Way back in November last year I posted a recipe for a dish of sea bass, roasted in the pan with fennel and tomato, and regular readers may recall that at that time I said I’d been intending to make a meal of mackerel instead but the fishmonger didn’t have any so I did a lighter version of what I’d intended with the bass. Well last week the fishmonger had a very fine looking mackerel, so here, at last, is what I’d intended to do way back then. Which is altogether appropriate, because compared to the sea bass version this is a meatier, heartier, more cockle-warming fish dish, perfectly suited to these gloomy January days. And being made with mackerel, it’s way cheaper too, so in line with any post Christmas budget slashing.
Being dead cheap, of course, is just one of the many reasons to love mackerel. It’s meaty, versatile, particularly rich in all those famously healthy fish oils and eminently sustainable so you can feel good about eating it. Not that you need to seek out reasons to feel good about it, because I also happen to believe it’s one of the downright tastiest fish on the fishmonger’s slab, at any price. In my view, mackerel is criminally under rated, but that’s the kind of crime I’m quite happy to live with, frankly.
Start with the fish. If you’re doing half a fish per person – as I did this time, you’ll need to fillet them (or you can ask your fishmonger to do that for you, but if you do, make sure you ask him for the frames – as a classic cartoon style fish skeleton is technically known - to make stock). If serving a whole fish each, chop off the heads and tails. Put the discarded fish bits in a pot along with some onions, carrots, celery, trimmings from the fennel, whole peppercorns and fennel/coriander/mustard seeds, dried chilli and bayleaf, cover with water and simmer gently for about 25 minutes to make your stock.
Marinate the fish in lemon juice, vermouth and olive oil with lots of fresh herbs (I’ve just used parsley, a little soft thyme and the fine frond like leaves from the fennel here, but any combination of your regular green leafy herbs would be good - particularly the aniseedy flavour of dill. Also, if you’re using whole fish, feel free to stuff their cavities with the ‘woodier’ herbs - thyme, sage and rosemary) and salt and pepper and finely sliced garlic and chilli (optional at this point – I would tend to use half the garlic and chilli in the marinade, half in the cooking pot).
Trim the fennel bulbs and cut into thick slices or wedges, and fry gently in olive oil (if you have a suitable sized pan/shallow casserole or roasting dish that is both stove top and oven proof you can do all this in the same pot, otherwise you’ll do this part in a pan and have a roasting dish warming in the oven to transfer to)
As with the fish and the fennel, your decision making on the tomatoes will depend on their size, if they’re big, halve them. If they’re small, actual cherry sized cherry tomatoes, then I’d leave them whole, but if you do that, then be sure to prick them with a fork, to allow the juices to flow, and to prevent them becoming potential steam bombs. Similarly, halve or quarter the mushrooms depending on size (they should be at least as big as the tomatoes). When the fennel is nicely coloured, season with salt and pepper, add finely sliced garlic and chilli to the pan and allow that a minute or so to soften (take care not to let the garlic burn, but it’s ok to let it colour) before adding the mushrooms, cook them for a minute or so, giving a couple of stirs, then add the tomatoes. Carry on cooking for another few minutes till the tomato skins are starting to wrinkle and shrink, then add a good glug of vermouth, and a ladle or two of fish stock. Bring to a vigourous simmer and keep cooking on the stovetop until the fennel is soft and the tomatoes are just starting to break down
Now transfer to the roasting dish if you’re not doing it all in the same pan. Arrange the fish (fillets skin side up, whole fish upright, as in dorsal fin up) on top of the tomato, fennel and mushrooms. Pour over the rest of the marinade, and a little more stock if you feel you need it. Don’t drown it, you want a good quantity of sauce, but not a soup. You can top up the liquid levels with stock and/or vermouth later if it over reduces. Cover the dish with foil and bake at 180 for around 20-25 minutes for fillets, or longer and lower if using whole fish – say 30-40 at 150, depending on how big the fish are. Remove the foil, check the liquid level and seasoning and cook for another 5-10 minutes, if needed, but you want to be careful not to overcook the fish – if there’s too much liquid but the fish is already nearly done, lift it out and keep on a warm plate while you reduce off some of the sauce, then put the fish back on to finish it off. To get more colour and crispness to the beautiful skin of the mackerel, I finish it under the grill till it turns an even more beautiful golden bronze, just starting to blister and blacken (but keep an eye on it or it can blacken just a little too much as mine did on this occasion. Still damned tasty though, and I never did claim to be perfect...
Add a handful or two of chopped flat leaf parsley, and serve it with boiled new potatoes as I’ve done here, or it’s yet another dish that goes superbly with with mash to soak up all that sweet, rich sauce.
P.S. I highly recommend watching the videos here. They might or might not help you fillet your mackerel - for that I'd refer you to the rather more prosaic Mitch Tonk one embedded in the text - but they have a weird, compelling beauty all of their own. The guy's technique, while extremely time and motion efficient, seems to be highly fish wasteful, but I love the sheer gracefulness, and the abstract poetry of the gloomy voice-over - although that will presumably be lost on anyone who actually speaks Dutch. Or maybe not. If you do speak Dutch, and that really is abstract poetry, please let me know...