Return of the mack: Soup, pasta, snacks or even a burger - mackerel is very versatile says Mark Hix

 

In early winter we were told mackerel had stopped being a sustainable species as factory ships were hoovering them all up and depleting stocks. Suddenly what was once a populous fish on our shores, and one that tourists and locals would catch for fun, was flagged up as more or less a no-no on menus.

As it happens, about 12 months ago we organised a mackerel festival in Lyme Regis to take place this past week, finishing up today. The timing was looking a touch unfortunate but just recently we got the happy news that mackerel had been deemed sustainable again, so it's back on the menu – line caught, of course. So here's my annual column on the humble mackerel – an oily fish that's not only an important part of a healthy diet, but wonderfully versatile too.

Crispy mackerel tail in seashore vegetable broth

Serves 4

Damien, the head chef in my Soho restuarant, came up with this mackerel tail idea at what I call Challenge Hix, a little competitive thing I do with my chefs on Tuesday mornings. I get them all together and we have a cook-off doing 20 dishes using random, seasonal ingredients.

8 mackerel tails, cut about 3-4cm up the body
2-3tbsp self-raising flour
150ml milk
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Vegetable or corn oil for deep frying

For the broth

1 litre good fish stock
30-40g root ginger, peeled and finely shredded
1 medium red chilli, thinly sliced
2 spring onions, finely shredded on the angle

A handful of seashore vegetables like samphire, sea aster and sea purslane, washed with large leaves torn down

Preheat 8cm of oil to 160-180C in a large, thick-bottomed saucepan or electric deep-fat fryer.

Have two bowls ready, one with the milk and the other with the flour, seasoned. Coat the pieces of mackerel in the flour, shaking off the excess, then put them in the milk and then coat the pieces in the flour once again.

Carefully drop the mackerel pieces into the hot oil and cook for about 5-6 minutes – making sure to move them around. When they are really crisp, remove from the oil with a slotted spoon and drain carefully on kitchen paper.

Meanwhile bring the fish stock to the boil, add the ginger and chilli and simmer for a minute. Now add the seashore vegetables and simmer for just a couple minutes so they still have a bit of bite. Then remove the broth from the heat and stir in the spring onions, seasoning to taste.

To serve, divide the pieces of mackerel between four bowls and pour the soup over, serving immediately.

Tagliolini with mackerel and chilli

Serves 4

In Italy this is quite often made with red mullet, but small fillets from mackerel work just as well. The Sicilian version would contain pine nuts and currants in that traditional sweet-and-savoury style. Chilli would be used when currants weren't available and sometimes fried breadcrumbs are scattered on top. It's an ingenious way to make a tasty pasta sauce with a few fish fillets that wouldn't stretch to a full meal.

6 small mackerel fillets, boned and skinned
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
1 medium chilli, seeded and finely chopped or a good pinch of dried chilli flakes
4 tomatoes, skinned, seeded and finely chopped
100ml extra virgin olive oil
50g butter
1tbsp chopped fennel tops, or dill (optional)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
400g or more of fresh or dried tagliolini

Cut the mackerel fillets into small rough 1cm chunks then put them in a pan with the olive oil, garlic, chilli and tomatoes, season and cook on a very gentle heat for 8-10 minutes, stirring every so often until the mackerel are beginning to break down into the oil. Add the fennel leaves or dill and remove from the heat.

Meanwhile cook the pasta according to the instructions and drain, reserving a little of the cooking water to adjust the sauce if necessary. To serve, add the butter to the sauce, re-season if necessary and toss the spaghetti in with the mackerel and chilli sauce.

Mackerel ceviche canapés

Serves 10

Raw mackerel is one of the best fish you can eat – it's also a great vehicle for spicy flavours.

These little mini popadoms, which you can buy cooked or uncooked, are perfect larder ingredients for back-up snacks and canapés. If you buy the uncooked ones you simply deep fry them, moving them around in the pan with a slotted spoon for literally a minute – or you can cook them under a medium grill brushed with a little vegetable oil.

4-6 medium sized mackerel fillets, skinned and boned
1 medium red or green chilli, trimmed and very finely diced
2 spring onions, cleaned and very finely chopped
The juice of 1-2 limes
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2tsp olive oil
1tbs chopped coriander
20 mini popadoms, cooked

Chop the mackerel fillets as finely as possible then mix with the other ingredients in a bowl, adding enough lime juice and salt and pepper to taste. Spoon on to the popadoms and serve immediately.

Big Mack

Serves 4

When you really have an excess of mackerel then this makes a fantastic snack or main meal. It's also a great way to get the kids eating fish: a whole mackerel might put them off, but you can tempt them to try fish with the Big Mack.

This can be serve with a relish of your choice like corn or spiced tomato.

8 medium-large mackerel, filleted, skinned and boned
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
20-30g fresh white breadcrumbs
2 spring onions, cleaned and finely chopped
Vegetable or corn oil for frying
4 soft hamburger buns

Ensure there are no bones in the mackerel fillets then finely chop them, before adding the spring onion and seasoning. Next, mould the mixture into four balls, then flatten into patties using a spatula or a palette knife. Then press the patties into the breadcrumbs on both sides and refrigerate them on a tray for an hour or so.

Heat the oil in a large, preferably non-stick frying pan and cook the patties for 2-3 minutes on each side, carefully turning them with a fish slice. Halve the buns, lightly toast them if desired, then place the patties between them – adding relish if you wish – and serve.

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