occasionally. After another ten minutes, add the fish sauce, the rest of the coconut milk and the tomatoes. Cook for another five to ten minutes, allowing the sauce to bubble gently and reduce. Finally, add the prawns and allow to cook in the sauce for three to four minutes. Withdraw from the heat and pour into a serving dish. Garnish the plate with strips of chilli and coriander. Squeeze the juice of the lime over the mixture, before serving with boiled rice.
¹Yellow curry paste
- 1 shallot, finely chopped
- 1 clove to garlic, finely chopped
- 1 inch of fresh ginger, finely chopped
- 1 head of lemongrass, finely chopped
- 1 spoon of mustard powder
- 1tspn cinnamon
- ten chillis, finely chopped
- tspn of finely chopped coriander
mix these in a blender or pestle and mortar, until reduced to a fine paste. This should keep in a sealed jar for a couple of weeks, in a fridge.
So the sun was shining and the night before, I’d been to Brother Hubbards, a little restaurant in Dublin which features Middle Eastern style, festive food as its table d’hote menu. I couldn’t resist returning to those sun kissed dishes that are, often all at once, aromatic, sweet and spicy and, almost above all, colourful. They are wholesome, too, with those essential additions of grains, nuts, seeds and fruits.
It takes time to put all these things together but when you do, you can pack away what’s left over and it’ll keep in the ‘fridge for another couple of days so you can eat it for breakfast, lunch or simply mezze munchies, when you want to lounge about, over a glass of crisp and zingy, white wine, like a chenin blanc.
The main meat dish, lamb with okra, is very simple to make, with a simple range of ingredients and a powerful flavour.
(for two people)
- 200 g of lean, boneless lamb, cubed.
- 1 onion
- 1 clove of garlic
- ½ cup of tomato pureé
- 1 tsp Lebanese 7 spice powder
- 50g of okra, trimmed
- 1 cup of olive oil
Heat the olive oil in a pan, at a low setting and when warm, add the chopped onion, then the garlic, until softened. Now add the lamb cubes and increase the heat so the lamb browns, evenly. When the lamb has been browned, cover it with water, put a lid on the pot and cook for half an hour, keeping an eye on it so the water doesn’t evaporate and the lamb gets burned. While this is cooking, heat your oven to 190º, place the okra on a baking dish and toss in olive oil, then place it in the hot oven for 30 minutes. After half an hour, add the 7 spice seasoning to the lamb, along with the tomato pureé and the okra and return the mixture to simmer for another hour over a low to medium heat, until the sauce has reduced and the lamb is tender and cooked. Season with salt and black pepper and serve with Lebanese flat bread.
For the salads, there is an infinite variety of things you can put together. I like to have something green, something crunchy, something sweet and fruity, something hot and a whole lot of spicy aromas. You can make hummus with sun dried tomatoes, bell peppers or beetroot. You can add nuts like pine nuts, walnuts, almonds or hazelnuts. Then, there’s dates, prunes, apricots or sultanas; fresh fruit, like apples, oranges, figs or pomegranate.
Every time I visited New York in the ’90s, I always made a point of eating, at least once, in a small Lebanese restaurant on Broadway, near Greenwich Village. I don’t know if it’s still there but, if I close my eyes and clear my thoughts, I can bring myself back there and the wonderful ‘fattoush’ house salad, for example, which boasted fresh green herbs like mint and parsley, chard and baby spinach, pine nuts and sesame seeds and above all, it was always ringed with segments of the juiciest mandarin oranges and flecked with pomegranate seeds.
While I could never emulate Ibrahim’s, mouth watering salad, I knew I needed something like it, for the green part of my meal. So I mixed shreds of baby gem lettuce and baby spinach with fresh mint and parsley, quarters of cherry tomatoes, cubed, fresh cucumber, finely sliced onion and green peppers, finely diced, cubes of dried apricot and lightly, dry roasted, pumpkin seeds. On top of this, I added a dressing made of white vinegar, olive oil, garlic, lemon juice and lemon zest with a tsp of zumac.
There are some ingredients, like seeds, nuts and grains, that are essential in all Middle Eastern dishes but, just as essential, are lemon, aubergine and legumes, particularly chick peas. Now, it would spoil a meal if all these ingredients were chucked in to every dish so I went for aubergine, which I pierced, all over, with the sharp point of a knife and placed in a hot oven until it softened. Many recipes tell you to peel them, I don’t. When it’s soft, cut it up into chunks, add some lemon zest and juice, half a cup of tahini, a clove of, finely chopped, garlic and a tblsp of olive oil and then pureé. Sprinkle it with pomegranate seeds to add a fruity crunch and serve. It’s my equivalent of a baba ganoush and it’s delicious and filling, even when served alone with leaves of crisp, baby gem, lettuce.
Next, a beet salad that is as simple as it is tasty. Slice four, cooked beetroots, finely. Slice a red onion, finely. Add 2 tblsps of red wine vinegar and allow to stand for ten minutes or more, before serving.
Finally, a salad of shredded carrot and ginger with spring onion, sliced, and dry roasted sesame seeds with golden sultanas and 1 tblsp of balsamic vinegar.
For the harissa, I mixed six fresh and two dried chillies, together, and roasted them with a little olive oil for twenty minutes in a warm oven. To this mixture I added lemon zest, finely chopped garlic, salt and pepper, and a tsp each, of cumin and coriander seeds, dry roasted. Add some more olive oil and whiz them all together into a paste.
A fatteh is a Levantine dish distinguished by the inclusion of crispy, even stale, pitta and yoghurt. In this one, I’ve used lamb but you could substitute shredded chicken or make a purely vegetarian version with aubergine, chick peas or courgette, or any combination, thereof.
The ingredients are easy to come by and will be available from the nearest Middle Eastern store or even your local supermarket. The salad I made to accompany it is equally simple to put together and very flavoursome and refreshing. Fatte is often served as a breakfast dish and an evening snack.
- 200g minced lamb
- 2 tomatoes, deseeded and chopped
- half a cup of pine nuts
- 2 cups of baby spinach
- 2 cloves of garlic
- 1 onion
- ½ tspn of cinnamon
- 1 tspn cumin powder
- 1 tspn of 7 spice powder (see previous recipe)
- 2 cups of fresh, natural yoghurt
- 1 cup of parsley, finely chopped
- ½ cup of dried or 1 cup of fresh mint
Heat a couple of tablespoons of vegetable oil in a saucepan. Add the minced lamb and stir, until brown. Now add the onion and garlic, both finely chopped and cook for a couple of minutes until softened. Add the chopped tomatoes and the spices. Allow to cook, on medium heat, for another three minutes.
Place pittas in a heated oven until crispy and warm.
in another pan, dry roast some pine nuts until they colour and release their oils.
Mix some of the garlic and mint with the yoghurt and set aside.
The lamb should now be ready to plate up in a serving dish. Once its transferred, take the two cups of baby spinach and add it to the hot lamb so it wilts. sprinkle a handful of the chopped parsley over the top. Now add a dollop of the yoghurt mixture and finally, sprinkle the toasted pine nuts on top.
Cut up the warm and crispy pitta bread and decorate the serving dish so each piece is available for soaking up the lamb. Fatteh is a communal dish.
Potato and fennel salad
- 2 potatoes
- 1 head of fennel
- 1 lemon
- olive oil
- ½ tspn sumac¹
- green or black olives (deseeded)
- sesame seeds
- ½ tspn coarse grain mustard
Boil the two potatoes for twenty minutes, then drain and reserve.
Cut the fennel in fine strips.
Toast the sesame seeds, gently.
When the potatoes are cold enough to handle, cut them up in quarters and place in a serving dish. Now add the fennel strips, the olives and the parsley.
Mix the olive oil, juice of one lemon and the spoon of mustard, to make the dressing. Pour this over the salad and add the sesame seeds. Sprinkle the sumac over the salad.
¹sumac Sumac is a dark red powder made from the crushed and dried berries of the sumac bush, a plant that is common in north Africa. It has a very pleasant citric, lemony flavour.