He may not be a great fisherman (by his own admission), but Greig Young, head chef at The Northgate in Bury St Edmunds, knows just how to turn the simple mackerel into a top tasting dish
Normality is beginning to creep back in, the town is busy and cooking is beginning to become fun again. Social distancing is becoming second nature, people are becoming more organised and booking things like the barber and gym in advance and everyone seems to be happy to get out, and you know what? I’m happy to be cooking and I’m excited about the food we are creating at the moment at The Northgate. This month I’m going to share one of my new starters that has a special place in my heart, reminding me of a well spent childhood.
I have loved fishing since I was a young lad, but sadly it’s one of those hobbies I have let go. In fairness, I was terrible at it. I am the most fish friendly fisherman as I never seem to have any luck (or skill) and catch any.
As a boy I would spend my nights with friends on the jagged rocks next to the old castle or at the towering fishing pier in my sleepy home town of Oban, a small fishing town on the west coast of Scotland, made famous for its whisky. Again, with fishing, luck was never on my side, but there was one fish I could catch, and lucky for me they came into the pier in their thousands and they would eat pretty much anything you put on or next to a hook. Mackerel. Quite possibly one of my favourite fish to prepare and almost definitely one of my favourite fish to eat. I put this down to those well-spent hours casting lines of hooks and reeling in seaweed with the occasional fish. Super healthy, very cheap and great fun to catch, but you really want it fresh from the sea, like I had as a boy. When it’s that fresh it’s a completely different ingredient altogether, and that’s possibly why chefs love and value it so much.
I’m lucky to have a few great fish suppliers that get it to me as fresh as it can be. It should almost seem too firm and sometimes, when it’s very fresh, it bends like a banana. The eyes should be crystal clear and the skin should shimmer, almost like it's been dipped in silver. It shouldn’t smell fishy, nor should it be soft, and if you are buying it filleted (I hope not after this recipe) the flesh should be tight and not greyish or darkened. I love filleting and butchering fish and I also love teaching how to fillet fish but I understand it's not for everybody, so if you are nervous go to a good quality fishmonger and ask them to do it for you, or if you are stuck, just pop in and see me at The Northgate and I’ll happily show you!
When it comes to fish I like to keep it simple, very simple. I don’t like it when chefs over work or complicate something so special. We butterfly the mackerel, lightly salt it, cook it skin side down until the skin goes crispy, then cover it with a sauce that I call ‘tomato bomb’. It’s a very concentrated home-made kind of tomato paste and it’s my go to sauce base in the warmer summer months. I make a big batch with super ripe tomatoes and freeze it to use in a variety of dishes and preparations, or even just folded through pasta.
With the mackerel we warm it through and mix in diced fresh anchovies and fresh flat leaf parsley, a perfect flavour combination with the charred oily fish.
BUTTERFLIED MACKEREL WITH TOMATO, ANCHOVY AND PARSLEy
4 whole mackerel gutted (300-400g)
8 fresh anchovies
4 tablespoons of panko breadcrumbs
12 super ripe tomatoes
4 cloves of garlic
50g rapeseed oil
2 bulbs fennel
200g tomato paste
4 banana shallots (peeled)
8 sprigs of thyme (leaves only)
For the mackerel
Dry the mackerel, then using a sharp knife remove the head. Working from head to tail going in from the belly run your knife down each side of the spine and carefully remove the spine but leaving the tail on. Open the fillets flat and remove the bellies and the pin bones. Keeping the fish flat, lightly salt the skin and place on a cooling rack unwrapped in the fridge skin side up for a minimum of one hour. The salt will draw some moisture from the skin and help it go extra crispy.
For the tomato bomb
Boil the tomatoes in salted water for 10 seconds to remove the skin. Roughly chop the tomatoes, fennel and shallot and put with all the other ingredients except the tomato paste in a pot and cover with tin foil. Place in a pre-heated oven at 130 degrees for 2 hours. Remove the foil and return to the heat and cook until fully reduced and oily in appearance. Remove from the heat and stir in the tomato paste. Chill and reserve until needed.
Wipe the skin to dry the mackerel and remove any excess moisture, then in a hot pan cook skin side down with a teaspoon of vegetable oil. Cook until the skin is crispy but not cooked through.
Mix your parsley and anchovy into 3 tablespoons of your tomato bomb and warm it through. Carefully turn the mackerel and coat generously with your tomato mix and sprinkle with your breadcrumbs.
Lightly grill until the breadcrumbs turn golden then serve.
Greig Young is head chef at The Northgate, Northgate Street, Bury St Edmunds
Call 01284 339604