Meet Your Mackerel
May 14, 2012
The Atlantic mackerel have started swimming through local waters on their way to their cool summering grounds farther north. These are Scomber scombrus, the ones with the bold black markings on their backs. Their arrival coincides with the arrival of city visitors heading to their summering grounds on the Cape, and the opening of Mac’s Shack tonight.
One of my hopes for this season is to introduce these two different species of travelers to one another.
In years past, nearly all of our local mackerel catch went to Europe, where the Italians, Spaniards, and Portuguese have always appreciated its firm, meaty richness. It’s a shame to miss out on something this good, especially when we have access to it at its peak freshness. Alex and I are determined to keep some of it here from now on.
I’ve been working up a mackerel special for the Shack: a vinha d’alhos, that I think balances its richness perfectly. Fish done this way is a Provincetown tradition, translated from a pork recipe brought over by the Portuguese islanders who joined Cape Cod fishing crews here in force over a hundred years ago. The fish is skillet-crisped, then submerged in a wine vinegar marinade, just like for an escabeche. But alho means garlic, and ours packs a good punch of it.
I’m also excited about the way white beans, escarole, and pancetta taste alongside seared sea scallops. And I think you’ll like grilled calamari with a citrus vinaigrette and good, crunchy sea salt––they’re the best simple compliments for the sweetness of our local squid.
A chef’s life sure does include a lot of unadvertised hoisting, hammering and polishing around here. I’m just breaking in my new range, Ichi is still learning the geography of his expanded sushi bar, and the paint on the walls is barely dry, but we’re ready for our opening tonight and looking forward to seeing everyone again.
We start serving dinner at 5pm. Come on in and meet your mackerel.
Mackerel Vinha d’Alhos
Serves 4 as an appetizer
4 good size mackerels (8 to 10 ounces each… or buy 8 smaller 6-to-8-ounce mackerels)
1/2 cup flour for dredging the fish
1 teaspoon paprika, also for the dredging
olive oil for frying
5 cups good wine vinegar (I use a mixture including mostly champagne vinegar)
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon salt
a heaping 1/4 cup of sliced garlic
1 tablespoon red chili pepper flakes
1/2 sweet onion, sliced into thin half-moons
1/2 sweet red pepper, thinly sliced
1 scotch bonnet pepper (or less) minced if you like things on the hot side
spring lettuce greens or arugula plus a few scallions and chives for the garnish
Gut and rinse the fish but leave their heads on; pat them dry. Combine the flour and paprika in a shallow bowl and dredge the fish in the mixture. Quickly flash fry the mackerel––that is, fry it hot, so that it browns quickly without cooking all the way through. Remove the mackerel and set it aside in a glass or pottery dish deep enough to allow for marinating the fish.
In a saucepan, heat the marinade ingredients: the vinegars (any good vinegar will work, but I combine about one cup each of red, rice, white, and champagne vinegars, then add another cup of champagne vinegar; I like its delicate flavor), the sugar, salt, garlic, and red pepper flakes, bringing the mixture to the boil and stirring to dissolve the sugar well. Turn off the fire, drop in the sliced onion and peppers, and pour the marinade over the fish.
Refrigerate for 3 hours to allow the fish to cure and the flavors to meld. Leave it overnight if you prefer. It can go longer, but the flavors are brightest within a day or so. Plate on salad greens, spoon on plenty of the marinade, and garnish with sliced scallions and chives.
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