Tasty, economical, and perfect barbecue fodder
The past 10 years have been a bit of a rollercoaster ride for mackerel. The turn of the decade saw a huge push for its consumption, from both the government and notable chefs—and, clearly, we listened: only two years later, it was duly whipped off the MSC sustainable fish to eat list, and placed in the warning zone.
Happily, though, things have levelled out—and when bought from sustainable fisheries such as those at Borough Market, you can now enjoy this healthy and delicious fish, guilt-free.
“They’ve been a bit up and down, mackerel, in terms of sustainability. But now—particularly at this time of year—they’re absolutely prolific,” says Paul of Sussex Fish. “We see shoals the size of a football pitch. And they’re easy to catch: they come in as close as three to four miles off the harbour where we fish for them in Sussex, and we catch them using drift nets—what we call a ‘jig’, which is basically a rod and line method of fishing. We literally drift through the shoal and bring the fish up in reams.”
With its dense, creamy-white flesh and distinctive flavour, not only is mackerel sustainable (and therefore, economical), it’s also “highly versatile,” adds Borough Market demo chef Luke Mackay, “as can be seen in my recipe for mackerel three ways. In just one dish, I serve it pickled in vinegar; cooked on the grill to give it crispy salted skin, served with a dash of lemon juice; and as a tartare, so raw, skin removed, flesh chopped finely and mixed with lemon juice, crème fresh, chives and some red onion. The tartare is light and fresh, so the flavour of the mackerel really comes through. “
Due to the fish’s natural oiliness—“in a really good way!” emphasises Luke—mackerel pairs excellently with acidic flavours. “Anything pickled, sharp, or strong-tasting works well,” he continues. “It can take quite a lot of seasoning, too, so don’t be shy. It also goes with anything you’d have with meat—horseradish, for example, works really well, particularly with smoked mackerel which adds another layer of interest. I also love seared mackerel fillet with pickled beetroot; it makes for a really nice starter. The acidity of the pickle cuts through the mackerel’s fattiness, without killing its flavour.”
You can ask your fishmonger to fillet it for you, ready to pan fry, grill or roast, or Luke assures us it’s easy enough to do at home. “Once you know how to fillet one fish, you can fillet any fish. It just takes some practice,” he says. “Work around the rib cage—a lot of people go straight through it, which is why you get all the bones, but if you do it this way it’s pretty-much bone-free,” adds Paul. “A pair of tweezers are useful to pick out any little bones.”
Straight on the barbie
You can, of course, cook the fish whole. “My favourite way to cook mackerel is just in a really hot oven, or on a barbecue—in fact, that’s the best way to cook it,” says Luke. “Just stick it straight on the barbie, add a bit of oil, salt and pepper, and let the skin go crispy. It will char on the outside and remain tender inside. It’s lovely. It’s the perfect summer barbecue food.”