Seafood Recipes

Mackerel, flageolet beans, guanciale, preserved lemon, parsley oil

March 25, 2009

grilled mackerel

Hello, my name is Matt, and I cannot plate food. There, I got that out. Thanks for listening.

As any reader of this blog knows, I eat a lot of seafood. Some I tire of, and have to change up. Others are always a complete joy to eat on a regular basis. A wonderful grilled mackerel certainly falls into the later (and in case you wonder, hallibut certainly falls into the first).. There is something about the buttery white flesh, and the ever-so thin crispy skin that gets me everytime. I haven’t even started to mention the flavor yet… Pure sea. Some say fishy.. Codswallop to that I say. You get a nice fresh (or really fresh frozen one.. more on that later) mackerel, and it shouldn’t smell fishy. Did I also happen to mention the price of them here in Seattle? Cheap as chips – as far as fish goes anyhow. One mackerel might set me back $6, and is just enough to feed two people. And the final clincher of the deal? It is a really, really healthy fish for you. Very oily, so tons of those good Omega’s. Since they are smaller fish, and relatively fast growing, it has been said that they also rank pretty low on the dirty little polutants side of things too.

Did I also mention that if you buy a whole mackerel, it is one of the fastest and easiest fish to fillet? Oh, and if you get a smaller mackerel, you need not worry about the pin bones? you can just chomp right through them – in fact, they make a rather satisfying crunch.

Quite a lot of the mackerel we see here in Seattle comes on frozen. This isn’t too much of a big deal for these oily little blighters. Fish with high oil contents tend to freeze much better than those without. My theory on that is that the oil in the fish repels water – and water when it freezes expands, thus tearing delicate fish flesh. Just my theory, and right now I am sticking to it. Every now and then we get some fresh in – but check it out. If it has flown in from the other side of the world, it might well not be that fresh, and you would almost certainly be better off with frozen – more on how to check if your fish is fresh later in this post.

So, what the bloody hell is going on under this fish you ask…..

Well, it is almost pork and beans (oh dear, not again..). I had some flageolet beans (those amazing French beans that hold together so well after cooking) sitting in the pantry, winking at me every time I opened the drawer (OK, I don’t actually have a pantry, I have a kitchen cupboard, and a kitchen drawer.. I can dream though). I love these little darlings, a great firm meaty texture, and they absorb flavors well – which makes them perfect for cooking in a herby court bouillon, and then tossing in some pork fat.

Did someone say pork fat???

Yes folks, that is right. In a never ending quest to keep my readership, I am adding pork products to every dish. OK, that is a lie. I was thinking about cassoulet the other day (I was in fact going to use the beans for that, but just haven’t the time right now to cook that great dish), and just how amazing it is when a bean absorbs that lovely pork and duck richness. I decided I wanted to do something similar here, but much lighter. So, instead of letting the beans cook in the fat/juices, the beans are cooked in this light court bouillon, and then tossed in the rendered pork fat from the guanciale.

So, guanciale is cured pork jowl (neck). This is certainly something you can cure at home – but you do end up with quite a lot of really, really fatty pork (but, oh so good fatty pork). Personally, I use it so infrequently that I tend to buy just small amounts of it as and when required. It’s flavor is more intense than pancetta – certainly more porky, and tastes a little richer. If you have trouble finding guanciale, you could substitute pancetta here certainly, but not bacon – the smoke flavor will just overwhelm this dish.

Often when I use a really fatty cut of pork I like to have something acidic that will cut through a bit of the fat, and lighten things up a bit – especially as we jump into Spring. Lemon is great, but is a little expected, and can be (dare I say it) a smidge one dimensional.. (go on, shoot me). Enter, stage right, preserved lemon. This is just simply lemon that has been preserved in salt water for a couple of weeks. The result is a far more complex, less tart lemon flavor. It is an essential ingredient in a lot of Moroccan dishes, and I happen to just love the stuff. I can add so much complexity when just a little acidity is needed. It even seems earthy sometimes, which is why I love it here – paired with a robust porky product.

So, the beans are cooked in a court bouillon. The pork jowl is sliced, and slowly cooked in a pan until cooked through, and some fat has run. This jowl then gets taken out, and diced. Into this pork fat goes the jowl again, along with the beans, and all gets heated through. I wanted some greans in here, and chose some chopped up frisee. I really wanted to use some miners lettuce, but I was too far from the local farmers market that would have it.. Oh, and the wrong day too. This would have just been wonderful with the miners, but oh well!

To round things out, this all sits with a sexy little parsely oil, made with my new favorite kitchen toy. The SuperBag. This was a gift from a couple of wonderful bloggers, Dawn and Eric, that came to that meat party I hosted. Now, I asked guests that if they wanted to bring a bottle of plonk, that would go down very nicely thank you very much. Eric and Dawn showed up with a little nylon bag and a jar of marmalade. Neither were alcoholic, or drinkable. NICE. Turns out to be a rather stellar gift though – that woman Dawn certainly knows how to make a seriously good marmalade. And that superbag. Where do I begin? Well, I used to strain using a double layer of cheesecloth, like a complete animal.. No more! hah! The superbag does that, and so much more. This one they got me is really pretty darn fine, and can filter out the tiniest particles from a liquid. I have used it for a few herb oils, and the results have been stellar. I cannot imagine just how well it would do straining stock for a consume. I LOVE THIS THING.

The parsley oil adds another subtle smidge of flavor, and helps keep things light again. And, well, it just looks darn good on a plate. If, unlike me, you are not plating-challanged.

This turned out to be a really amazing little dish. Very light and fresh tasting. The preserved lemon just kicked this into another dimension completely, and I just love it paired with the guanciale. The preserved lemon I used here, I bought, but I will certainly be making my own in the future. Seems like it would keep forever, and is dead easy to make. The mackerel was a joy, especially when pushed through the beans, into a little of the oil. This really was a nice little introduction to Spring for me – even if the weather in Seattle certainly isn’t full of Spring.

And finally.. how to tell if the fish you are about to buy is fresh. Lets take a look at the picture below, which is of the mackerel I used for this recipe. Now, I am going to say the name of the place I got them from (their nickname however ends in paycheck..), but it wasn’t my usual supplier (Mutual Fish). These guys aren’t in the best condition, but I was pushed for time.

My first suggestion is to talk to the fishmonger. Ask them what is fresh, how fresh a certain fish is, and so forth. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, even if you are new to the fish game. The fishmongers in the store, that shall remain nameless, really piss me off. If you ask how fresh something is, all you get is “really fresh, it came in today” – which, quite frankly tells you nothing. You want to know how long it has been dead. So, you have to do your own investigating.

Here are my tips:

Look at the eyes – they should be clear, not cloudy. They also shouldn’t be sunken in.

Look inside the gills – it should a rich pink color, and there should be no water in there. If they look waterloged, the fish could well have drowned, and the flesh be holding more water than it should.

Poke the fish (or get the fishmonger to) on the skin of its body. If the skin and flesh rebound back after the poke, it is most likely fresh. If it stays sunken in, walk away

Look at the skin – it should be glossy, hopefully when viewed at a certain angle you should almost be able to see a rainbow over the skin.

If the fish has scales, check them out – are they pretty torn up? If so, the fish has been badly handled (most likely). Fish flesh can bruise pretty easily, you don’t want one that has been thrown about.

Smell – fish should smell of the sea. Nothing more. If you give it a sniff, and have to hold back a gag reflex, walk away.

Get to know your fishmonger too. I have a great relationship with my usual guy, and get honest answers on all my questions – this counts for a lot. A decent fishmonger wont sell you rubbish.

So – looking above, the eyes look OK, a little sunken however. The skin has some problems though – it has marks across it, and generally looks a bit flat. These fish certainly aren’t the most fresh you are ever going to see.

Grilled Mackerel, flageolet beans, guanciale, preserved lemon, parsley oil (serves 2)

1 mackerel – filleted, each side cut into two pieces

1 cup of flageolet beans

1 thumb sized piece of guanciale, or pancetta at a stretch

rind of 1/2 preserved lemon, finely grated

finely chopped fresh flat leaf parsley

chopped frisee, or miners lettuce (picked) if you can get it

court bouillon:

filtered water

5 sprigs of flat leaf parsley

2 bay leaves

4 sprigs of thyme

6 black peppercorns

parsley oil:

1/4 cup of olive oil

4 cups of parlsey sprigs, packed

Start the day before, making the parsley oil. The directions are the same as for the sage oil I did here. Boil the parsley in heavily salted water for 15 seconds. Dunk into ice cold water, until completely chilled. Dry on a towel, and cut into rough pieces using scissors. Combine the oil and parsley in a blender, and blend on a medium speed for two minutes. Scrape down, and blend again on high speed for 4 minutes. Put this mixture in the fridge overnight to amplify the flavor. Strain through either a Superbag (yay!) or a double layer of cheesecloth.

The night before put the beans in to soak in a large bowl of cold filtered water. Either that – or use the quick soak method (bring to the boil in lots of water, turn of heat, and leave for 1 hour).

Strain the beans, and put them into a saucepan. Cover by two inches with filtered water. Into this put the court bouillon mixture. Bring to the boil, and simmer until the beans are just cooked through – about  40 minutes. Check them periodically after 30 minutes, just to make sure they don’t overcook. Once cooked, strain them, and run them under cold water to stop them cooking further. You can put the herbs/peppercorns here in a cheesecloth bag when cooking the beans – this does make removing the herbs and those little peppercorns easier.

Put the fish, skin side up, on a baking sheet. Brush the fish on the skin side with oil. Season the skin side with a little salt. Preheat your oven’s broiler.

Cut the guanciale into strips. Heat a small saute pan over a medium heat. Add in the guanciale. Gently cook until fat starts to run, the pork looks cooked through. Carefully take out the guanciale (leaving as much fat as possible in the pan) from the pan, and put on a chopping board. Dice the guanciale. Put the beans into the pan with the pork fat in, and gently heat through. Add back in the guanciale dice.

Put the mackerel under the broiler, as close to the element as you can. This will cook quickly – most likely in 3 minutes. Keep an eye on it, don’t let it burn. If the skin looks too dark, move the fish down away from the element slightly, until the fish is just cooked through (it should flake easily with a fork, and look opaque).

Remove the beans/guanciale from the heat. Mix in the preserved lemon and finely chopped parsley. Season with salt and pepper as required. Mix in the frisee (or miners lettuce if using).

To plate: Put the bean mixture down on a plate. Top with the grilled fish. Drissle the parsley oil around the plate. Eat.

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  • rachel March 25, 2009 at 8:06 am

    This looks just delicious and quite beautiful, I would like this for lunch with
    a glass of something white, dry and sharp, the sun on my back and nothing to do for
    the rest of the afternoon.
    I love the combination of flavours and textures here.
    Thankyou for the mackerel inspiration, I can’t remember the last time I cooked it,
    It’s about time.

  • Angry Brit March 25, 2009 at 12:59 pm

    All hail Mackerel. You know, it was the first fish I learned to identify by sight when I was a kid, simply because of its beautiful, oil-swirl skin. I keep meaning to make a batch of preserved lemons to keep in the fridge, but I never seem to get around to it. Sigh.

  • lisaiscooking March 25, 2009 at 1:44 pm

    I’m convinced. I need to get some mackerel, and the parsley oil looks fantastic!

  • colloquial cook March 25, 2009 at 2:49 pm

    Mackerel and guanciale, you have me 🙂 Don’t be too hard on your plating skills, I think you can plate anything with no kind of plan in mind, so long as you finish it of with your fluorescent parsley oil. Very ABBA in style, I like it, I like it.
    (by the way I’m having a charcuterie 101 moment with the beef jerky recipe, my bloody oven only goes down to 200F and I need it as low as 90F, damn it)

  • Ronald March 25, 2009 at 5:05 pm

    The first time I ate Mackerel was two years ago here in Sweden. At least knowingly ate it anyway. Who knows what my mother was able to make me eat under false pretenses. 😉

    I joined my brother-in-law for a day on the sea and we caught 37 of the little buggers. It’s fun because you use a long hand line with 5 hooks and it wasn’t uncommon to bring it 3 or 4 at a time.

    I will certainly have to try this one the next time we have it.

  • foodhoe March 25, 2009 at 5:13 pm

    dang dude, your pictures look pretty good to me. I love mackerel, although I’ve only had it grilled with salt and drizzled with lemon. Guanciale and the beans make it seem like epic feasting.

  • Judy March 25, 2009 at 5:50 pm

    What are you talking about? Love the pictures and the color of that parsley oil is out of this world! Love the push on the mackerel. It is a great fish!

  • Hank March 26, 2009 at 12:19 am

    Nice dish, although too much beanage for my taste. I would buy macks more often, but good, fresh mackerel are nearly impossible to find — although you can sometimes get chubs on the West Coast in decent shape, Bostons on the East Coast.

    BUT…I need to set you straight on the myth of fatty fish freezing better. It is not true. Fatty fish — especially cold-water fatty fish like mackerel — actually go rancid even in the deep-freeze. Fish fat decomposes even at low temperatures (which really aren’t too much lower than the water they once swam in), while lean fish lack the fat that makes them go off.

    The problem with lean fish is freezer burn, which you can pretty much eliminate with a vacuum-sealer. A vac-sealed salmon will be rancid in 6 months or less. A vac-sealed halibut will be just fine even after a year.

    At any rate, now I may have to look for some good chubs to grill with a tomato sauce…

  • matt wright March 26, 2009 at 12:25 am

    Hank: I certainly could have cut the beanage down a bit here.. maybe stacked that badboy a little high – but heck, it has powk jowl.. I mean, come on..

    Thanks for the info on fatty vs lean fish – makes sense. I never tend to keep fish in the freezer that long anyhow – maybe a month. Sounds like I need to get a vacuum sealer.

  • Susan March 26, 2009 at 2:56 am

    Another wonderful photo and you have a great writing style. I so happy I’ve discovered your blog.

  • helen March 26, 2009 at 6:30 am

    I absolutely adore mackerel. Nice and oily, just the way I like it. This dish sounds superb. I assume any oily fish – sardine, black cod – will also do?

  • White On Rice Couple March 26, 2009 at 7:04 am

    Yes, I know your name is Matt and No, I don’t agree with you about not knowing how to plate food! You plate beautifully, that’s why you won that food photography award! Hah!

    Luckily, mackerel comes fresh here, because of the warmer waters. I remember as a kid, my dad and I used to go fishing at the pier’s local beaches. All we would catch were mackerels! My mom would get so tired of cooking and freezing mackerel, she asked us to stop fishing!

    Great fish primer and gorgeous parsley oil pic!

  • matt wright March 26, 2009 at 4:28 pm

    susan: thanks very much!

    Helen: Mackerel is awesome huh! Sardine or black cod would certainly work fine – in fact, this is a pretty forgiving dish, what with the fatty pork jowl and the parsley oil – it would work fine with a mellow white fish, even scallops actually!

    WoRC: You guys are too kind! I remember as a kid fishing for Mackerel in England, putting 5 hooks on a line, and just dragging the things out of the water! Come to think of it, I should have sold them, rather than given them away! (before my days as a cook).

  • Heather March 26, 2009 at 4:52 pm

    Aw, I think food looks its best that way. Just lovely ingredients and a fork. Shit, you put it on a plate, what more do people want? It is beautiful the way you do your thing.

    By the by, I love beans and pork with fish and have been thinking a lot about it lately. I might do a cod and French lentil/ham hock thing soon.

  • Natalie March 26, 2009 at 11:43 pm

    lovely, really lovely. and who cares how it looks on a plate… all that matters is how it tastes and that it gets to the belly.

  • Y March 27, 2009 at 12:41 am

    Oh, I love love love mackerel! That looks like such a delicious and pretty plate of food, Matt. I really must insist you detract that statement about not being able to plate food!

  • Giff March 27, 2009 at 6:59 pm

    Matt, I’m having trouble creating an appropriately snarky comment about your plating skills, since I am perpetually jealous of them.

    Love this dish. I mean just look at the title. What’s not to love? Looking forward to seeing your version of cassoulet.

    Question about preserved lemon – what’s your ratio of salt to water, and do you just leave lemon in rind or peel/cut?

  • redmenace March 27, 2009 at 7:02 pm

    Matt, the pictures take my breath away. The food looks so delicious!! Tell me more about the SuperBag!

  • mallory elise March 27, 2009 at 10:44 pm

    wow, that green is so, green.

    beautiful shot of the mackerel–i don’t think there is any food i love more to photograph than dead fish. that sounds weird. but oh well.

    and yes! fishmongers are excellent conversation partners! not that you would ever need to–but there is a great fish market with chatty mongers in Poulsbo (right off of Bainbridge) i miss them. friendliest fish mongers outside of Portugal. they allow you to molest their dead fish with your camera lens as much as you want. hehe.

  • Rasa Malaysia March 28, 2009 at 1:31 am

    Hey hey, that’s your mackerel dish. The mackerel back in Malaysia at the wet market are so fresh, so the ones we get here…I am not so sure. That’s why I don’t eat much fish here in the US, because they will never be as fresh as the ones back in Malaysia. The ones I get from Asian markets, live fish, but there aren’t a lot of varieties. 🙁

  • mattwright March 28, 2009 at 1:41 am

    Heather: Yeah, there is something about pork, beans and fish!
    Nat: Thanks! I agree with you
    Y: No detraction yet.. hopefully I will redeem myself next post
    Giff: Actually, I bought these, so I would have no idea I am afraid 🙁 I am going to cure some in the next week though, most likely following this one:
    Redmenace: Thanks! The superbag is just like a ridiculously fine cheesecloth, that can filter a liquid so perfectly. I believe it comes in different micron ratings (how fine it will sieve).
    Mallory: Thanks so much!! Photographing dead fish is really fun I have to say! Decent quality ones that is
    Rasa: thanks!

  • Lang March 31, 2009 at 3:01 am

    Hey Matt, what a coincidence. I caught a couple of these (mackerel, that is) the other day while on spring break with the family. I’d always heard mackerel was a strong, oily fish but these were delicate and delicious simply filleted and sauteed in butter with a little salt and pepper. Wish I’d seen your post sooner! Looks delicious.

  • matt wright March 31, 2009 at 5:15 pm

    Lang – I think the biggest problem is how tough it can be to fine really good fresh mackerel – you seem to have managed that though! Old mackerel just smell like old sea boots.

    I love mackerel for its oiliness (is that a word?), but then I certainly lean towards more oily, flavorful fish.

    I will have to try cooking it in butter, never done that with mackerel!

  • brittany April 1, 2009 at 4:34 am

    It’s presented beautifully. Like it fell from heaven onto the plate (which is how I was once taught to plate desserts).

    You should still make/blog cassoulet with the flageolet beans. They’re my favorite cass bean and I know we would all love to see (read: steal) your recipe

  • claudia (cook eat FRET) April 21, 2009 at 12:00 am

    see and like here i am thinking it looks awesome… i love this recipe. love love love it.

  • Mel @ April 22, 2009 at 10:13 am

    Gorgeous, vivid photos. I can almost taste it… and I really wish I could. 🙂

  • Julie May 31, 2009 at 9:03 pm

    Quick question – I purchased “fresh” mackerel at the Farmer’s Market here in Atlanta, GA and put it in the freezer straight away but the next day I notice the fish wasn’t completely frozen, as was every thing else in the freezer. Is this a peculiarity particular to mackerel? I’ve never noticed it before but this is the first time I purchased the fish already gutted. She I toss it out or is it ok to cook and eat?

  • andy November 7, 2010 at 6:06 pm

    Looks delicious to me – plating is not bad either, can’t wait to try this out when I can find some good mackerel.

    The Superbag looks awesome, I really want one for my kitchen, but can’t find it online. Do you have any more product info that might help my search? I would so love to have one of those.

  • WILLOBIE November 14, 2010 at 8:46 pm

    Most people I know find mackerel too ‘fishy’ and opt for more neutrally flavored fish. I ‘grew up’ with mackerel in the state of Maine when the smaller ones, called tinker mackerel, have their annual run. It is my favorite fish, although trout and salmon — also oily — come close. The best mackerel I ever had, though, was at a carnival in Germany, where grilled meant slowly grilled over charcoal. I had to wait a half hour (Germans don’t seem to do fast food), but it was worth every second of the wait.

    My wife is our grillmeister and does a wonderful job with mackerel, although she opts for something meaty for herself. Here in the heartland, fresh mackerel is unobtainable, but Asian stores usually have it frozen (fresh if you’re lucky) and of good quality.