Holy mackerel

In praise of cheap and cheerful fish

Once upon a time, on a holiday in Ireland, it was decreed that the day's activity would be a hike up a mountain. My husband and a friend opted for the more leisurely pursuit of a day's fishing, and arrived home late in the afternoon with two bulging carrier bags full of herring.

That evening we had one of those wonderful seaside dinners - a massive fry-up of herrings, with lots of bread to mop up the juices and crispy bits, and plenty of wine. Two days later, the fishermen, who had been greatly congratulated on their catch, sheepishly admitted they had spent the day in the pub and bought the herring off an incoming trawler. But it remains the best herring dinner in my memory.

Herring are one of those undervalued fish that go for a song in the fishmonger's, and are often thought inferior to others that are far more expensive. There are a whole shoal of fish that deserve to be upgraded; they've never quite made it as desirables, usually because there's an awful lot of them, or the Spanish don't like them.

I have a bias towards two in particular: mackerel and grey mullet. Mackerel is one I would like to find swimming in the waters around my desert island, nice and fresh, and on tap. Just handling this fish is a pleasure, with its slippery, scale-free skin and mother-of-pearl iridescence. And the strong, clean flavour and rich, oily flesh, that some don't take to, I love.

I don't think sousing does mackerel the greatest justice. Since trying it roasted and smothered in a sweet-and-sour tomato sauce with lots of chopped coriander, I have been cooking it this way: blasting it in a hot oven for 15 minutes, no oil, just scored and seasoned. And the result is neater than grilling, because you don't have to turn the fish.

The sweet-and-sour sauce is a variation on the theme of gooseberry or rhubarb sauce, which cuts through the fish's oiliness; sorrel and redcurrants are also options. Painting mackerel with a teriyaki marinade is another favourite. A whole roast fish is always attractive; these, bronzed in patches and puffed out, look splendid alongside one of those unpunchy, hot-and-sour Thai salads with lime juice, chilli and raw onion.

Grey mullet is known as poor man's sea bass and is, if anything, stronger in flavour, with more finely grained flesh. It has a reputation for being a "dirty" fish with unsavoury feeding habits, and some hang around the mouth of the estuary, but I've never eaten one that justifies such criticism.

A large grey mullet is the size of a small bass and just about any sea bass recipe is appropriate. It can be roasted, grilled, poached, steamed, or given an oriental treatment - the classic being to steam the whole fish with ginger, soy sauce and sesame oil, and scatter over spring onions.

One thing worth pinching back from the Spanish is the way they cook sardines: barbecued, either lined up on a skewer or ranged in one of those special clamps. In particular they lend themselves to being marinated beforehand in olive oil, lemon juice, paprika, cumin and garlic. Eating them is a delightfully messy business. Skewer and barbecue some quartered red onions to go with them.

Herring roes I tried for the first time only a couple of years back, and was instantly hooked. It was in a pub in Somerset, where they arrived pan-fried on toast with wedges of lemon. They're even better dipped into a light batter and deep fried, served with tartare sauce.

Last in this category are mussels. I cannot count the number of times I have picked up a large bag of them and a loaf of bread on a Saturday morning, without having anything in particular in mind. "Mouclade" is the current favourite - a base of leeks and garlic, and some white wine, finished off with a large pinch of curry spices and some creme fraiche.

Roast grey mullet with tomato and marjoram, serves 5

I have suggested choosing quite large grey mullet; if you decide to use smaller ones, adjust the cooking time accordingly. New potatoes roasted in their skins would be a good accompaniment.

2 x 800g/134 lb grey mullet, cleaned and scaled

extra-virgin olive oil

sea salt, black pepper

for the sauce

4 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

2 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped

1 tsp red chilli, minced

3 salted anchovy fillets, chopped

225g/8oz cherry tomatoes, halved

2 heaped tbsp marjoram or oregano leaves

2 tsp red wine vinegar.

Preheat the oven to 200C (fan oven)/210C/425F (conventional electric oven)/gas mark 7. Heat a cast-iron griddle, brush the fish with olive oil, season, and cook on both sides for 3-4 minutes to flavour the skin. Cook in the oven for 12-14 minutes.

The sauce is cooked within 5 minutes. Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a small frying pan, add the garlic, chilli and anchovies and cook for about 30 seconds, then add the cherry tomatoes, season, and cook for 2-3 minutes, until they start to soften, but not so that they collapse. Stir in the marjoram or oregano halfway through cooking time. Add the vinegar, and simmer for about 30 seconds. Take off the heat, and add the remaining oil.

Serve the filleted fish with the sauce spooned over it.

Roast mackerel teriyaki, serves 4

Mirin is a Japanese sweet cooking wine that can be found in oriental stores. It's worth obtaining a bottle, since it keeps for ages. The sake is easy enough to find at an off-licence.

4 x 450g/1lb mackerel, cleaned

for the glaze

4 tbsp sake

4 tbsp mirin

8 tbsp light soy sauce

2 tbsp sugar

Combine the ingredients for the glaze in a small saucepan and simmer for 5-10 minutes, until it turns viscous. Cool to room temperature.

Heat the oven to 200C (fan oven)/210C/425F (conventional electric oven)/gas mark 7. Score the fish at 2.5-cm/1-in intervals and paint generously all over with the glaze. Lay on a roasting tray and cook for 15 minutes, then paint again with the glaze: you can also spoon a few drops over the flesh as you eat, if you wish. Accompany with the spinach.

Stir-fried spinach and sesame, serves 4

112 tbsp light soy sauce

2 tsp lime juice

1 level tsp caster sugar

18 tsp chilli powder

2 tbsp sesame oil

450g/1lb young spinach leaves

To serve: toasted sesame seeds.

Blend the soy sauce, lime juice, sugar and chilli powder in a bowl. Heat half the sesame oil in a wok, add half the spinach and stir-fry until it wilts. Repeat with the remainder, then press out as much water as possible in a sieve. Place in a bowl and add the soy sauce liquid. Serve scattered with sesame seeds

Next week: monkfish and tuna

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