Holy Mackerel! Fish is best fresh

Catchin' and cookin'

March 27, 1991|By Bill Burton

Forget about the salt, and not just for health. For taste.

When most anyone thinks about mackerel, the salted mackerel variety comes to mind. Matter of fact in the old days, the term "Boston mackerel" meant salted mackerel. Atlantic mackerel, which is the common name for the species now running off Ocean City, were considered to be fresh mackerel.

Through the years the two designations have merged, and a mackerel is a mackerel -- if one doesn't get into such things as Spanish mackerel, king mackerel, cero mackerel, chub mackerel, Sierra mackerel and so forth. Hereabouts at this time of year, Atlantic mackerel -- which most area fishermen prefer to call Boston mackerel -- are the talk of fishermen.

In summer, we get some Spanish mackerel in the Chesapeake, possibly a few off Ocean City, where a rare king turns up. As for the other mackerel, they arrive in trucks at seafood markets.

All mackerel are distant cousins of the tuna family; they're smaller, rich-fleshed fish with an intense flavor -- especially the Boston mackerel. Those who like the pronounced flavor of fish rate this scrappy ocean catch among the very best.

The current run features fish of from 14- to 18-inches, and the bigger they come the better they fight. Conversely, the smaller they are, the better they taste. As they grow, they tend to get more oily in flavor, which is fine for those who want robust flavor. However, those who prefer a light to moderate flavor will appreciate the smaller ones.

Keep that in mind when shopping for mackerel in the market. Choose the smaller ones. And, if you have your fish dressed at the market, request the roe be saved. Mackerel roe is hearty like the flesh; it is also coarse -- the brighter yellow eggs aren't fine and delicate as in shad roe, but they are well worth preparation.

As for the roe, steam it slightly to make the sacs cohesive, roll in a dry batter (I usually use a mix of instant potatoes and cornmeal) -- then pan fry lightly in butter, sprinkle on a little seafood seasoning -- either red or white -- and cook until tender over moderate heat. On my electric stove, I set the heat halfway between moderate and low.

The only trouble with mackerel catching is, one can get too much of a good thing. When a headboat is over mackerel, it is not unusual for a fishermen to catch three or more at a time; sometimes 150 or more a day. And that's too many -- unless one wants to salt them.

Salting is time consuming, and the fish when cooked isn't nearly as tasty as fresh mackerel. However, if you insist on salting, use an earthenware crock, lay the fish down in layers -- some say skin-side down, others say skin-side up, you decide -- and salt well between layers. Cover the crock and leave for several days to a week or more -- and some say, once the brine forms, stir occasionally, others nix that idea.

To use salted mackerel, soak overnight in cold water, skin-side up so the salt is drawn away. Drain, add fresh water for an hour or two, drain again, and pat dry. Boiled salted mackerel is good; boil ten to 15 minutes, and if you like, add a seafood seasoning and some onions to the boiling water. Brush melted butter when cooked.

I prefer it broiled. Broil skin-side down after brushing with butter or oil, and remove from heat when it reaches a light brown and light crispness. Serve with butter and lemon, seafood seasoning -- I prefer black -- if you like.

With fresh mackerel, you can cook the same way, but with more tasty results. If the fishermen of the house makes a big catch, I suggest filleting the mackerel. You get about half as much flesh, but you get the best -- and in thin strips that carry a lighter flavor. VTC Some even skin their mackerel for an even more delicate flavor.

Mackerel are excellent grilled as are most fatty fish. But for grilling over charcoal, don't filet. Use whole macks, or cut them in half lengthwise so they will be more manageable. Grill skin-side down, with a bit of butter and pepper and salt added, or perhaps seafood seasoning. Grill until they flake.

A friend, Angus Phillips, prefers broiling, then flakes the flesh, adds some mayonnaise and seafood seasoning to turn out a tasty salad. For a mackerel salad, I prefer filleting, then steaming, adding a black seafood seasoning sparingly, and mixing with mayonnaise and a tad of spicy mustard added. Try either procedure.

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