JOANNA'S FOOD: family cooking, from scratch, every day

Friday, August 03, 2007

Fresh mackerel: gravad max

Yesterday morning, our host took four teenagers out on the boat to catch mackerel and set creels (in that order, because you need mackerel as bait to catch lobster). They also went to the beach, where they found mussels. So when they returned, just before supper, they had a large bucket of mussels (they'd scraped the barnacles and pulled the beards on the way back in the boat), and a huge basket of smallish mackerel.

Bridget made moules marinieres in a huge saucepan, using a whole bottle of white wine for the "soup". Delicious. We threw the shells into champagne buckets (the house in which we are staying used to be a hotel, and has a great deal of useful kit which is not found in most private houses). Roast chicken to follow.

Many of the mackerel will be used for lobster bait, straight from the freezer. A neighbour here on Mull is a particularly successful lobster fisherman, and this is his secret: he puts his bait in a large plastic tub, covers it in salt, then seals it and leaves it for a year to ripen ... the smell is appalling, but the lobsters like it!

Meanwhile, for the second year running, we made this delicious gravad max, from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's River Cottage Cookbook. This needs to be made at least a day in advance, but is better left for two or three days beforehand.

Gravad max
For 10 large or 20 small mackerel

Mix: 100g caster sugar, 75g coarse salt, and a handful of chopped fennel sprigs (HFW says dill, but that's not growing round here).

Fillet the fish. This can be done in one of two ways - either use a sharp knife to take a fillet off each side of an ungutted fish, or behead and gut the fish, slit them open, press them flat and then tease out the backbone.

Layer the cure and the fillets in a plastic box (DO NOT use metal). Start with cure, then fish skin side down, then cure, then fish skin side up &c. When you've finished, weight the whole thing down with a board and some bottles or tins (if you are using tins, then you must put them into another, smaller, plastic box). HFW has a third layer, because he puts the fish into a perforated (wooden) box, and therefore needs something to catch the drips. We've dispensed with this, because his instructions tell you to baste the fish with the drippings from the fish box, and I always like to simplify things to make life a little easier when possible.

After one, two or three days, your fish is ready to eat - cut it with a sharp knife at an angle towards the skin, as if you were cutting smoked salmon. Serve with lemon juice, a little green salad, and plenty of good bread. HFW makes a creme fraiche sauce flavoured with mustard vinegar and dill, but we may not bother with that (it will rather depend on what we find in the fridge).

Last year, Craig brought fish fresh from the sea, and filleted them for us in moments with his very sharp knife (and superior knife skills). This year, a work party gutted the fish, and we all then wished we'd filleted them, because teasing the backbones out of very fresh raw fish is time-consuming (Ola, pictured below, did the most). HFW says that filleting them whole is more wasteful - that may be, but it's certainly much quicker, and a great deal less trouble. If you're buying the fish, none of this need trouble you, just get the fishmonger to do it for you!

This is wonderfully good for you, free if you're lucky (or pretty cheap if you buy the fish), and a really good dish to make for a crowd or a party, because you do the bulk of the preparation well in advance. It's also a delicious treat.

PS I think you could do this with any oily fish, and when I get home, back to Oxfordshire, the English county furthest from the sea in every direction, I will try it with whatever oily fish I can buy.


Ed Bruske said...

Fabulous stuff, Joanna. We need a push to start eating mackrel, always meant to, now have very good reason.

Magic Cochin said...

That looks so delicious Joanna - what a fantastic holiday you're all having.
I live in a coastal county - Suffolk - but we're in the furthest inland corner and it's nearly 2hrs drive to the coast (fast roads don't exist east of Cambridge!) so it's frustratingly hard to find a good supply of fresh fish. The monthly farmers' market has a fish van - it's so popular the techinique is to leave my husband in the fish queue, then I go in the hall and buy bread, veg, pork, beef, sausages, yogurt and cheese, honey, any baked yummy weekend things that take my fancy, then when I get back outside he's probably about 3 from the front of the queue and I can help choose the fish!
Gone are my student days in Brighton when one of the sculpture students fished for mackerel from the beach and sold them for 10p each! Mackerel were our staple diet.


TopVeg said...

Looks delicious - feel as though I am holiday myself after reading this!

SueCooksWild said...

I took a virtual tour around Mull yesterday -- and it looks like the perfect place for a holiday! Fun! The mackerel recipe sounds like one Mark's Mom used to make. They lived in Maryland and his Dad would go mackerel fishing during the season. Fresh fish can't be beat! Keep the stories and recipes coming. I feel like I am a fly on the wall during your holiday. Thanks.

Amanda at Little Foodies said...

What a wonderful holiday!

Mackerel is such a delicious fish.

Love the sound of this dish, so much in that book is great!

Enjoy the rest of your holiday.

Sophie said...

Joanna I'd never have thought of curing mackerel myself, it sounds very tasty and healthy. Do you know if you can use any old (or rather fresh) mackerel to do this? I too am in the county farthest from the sea and it's a right pain getting good fresh fish that hasn't already been frozen. I'll report back if I find anywhere good!

David Hall said...

I love cured fish, and none much better than mackerel. Brilliant stuff, really cheap and delicious!

Just returned from Scotland myself, got a bit wet by the end!


MyKitchenInHalfCups said...

I need a vacation like yours, I think with you so you could show me all this!
Now about very sharp knife and superior knife skills; the very sharp knife I can do it's those superior knife skills that need work.
You are in some great house with equipment like you're telling about! Lucky you.