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
5 sprigs of flat leaf parsley
2 bay leaves
4 sprigs of thyme
6 black peppercorns
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.