Return of the Mackerel

‘Fish finger sarnies’ – three little words to warm the soul.

For any kid who was dragged up in the 90s this humble after-school starch-fest was the next best thing to a chippy tea: Captain Birdseye’s finest, smothered in orange breadcrumbs and baked, grilled, or fried at your discretion; surround with sliced white – butter optional, ketchup not – and Robert’s your mother’s brother. First-class comfort food and relatively healthy to boot.

Now, in all honesty I can’t remember the last time I had a proper (and by proper I mean straight-out-of-the-supermarket-frozen-aisle) fish finger sarnie. You just don’t as an adult, do you? But recently I found myself with the overwhelming craving for the taste of my childhood. The problem is, I do this shit for a living. I can’t just pop down to Sainsbury’s and grab a packet; I might be seen, I may be exposed as a frozen-aisle fraudster. Besides, palates change and there’s every chance a simple cod n’ breadcrumb affair just won’t cut the mustard any more. Even the thought of eating cod makes my ethics muscle twitch. Yep, there are now more sustainable varieties – the Arctic or Pacific cousins; even the North Sea stuff is no longer on the critical list – but there’s no getting away from the fact that we on the lonely western edge of Europe still rely far too heavily on cod and haddock. It’s laziness, or maybe just a lack of education. Actually no, it’s too much education, being told from the moment we can say “chippy” that cod and haddock are the only way to go. It’s embarrassing. There’s such an abundance of shit-hot produce out there that to use cod seems positively blinkered. So yeah… off to the fishmonger’s I went, and back I came with two stunningly bright, plump, firm mackerel.

Okay, okay, it was hardly the most adventurous choice, but that’s really not the point. At this time of the year (mid-January), in this part of the country (northern England), there’s little comes close to mackerel for quality, availability and – most importantly – flavour. And whatsmore, it’s a piece of piss to prepare. Perfect.

(Try saying that after a yard of ale.)

So… the three components of a fish finger sandwich: fish fingers, bread, and ketchup. To simply grill or fry the mackerel and stick it between two slices of bread would be hardly worth the effort. Pané-ing it is a bit boring too – besides, mackerel fillets are much slimmer than cod, and oilier, which would make for an unpleasant mouthful. But what mackerel does have over cod is flavour, and the ability to stand up to competing flavours like a boss. So I decided to go for broke and pile the flavours high. Mackerel and mustard are a natural match, so that would be the main accompaniment – plus a little honey to mellow the edge, and a touch of smoked paprika for that all important umame hit – and rather than coat the fillets in breadcrumbs I thought I’d double up the role of the sliced bread to make it both the coating and the container. Essentially, little mackerel croquantes. That’s French for sexy time on your tongue. Pair those up with some tangy tomato relish and a nice crunchy ‘slaw and that sexy time just got a happy ending.

I’d buy that for a dollar.
RECIPE

(serves 2)

For the ‘fish fingers’:

2 whole fresh mackerel

2 pieces of sliced white bread

1 tbsp Dijon mustard

2 tsp clear honey

¼ tsp smoked paprika

25g butter

salt & pepper

Mackerel is extremely easy to fillet when fresh. Its firm, rounded, harpoon-like profile means that the fillets can be removed from either side of the fish without even needing to gut it first. Just run a good, sharp filleting knife from tail-to-head along the dorsal line (that’s the ‘back’, homez) before cutting-in just behind the pectoral fin to release the fillet. Turn over and repeat on the opposite side. All you then need do is trim each fillet to tidy them up a bit, and pull out the pin bones using a pair of tweezers.

For the ‘slaw:

¼ red cabbage, very finely shredded

½ cucumber

4 cloves garlic, finely sliced

1 carrot, peeled and finely shredded

2 shallots, finely sliced

50g fine green beans, cut in half lengthways

1 tsp black onion (nigella) seeds

juice of ½ lemon

2 tbsp chopped parsley

1 tbsp picked thyme

½ tbsp chopped mint

Extra-virgin rapeseed oil

2 tsp demerara sugar

salt & pepper

 

For the tomato ‘ketchup’:

3 large, very ripe tomatoes – chopped

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1 tbsp demerara sugar

2 tbsp red wine vinegar

½ tsp whole mustard seeds

1 bay leaf

salt & pepper

Now for the fun stuff…

Preheat the oven to 200°C.

To prepare the mackerel…

  1. Remove the fillets from the mackerel along with any pin bones. The skin can be left on the fillets. Rinse under cold water and pat dry.
  2. Lay the four fillets skin-side-down and season the flesh with salt and pepper.
  3. Mix together the Dijon mustard, smoked paprika and honey. Use half of this to brush over the flesh of the mackerel. Place the remaining mixture to one side (this will be the ‘slaw dressing – so don’t double-dip).
  4. Lay the two matching fillets from each fish one on top of the other, flesh-side together, to form a sandwich. Place in the refrigerator.

 

Meanwhile…

  1. Place the finely shredded cabbage in a bowl and sprinkle over 1tsp of demerara sugar and 3 tsp of salt. Mix well and put to one side for 30 minutes. This will draw out some of the water from within the cabbage, and also tenderise it slightly whilst retaining its crunch.
  2. Peel the cucumber, slice in half lengthways, and carefully scoop out the seeds from its centre. Slice into 3-4mm thick pieces and place in a bowl. Sprinkle over 1 tsp salt and 1 tsp of demerara sugar. Place to one side for 30 minutes. This will draw out moisture from the cucumber and begin to cure it, which changes its texture and flavour.
  3. Heat 1 tbsp of rapeseed oil in a small frying pan and add the sliced garlic. Fry gently over a medium heat until the garlic begins to turn a golden brown colour. Quickly remove the garlic from the oil using a slotted spoon and place to one side (work quickly as the garlic will turn from golden to burnt in no time), retaining the oil in the pan.
  4. Rinse the cucumber pieces under cold water to remove the salt and sugar. Pat dry to remove excess water before adding to the garlic-infused oil in the frying pan. Gently cook for 2 minutes on each side, remove from the pan, and place in a large clean bowl.
  5. Thoroughly rinse the red cabbage under cold water, drain well, and add it to the cucumber in the bowl – along with the carrot, shallots, fine beans, onion seeds, toasted garlic, parsley, thyme and mint. Mix well.
  6. Take the reserved honey, mustard and paprika mixture and add the lemon juice. Whisk it all together and pour it over the ‘slaw mixture, combining well.

 

For the tomato sauce…

  1. This is so easy my cat could do it. And my cat’s dead. Just put all of the ingredients together in a pan and place over a medium-high heat. Once boiling, reduce the heat to a gentle simmer, place a lid on the pan, and allow it to cook for approx 20-25 minutes or until the ingredients have reduced and thickened to a dippable sauce consistency.

 

To finish the fish fingers…

  1. Cut the crusts from the slices of white bread and discard. If you have a pasta rolling machine, pass each slice of bread through the machine on the widest setting. Reduce the setting and pass the bread again. Repeat, reducing the setting each time, until you have two very thinly rolled pieces of bread (3 or 4 passes will normally suffice). If you don’t have a pasta machine, just use a good old rolling pin.
  2. Wrap one slice around each of the sandwiched mackerel fillets. Wrap them tightly leaving a little overlap at the join, and cut off the excess bread. Pinch the cut edges of the bread together to form a secure bond.
  3. In the same frying pan as used earlier, add the butter to the oil and place the pan over a medium-high heat. Once the butter begins to foam, add the wrapped mackerel fillets join-side-down and gently fry for 3-4 minutes until golden brown. Carefully turn over and repeat. Ensure that the bread is crisp and golden all over, remove the fillets from the pan, and drain on kitchen paper. Transfer to the oven and cook for a further 5 minutes.
  4. Stick them on a plate, pile it high with ‘slaw, and finish with a dollop of tomatoey goodness. Fishy delishy.
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