Grilled blue mackerel
The big thing with mackerel is that you either love it or hate it. It’s an oily fish and there’s no getting away from that.
Traditional treatment of mackerel tends to come from Scandinavian countries, where it is pickled and preserved. The Japanese hold it in some reverence fresh, and treat it closer to raw. It is almost about highlighting the chef’s skill to be able to process the fish. There’s a definite skill to it and it requires a very sure knife – if you nick the stomach when you’re gutting it, for instance, the high acid content will damage the flesh.
It took me quite a while to truly appreciate mackerel, due to some bad experiences. I’m largely to blame for those. I got it wrong, particularly trying to pickle them. They get powdery – especially if the fish is too old when you’re treating it. The stink really goes all the way through.
It wasn’t until I travelled overseas, especially to Japan, that I genuinely got into mackerel.
The following recipe is a bit of a meet in the middle between the cooked-through method and serving the fish raw. Similar to crustaceans, you are cooking through the skin to caramelise the fats and render them more pleasant.
Cooking these fish is a commitment. I cook them over coals using a Japanese technique, grilling with the dry heat above charcoal rather than through contact with the flame. You cook only on one side, through a wire rack. When the meat turns opaque two-thirds of the way through, with just a bit of crimson left and some caramelisation in the belly, it is ready to take off.
A little tip is to pull it off the grill from tail to head, which makes it less likely to break. Sounds small but it is worth heeding.
Grilled blue mackerel
Serves 4 as a starter
– 2 whole blue mackerel, cut into 4 fillets
– 60ml light soy sauce
– 80ml extra virgin olive oil
– 30ml lemon juice
– 1 cup wild fennel tips
– 1 finger fresh horseradish
Prepare the fillets by removing the pin bones that run down the centre of the fish. I find the easiest way is to run a knife either side of the bone in a V shape and then simply pull the centre blood line out with the bones together.
The best grill for fish in this style is the Japanese hibachi grill. The fuel source for these units is generally compressed coal, which is a very efficient and constant heat source.
Steep the mackerel in the soy sauce for five minutes then place the fillets skin-side down on the wire cage grills provided. Be confident here as you are trying to achieve a fairly dark colour, so don’t move the fish around once it has gone on. It will take about two minutes for the fish to cook through the skin. Once done, remove the fish and place it onto a plate skin side up.
Finish the fish with the olive oil, then the lemon juice, salt, fennel tips and finally the horseradish, grated finely over the top using a microplane.
For the best results, fillet the mackerel yourself without allowing fresh water to directly contact the flesh. This takes some time to perfect, so if you are getting them from a fishmonger ask for them to be dry filleted and ensure the fillets remain very flat and stable.
To source wild fennel, check near railway lines and paddock fringes. When collecting, always be mindful of water sources and other potential contaminants. The tips of normal fennel can be used but the flavour will be much more restrained.
2017 Ravensworth Seven Months, Canberra district ($38)
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 9, 2018 as "Wholly mackerel". Subscribe here.