One of the greatest seafood mysteries is why an assertively flavored fish like salmon is vastly more popular than a milder one like Spanish mackerel.
Not to say that one fish is better than the other. But while salmon, with its rich flesh and deep flavor, is prized, the pale-hued, gentle-tasting mackerel is often – and I’d say wrongly – cast aside.
This may be because of mackerel’s fishy reputation. The fish, packed with healthful omega-3 oils, can turn unpleasantly odoriferous if not consumed when perfectly fresh. Over the centuries, this was problematic for any mackerel cook not situated next to the sea. To compensate for any possible off-flavors, historic mackerel recipes regularly called for hefty doses of vinegar in the pot.
These days, that is an unnecessary precaution. Much of the fish we consume is frozen at sea to preserve it, or in the best cases rushed on ice straight to the market, making gorgeous fresh mackerel with a clean, saline taste relatively easy to procure – and worth seeking out.
Another bonus: Atlantic Spanish mackerel is a sustainable option.
Any recipe calling for salmon fillets can be adapted to Spanish mackerel. One thing to bear in mind: If your mackerel fillets are on the thin side, you may want to shave a few minutes off the cooking time. Salmon, which are generally larger fish, can have larger fillets.
Like salmon, mackerel takes well to a very simple treatment to let the flavor of the ocean fish come through. A drizzle of oil, a sprinkle of salt, a squeeze of lemon are all it needs to become dinner.
But it can also stand up to more elaborate recipes. Here, I paired roasted mackerel fillets with a quickly made olive and almond pan sauce. You can whisk together the sauce while the fish is in the oven, making this ideal for busy weeknights when a fishmonger is on your route home.
Feel free to alter the sauce to suit your taste or what you have on hand. Use capers instead of olives, or leave them out altogether; substitute any other nut you like for the almonds; parsley or basil can stand in for the mint.
And if you can’t find mackerel, use salmon instead. The dish will have a stronger flavor. But for a fish lover, that’s not a bad thing.
Mackerel with olives, almonds and mint
4 Spanish mackerel fillets, 6 to 8 ounces each
1 tablespoon olive oil
Half a lime
Fine sea salt
1/4 cup sliced almonds
1 cup dry white wine
5 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into cubes
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
2 garlic cloves, grated on a Microplane or minced
2/3 cup sliced, pitted olives (any good kind is fine)
3 tablespoons chopped mint leaves
Heat oven to 400 degrees. Place mackerel on a rimmed baking sheet. Drizzle fillets with oil and juice from the lime and sprinkle with salt. Roast for 7 to 10 minutes, until done to taste.
While the fillets roast, spread out almonds in a large skillet set over medium heat and toast until fragrant and lightly golden, about 3 minutes. Pour almonds onto a plate to cool.
Add wine to the skillet and let reduce until syrupy, about 3 minutes. Whisk in butter until smooth, then stir in a pinch of salt, pepper and garlic and let heat for 20 seconds to warm the garlic. Remove from heat and stir in olives and almonds.
Spoon olive sauce over fish, garnish with mint, and serve.
And to drink …
An oily fish like Spanish mackerel needs an incisive wine with lively acidity, especially when you serve the fish with this buttery sauce of olives and almonds. A sauvignon blanc from the Loire Valley, like Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé or Quincy, would be a good choice. These wines tend to have subtler herbal and mineral flavors than the brasher New Zealand sauvignon blancs or richer California sauvignon blancs. White Bordeaux is another option, especially the more substantial wines from Pessac-Léognan, which may need a few years of aging but will go beautifully with this fish. How about a sparkling wine, like a Vouvray brut? It is made with chenin blanc, another grape with plenty of acidity, and will lift the buttery flavors. Manzanilla sherry lightly chilled would also be a great choice.