The word spreads like lightening around our local fishing village, “The mackerel are in”.
Hopefuls head for Ballycotton pier with rod and line.. full of anticipation.
You may be surprised to learn that the humble mackerel is my favourite sea fish – but it must be spanking fresh. In fishing villages, all around our coast, fishermen have a saying that “the sun should never set on a mackerel”. They well know that these fish develop a strong unappealing oily flavour as they age , so must be enjoyed super fresh. Fishing for mackerel evokes happy memories for many. A recent Instagram post evoked a deluge of nostalgic memories of catching mackerel with a hook and line and hauling four or five iridescent wriggling fish at a time over the side of the boat when the shoals of fish come into the bay. Sometimes the water thrashes with movement when the mackerel are chasing a shoal of sprats almost to the shore. One can virtually scoop the mackerel with your hands into a bucket – It’s a feast or a famine… This phenomenon is regularly witnessed during Summer in Youghal Bay.
The secret to keeping fish fresh for longer is to gut them immediately, right there and then in the boat. Throw the entrails overboard for the squawking gulls who will be swooping around hoping for a treat .
A seasoned West Cork fisherman gave me another brilliant tip. He not only guts them but also chops off the head and tail as soon as they’ve been caught. They bleed and consequently will be stiff and spanking fresh the next day when kept overnight in the fridge. He also insisted that it was important, just to wash them in seawater rather than fresh water. All of this is of course in an ideal world where you are close to the sea. However it emphasises the point that mackerel, like all fish, wherever you source it are at their most delicious when fresh. It’s even more important with mackerel because of their high oil content. These inexpensive little fish are packed with Omega 3, Vit D and B6 and are a super source of protein, as well as potassium, zinc, cobalamin and magnesium.
They are also super versatile, they are gorgeous pan grilled but also delicious poached as well as roasted or tossed on the BBQ. Try this recipe with Bretonne sauce that Myrtle Allen shared with me years ago. They take just minutes to poach. We also love to warm smoke them in a biscuit tin over a gas jet. Again, lots of ‘bang for your buck’ in terms of flavour and fun.
For extra satisfaction, learn to fillet them yourself, you can just slide a sharp knife above the backbone from the tail towards the head, slice right through the pin bones or one can fillet them more meticulously. It takes a little practice but it is a skill well worth acquiring. Alternatively, ask your fishmonger to do it for you and watch carefully. Here are a few of my favourite mackerel recipes. All quick and easy for you to enjoy with your family and a few lucky friends.
Line Caught Mackerel with Lemon and Fennel Flower Mayo with Ashtanur
4 line super fresh caught mackerel
small knob of butter
3 tablespoons diced fresh fennel
1 tablespoon fennel herb
Ashtanur Flat Bread (see recipe)
First make the dough, cover and rest (see recipe).
Gut and fillet the mackerel, sprinkle with salt, keep chilled.
Make the mayo, add the diced and chopped fennel. Taste and correct the seasoning. Keep aside.
Cook the bread (see recipe).
Just before serving.
Heat the grill pan over a medium heat. Dip the fish fillets in flour which has been seasoned with salt and freshly ground pepper. Shake off the excess flour and then spread a little butter with a knife on the flesh side, as though you were buttering a slice of bread rather meanly. When the grill is quite hot but not smoking, place the fish fillets butter side down on the grill; the fish should sizzle as soon as they touch the pan. Reduce the heat slightly and let them cook for 3 -4 minutes on that side before you turn them over. Continue to cook on the other side until crisp and golden.
Serve on hot plates with fennel mayo and a sprinkling of fennel flowers as well as a wedge of lemon
Ashtanur – Griddle Bread
This is the most basic and probably most ancient form of bread. It has many names, ashtanur being the Jerusalem moniker and the one which sounds best to us, but in my grandmother Esther’s house it was called saloof.
You can make the dough in advance if you wish and keep it refrigerated to cold-prove until you are ready to bake. Any bread that is left over can be wrapped in cling film or a plastic zip-lock bag for future heating and eating, or left to dry and become tasty crackers – an added bonus.
Makes 6-7 flat breads
250g (9oz) strong flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
7g (1/4oz) fresh yeast or 1/2 teaspoon dried yeast
1/2 teaspoon honey (or sugar)
60ml (2 1/2fl oz) + about 60ml (2 1/2fl oz) warm water
1 tablespoon vegetable oil plus extra for rolling
Mix the flour and the salt in a big bowl.
Dissolve the yeast and honey (or sugar) in the first 60ml (2 1/2fl oz) of warm water and set aside until it starts to foam.
Pour the foaming water-yeast mixture and the oil into the flour and mix, bringing it all together. Add as much of the additional water as you need to get a good even dough, then start kneading until it becomes supple and shiny.
Drizzle with some extra oil on the top and cover the bowl with cling film and set aside until the dough doubles in volume, or place in the fridge for the next day.
Oil your workbench and turn the dough out. Divide into six or seven balls of approximately 50g (2oz) each and roll them in the oil, making sure each one has a nice coating of it. Leave them on the counter for 10 minutes to rest. Now is the time to set the griddle pan on the stove to heat up.
Start stretching the dough balls. The best way is to oil your hands, then press the dough down to flatten and spread it with your hands until it is as thin as you can get it – you should almost see the work surface through it.
Lift the first stretched dough ball carefully and pop it on the hot griddle pan. It will take about a minute or two to colour, then flip it, cook for 10 seconds and remove from the pan. Put the next one on and repeat the process.
Stack them while they are hot and wrap them in cling film to serve later the same day, freeze once cooled or eat immediately.
Warm Poached Mackerel with Bretonne Sauce
Serves 4 as a main course
8 as a starter
Fresh mackerel gently poached and served warm with this simple sauce is an absolute feast without question one of my favourite foods. .
4 fresh mackerel
1.2 litres (40fl oz) water
1 teaspoon salt
75g (3ozs) butter, melted
1 eggs yolk, preferably free range
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard (We use Maille Verte Aux Herbs)
1 tablespoon chopped herbs, a mixture of parsley, chervil, chives, tarragon and fennel, chopped (mixed)
Cut the heads off very fresh mackerel. Gut and clean them but keep whole.
Bring the water to the boil; add the salt and the mackerel. Bring back to boiling point, and remove from the heat. After about 5-8 minutes, check to see whether the fish are cooked. The flesh should lift off the bone. It will be tender and melting.
Meanwhile make the sauce.
Melt the butter and allow to boil. Put the egg yolks into a bowl, add the mustard and the herbs, mix well. Whisk the hot melted butter into the egg yolk mixture little by little so that the sauce emulsifies. Keep warm, by placing the Pyrex bowl in a saucepan of hot but not boiling water.
When the mackerel is cool enough to handle, remove to a plate. Skin, lift the flesh carefully from the bones and arrange on a serving dish. Coat with the sauce and serve while still warm with a good green salad and new potatoes.
Carpaccio of Mackerel with Ginger and Sesame Dressing
This dressing makes a lot and keeps well. It is also delicious with noodles or pan-grilled fish. It is only worth doing this dish if the mackerel is super fresh, less than 5 hours out of the sea. Ruairi makes a large batch of the dressing and uses it with many fresh fish and for a seaweed salad.
Super fresh mackerel filleted – 1 mackerel serves 2 as a starter
Ginger Sesame Dressing
600ml (1 pint) sesame oil
600ml (1 pint) sunflower oil
150ml (5fl oz) soya sauce
75g (3oz) garlic, microplaned
100g (3 1/2oz) ginger, microplaned
150g (5oz) sesame seeds toasted
spring onions, thinly sliced at an angle
Fillet the spanking fresh mackerel and remove all the bones. Slice each fillet into 1/8 inch thick slices, arrange in a circle on a chilled plate. Spoon a little dressing over each portion. Sprinkle with thinly sliced spring onions and coriander seeds.
How to Smoke Mackerel in a Simple Biscuit Tin Smoker
This is a simple Heath Robinson way to smoke small items of food. It may be frowned upon by serious smokers, but it is great for beginners because it gives such quick results.
3-4 tablespoons sawdust
1 shallow biscuit tin with tight-fitting lid
1 wire cake rack to fit inside
Place the mackerel fillets on a non-reactive tray. Sprinkle very lightly with salt. Allow to sit for 30 minutes. Remove the mackerel from the tray and dry really well with a clean tea-towel or kitchen paper. Lay the mackerel fillets on a clean dry tray. Allow to sit at room temperature for a further 30 minutes to ensure they are completely dry. If the fish is not totally dry, the smoke will not adhere to the fish.
Sprinkle 3-4 tablespoons of sawdust on the base of the biscuit tin. Lay the fish or meat on the wire rack skin-side down, then cover the tin with the lid.
Place the tin on a gas jet or other heat source on a medium heat. The sawdust will start to smoulder and produce warm smoke that in turn both cooks and smokes the food. Reduce the heat to low. Mackerel will take about 6–10 minutes depending on size. Leave to rest before eating warm or at room temperature.
Alternatively, you could buy a simple smoking box from a fishing store or hot-smoke in a tightly covered wok over a gas jet in your own kitchen.
Mackerel with Cream and Dill
Serves 4 as a main course, 8 as a starter
Dill, which is an annual herb, is particularly good with mackerel. One wouldn’t normally think of cream with an oily fish but this combination is surprisingly delicious and very fast to cook.
4 fresh mackerel
Salt and freshly ground pepper
¼ oz (8 g) butter
6 fl ozs (175 ml) cream
1½-2 tablespoons fresh dill, finely chopped
Gut the mackerel, fillet carefully, wash and dry well. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Melt the butter in a frying pan, fry the mackerel fillets flesh down until golden brown, turn over on to the skin side, add cream and freshly chopped dill. Simmer gently for 3 or 4 minutes or until the mackerel is cooked, taste the sauce and serve immediately.