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Mackerel Fest, Sicilian Style

by Toni Lydecker

I’ve served mackerel to roughly 450 people in the past couple of months. No, I’m not a chef or caterer.  Instead, I discovered how delicious mackerel can be while researching my new cookbook, Seafood alla Siciliana,and now I’m zealously trying to convert friends, acquaintances and complete strangers.

            Mackerel belongs to a class of fish known in Italian as pesce azzurro (blue-fleshed fish) that also includes sardines, anchovies and mullet, as well as more glamorous species such as tuna. It abounds in healthful omega 3 fatty acids. Many Americans kind of know that, but aren’t really familiar with mackerel—or steer clear of it as a fish with a “fishy” reputation.

It’s true that darker, oilier fish need to be eaten when they’re really fresh, but when you encounter mackerel looking and smelling good at the fish counter, don’t pass it up! Mackerel has a seductively rich-tasting, voluptuous quality that must be tasted to be appreciated.

            Getting back to those hundreds of mackerel servings. I wanted to share a fabulous Sicilian recipe (included here) for poaching this unsung fish in olive oil fragrant with good things like rosemary, bay leaves, garlic and peppercorns. So, at a cookbook signing in my Westchester hometown’s farmers market, my friend Masayo and I spooned mackerel nuggets onto crostini. The pristine Spanish mackerel (with pretty yellow spots) had come from Pura Vida, a Long Island-based company with a stand in the market. Suffice it to say that all the crostini eaters left happy.

            Now for the big time: the Union Square Greenmarket in New York City. This time I showed how to serve the poached mackerel on a hearty salad of greens, potatoes, celery, bell peppers and capers (see recipe). Over 3 hours, about 250 people stopped by to taste. I can’t swear everybody loved it but there sure were a lot of mackerel swooners—to the point that, after our plate and fork supply gave out, folks were eating the salad off their napkins.

            At a cooking demo in Baltimore, I rubbed a parslied breadcrumb mixture over big slabs of king mackerel, caught off the coast a little further south. After a few minutes in a hot oven (mackerel can take a big blast of heat), it was ready for plating, Sicilian style, on a soft bed of couscous. And did the audience love it? Yes!  Case closed.

Mackerel, Potato, and Caper Salad           
Makes 4 servings

Prep 10 minutes            Cook 10 minutes

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon sea salt or kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 medium boiling potatoes, peeled and cut in small dice
1 large tomato (or 1 red or yellow bell pepper, cut in thin strips)
1 celery stalk, angle cut in thin slices (about 1/2 cup)
1/2 small onion, halved pole to pole, cut in slivers (if sharp, soak in water)
1 tablespoon salt-cured capers, soaked in water for a few minutes
4 cups torn salad greens
8 ounces mackerel poached in olive oil (recipe follows)
Small black olives, such as Gaeta

1.  Combine the olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper in a medium bowl.
2. Place the potatoes in a small saucepan, cover with water and bring to a boil; reduce the heat and simmer until tender but not mushy, about 10 minutes. Drain and cool the potatoes under running water. Add to the bowl with the dressing and gently turn the potatoes until well coated.
3. Halve the tomato and scoop out the insides; cut the shell in thin strips; add to the potatoes along with the celery, onion and capers.
4. Line 4 salad plates with torn greens and spoon the salad on top; top with the mackerel and garnish with olives.

Mackerel Poached in Olive Oil
Makes 1 pound

Prep 10 minutes             Cook 15 minutes

1 pound fresh mackerel fillets 
1 teaspoon sea salt or kosher salt
1 fresh rosemary or thyme sprig
1 clove garlic, crushed
Several peppercorns
1 bay leaf
Extra-virgin olive oil, as needed (about 1 cup)

1. Cut the mackerel in half. Sprinkle with the salt and turn the mackerel with your hands to distribute it evenly.
2. Pack the fillets closely in a medium saucepan or small skillet. Add the rosemary, garlic, peppercorns, and bay leaf. Pour in enough oil to cover.
3. Over low heat, bring the oil to a bare simmer. Remove from the heat, cover and let cool until warm. Remove the fillets and, using a knife, pull off the skin. Break or cut the fillets in bite-sized pieces. 
4. Transfer the mackerel to a ceramic container, jar, or other nonreactive container. Strain the oil and pour over the fish, pressing it down until immersed. Refrigerate for up to a week. Once the mackerel is used up, discard the oil.

© 2009  text by Toni Lydecker; recipes adapted from Seafood alla Siciliana
© 2009 food photography by Tina Rupp


Toni Lydecker
is a food journalist who specializes in Italian regional cooking. She is the author of Seafood alla Siciliana: Recipes and Stories from a Living Tradition(Lake Isle Press, 2009). For more of her writing, visit www.tonilydecker.com.

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