One of the beauties of buying fish, fruit and veggies when they are in season is they are at their best — and cheapest. Mackerel will still be in season until the beginning of October so there is plenty of time to enjoy them while they are plump and meaty.
Seasonal perishable products come on the market in huge quantities, so the law of supply and demand works in favour of the consumer: as delicate goods must be sold as quickly as possible, prices are low.
Mackerel at El Corte Inglés in Jaime III were this week selling at €4.90 a kilo, a very good price for such a versatile fish. They were of medium size, making them ideal for individual portions in all kinds of attractive recipes.
Mackerel, called ‘caballa’ in Spanish, is a good meaty fish that is highly nutritious and full of flavour. It’s so versatile that any cooking method suits it: poached, steamed, soused, grilled, fried, baked or smoked. When it is very fresh it can even be marinated and eaten raw.
The freshness of mackerel is essential as it deteriorates more quickly than any other fish. Mackerel goes off so quickly that since the end of the 17th century it has had special dispensation to be sold England on Sundays.
Shakespeare has Falstaff use the simile ‘as cheap as stinking mackerel’ because such a mackerel would be worthless. Ideally, you should buy your mackerel at the Mercat d’Olivar or the Santa Catalina market, or at supermarkets with a quick turnover. And you should use it the day you buy it.
Although mackerel can be very good on its own, simply grilled, fried or baked, it benefits from the addition of sharp flavours that bring out the richness of its meaty flesh.
A sauce made with gooseberries was such a favourite for centuries that the French term for gooseberry is ‘groseille à maquereau’, or mackerel currant.
It’s the oil in the fish that that makes it such a good match for sharp acidic flavours.This is the same oil that makes mackerel go rancid so quickly, turning the flesh soft and unpalatable.
But when fresh, the flesh is firm and the flavour is excellent, with the added advantage of having no little bones. It provides beautiful fillets, a delight for both cooks and diners. Mackerel fillets are simple to cook and they make easy and delightful lunch and dinner dishes.
Dipped in flour, beaten eggs and coated with breadcrumbs and sautéed in butter or olive oil (or a mixture) they are really delish. Spanish housewives cook large mackerel fillets in the papillote way, wrapping them in tinfoil with thinly sliced mushrooms, roughly chopped parsley and a little fresh thyme. They are drizzled with virgen extra olive oil and baked in a preheated hot oven for no more than 12 minutes.
Mackerel fillets can also be cooked on a bed of creamed spinach and served with boiled new potatoes, such as the Mallorcan patató. Sometimes the spinach is spiked with pinenuts and raisins, a favourite Catalán way of dealing with this leafy vegetable.
Although fillets make for excellent eating, it takes a lot to beat a whole fresh mackerel that’s simply fried, grilled or baked and served with a sauce that has a nice touch of acidity. Small mackerel are best for grilling and frying and the bigger specimens are ideal for baking.
Mallorcan and Spanish cooks, indeed cooks everywhere, are in favour of slashing fish three times diagonally on each side of the back bone before grilling, frying or baking. The idea is that the heat penetrates more quickly to the thickest parts.
But I find this is unnecessary and also a huge disadvantage because the flesh, being exposed to the heat, not only cooks more quickly, it also dries out.
It makes more culinary sense to keep the skin intact and use it as a kind of wrap that will keep the flesh moist and juicy. If fried or grilled on a high heat, the mackerel will gain in taste if the skin comes out crisp and brownish.
Mackerel succulent cold dish
You can make mackerel into a really succulent cold dish by using this very simple method. If the mackerel are smallish, cut off the heads and tails and gut them. Clean large mackerel and cut them into thick steaks.
In half a litre of water or fish stock, boil for 15 minutes some roughly sliced carrots and onions, two plump cloves of garlic, a bouquet garni of leaf celery, parsley, fresh thyme, plus a bay leaf and a clove. After 15 minutes add half a litre of white wine, bring back to the boil, and simmer for another 10 minutes.
Put the mackerel pieces into a deepish dish, sprinkle them with sea salt crystals and black peppercorns and dot with thin slices of lemon.
Pour the strained boiling stock over the mackerel, cover the dish and leave for 12 hours. Serve the strained mackerel at room temperature with boiled potatoes or a salad. An ideal summer dish.
When you want to add sharp flavours to mackerel, these two mustard-based sauces will do the job nicely. One is like a blender-made mayonnaise for which you will need 10 peeled cloves of garlic simmered in salted water until tender.
Put the cooked garlic into a blender with a heaped tablespoon of Dijon or Meaux mustard, the juice of half a lemon and two raw egg yolks. Blend slowly, adding threads of virgen extra olive oil until you have a thin mayonnaise.
Another sauce calls for fresh fennel leaf as its main flavouring. You will need: 4 tbsps Dijon mustard, 1 tsp powdered Colman’s mustard, 50 grs sugar, 2 tbsps white vinegar (cider is best), 6 tbsps virgen extra olive oil, 3 heaped tbsps finely snipped fresh fennel leaves.
Mix the mustards, sugar and vinegar to a paste in a mortar. Slowly add the oil, stirring with the pestle until it forms a thick emulsion, rather like a mayonnaise. Mix in the fresh fennel, snipped into tiny pieces with scissors.
If you transfer this sauce to a tightly covered jar it will keep well in the fridge for several days. Before using it again, stir it vigorously.
When mackerel is very fresh, you can do an excellent version of carpaccio. Cut big fillets into very thin slices, starting at the tail end as you would for smoked salmon.
Arrange the mackerel slices on a serving dish, sprinkle with finely chopped herbs of your choice and generously drizzle with virgen extra olive oil.
Let it marinate for a few hours before using it as a light starter with with brown bread and butter. Serve with a very cold verdejo or a brut nature cava such as the Veritas from the Ferrer bodega in Binissalem.
Smoked mackerel is at some supermarkets. I see it most frequently at Mercadona. It can be sliced and eaten as it comes, or you can pound it with plenty of butter to make a quick pâté. You can also use it for most recipes that call for kippers. The taste, of course, it quite different.