There are few things in life one can really count on. Weather is one. The celebratory delight when a champagne cork pops is another. And a third is the wrinkle of a nose when the word “mackerel” is pronounced.
Most people are convinced they don’t like mackerel. “It’s fishy,” they say. Or “It’s strong.” I’m patient, I listen, and then (with an evil glint in my eye), I make them eat it.
But first, I make them fillet it. Filleting mackerel is a great way to learn how to treat all round fish. Mackerel (Scomber scombrus) are small and manageable, their bones are easy to remove, and the resulting little fillets are so delicate, so lovely, that they make everyone feel proud.
Why do I insist on introducing the reluctant to mackerel? Because it’s delicious, a rival to salmon and tuna. It’s abundant. It’s jam-packed with omega 3 long chain fatty acids. It’s available to every budget. And if that isn’t enough, it’s beautiful, with its elegant indigo and silver background and stark black stripes.
And one more thing. It cooks in the blink of an eye.
In general, the French enjoy mackerel. The other night I had a group of French students who ended up as skeptical as the best of them, though, when I announced our main course of mackerel. I described the pesto and red pepper chutney that would go with it, and we set to. They were game, following filleting directions carefully, and removing the tiny pin bones with great good humor. Once rinsed, the fillets were seasoned lightly with salt and pepper, then put in a hot oven for about 6 minutes. While they baked, the students spread a round of pesto on each plate.
When the fillets emerged from the oven, they sat for several minutes so they could give off the liquid that every fish gives right after cooking. Then, we carefully transferred two fillets to each plate, crossing them atop the pesto. A spoonful of chutney alongside, a parsley leaf on top, a sprinkling of fleur de sel, and we had a sophisticated dish on our hands.
What had been skepticism turned to awe as everyone tasted their mackerel. They each said they couldn’t wait to get home to recreate the dish, and I believe them. One more victory for this perfect fish.
MACKEREL WITH RED PEPPER CHUTNEY AND PESTO
MAQUEREAUX AU CHUTNEY DE POIVRONS ET PESTO
8 mackerel fillets, boned, rinsed and refrigerated
1 recipe for Pesto
1 recipe for red pepper chutney
Fine sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Basil or other herb leaves, for garnish
Fleur de sel
1. Preheat the oven to 450F (230C). Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
2. Place the fillets on the prepared baking sheet. Season them with salt and pepper, and place them in the oven to cook until they are nearly, but not quite, opaque, about 4 minutes.
3. While the fish is cooking, place 2 tablespoons pesto in the center of a warmed dinner plate.
4. When the mackerel is cooked, remove the baking sheet from the oven and let the fillets stay on it for several minutes, to allow them to give up their liquid and to finish cooking. Then, carefully transfer two fillets to each plate, placing them crossed atop the pesto. Garnish the plate with chutney, sprinkle the fillets with fleur de sel and place an herb leaf atop the fillets. Serve immediately.