Even out of the water they have a commanding presence. Their skin is shiny silver and midnight blue, and their eyes are hard as garnets. These are wild fish fresh from the ocean, and it shows; even trapped in their plastic trays, their bodies flex as if interrupted in mid-swim.
Their flavor is equally remarkable, rich and full in a way you might have forgotten fish could be. Indeed, around the world there are cults of diners devoted to their appreciation.
Yet these are not high-priced appellation-labeled salmon (in fact, they are quite likely to be used as salmon bait). They are mackerel, one of the unsung stars of the sea. And they can be had for a pittance -- seafood-wise -- all over Southern California.
Especially at this time of year, America should be paying close attention. Mackerel is a fatty fish with very moist flesh, so it takes particularly well to the grill. Salt it and rub it lightly with oil, and you’re ready to go. If you want to get a little fancy, marinate it first with lemon juice, olive oil, garlic and a pinch of dried thyme leaves for an hour. This is about as good as summer grilling gets.
But with a fish this fully flavored, there are all kinds of other options. Though mackerel shares a common ancestry with tuna, it is probably closer in flavor to fresh sardines, particularly in the texture of the flesh (even better -- there is certainly a lot more of it).
As this should tell you, mackerel is a fish that does best in boisterous company. It is made not for nuance but for big tastes. Forget shallots and cream; mackerel is all about capers, garlic and lemon -- lots of lemon.
In Japanese restaurants, mackerel is most often served simply grilled and accompanied by some sharp, grated fresh radish. It can also be salted or vinegared and is frequently broiled after being marinated in miso paste.
Pickled and bathed
Another classic treatment is the French appetizer maquereaux au vin blanc, mackerel fillets pickled in a court bouillon made with white wine and basically whatever seasonings happen to be on hand. Exact recipes vary widely. Still, two great food writers recommend it as among their favorite dishes. Jane Grigson particularly liked it served with butter and whole-wheat bread. Elizabeth David served it with a sauce made by stirring together the slightly jellied pickling liquid with capers, snipped chives and freshly squeezed lemon. This is wonderful served with a salad of slightly bitter greens and a crisp, tart white wine.
Mackerel also does well when bathed in charmoula, the forceful Moroccan herb paste. Made with parsley and cilantro, garlic and green onions, even paprika and cumin, this would overwhelm most fish but not our intrepid mackerel. Bake it on a bed of sliced onions, and the fish comes out aromatic and almost meaty. You could add green peppers to the onions, and maybe some chopped tomatoes; or how about green olives?
Sometimes the greatest complexity can come from the simplest of combinations. Cut a couple of slices in each side of a whole mackerel, going mostly but not completely through the flesh. Slip a sliver of fresh bay leaf in each slice. Lay the fish on a bed of thinly sliced lemons. Wrap it in aluminum foil and bake it. You won’t believe the depth of aroma and flavor from such a simple preparation.
However you prepare it, be extra picky when selecting mackerel. These are high-energy fish with oily flesh, so they spoil very quickly. This is one reason fillets are frequently sold frozen.
When buying whole mackerel, look carefully at the eyes to make sure they are bright and clear. The flesh should be firm, without any bumps or bruises. If the meat holds a dent when you give it a gentle squeeze, pass it by. The color of the skin should be bright and vivid, but don’t set too much store by the color of the meat itself. Mackerel tends toward a grayish cast to the flesh. Don’t worry, it will turn creamy tan when cooked. Similarly, the meat can seem soft and almost mealy when raw, but it firms up during cooking.
Furthermore, mackerel is one of the few fish still commonly sold “in the round” -- a seafood term that means it hasn’t been gutted. This is simple to do, and if you need detailed instructions, stop by your neighborhood fishing pier some evening. When you’re cleaning mackerel, do take the extra step to remove the little fin right behind the gills and the structure that anchors it to the body -- though small, this is a mess of bones and cartilage that you won’t want to force on your guests.
The best place to find mackerel is at a Japanese market (unless, of course, you have a boat -- they’re plentiful off the coast). Shopping for them can be confusing, because mackerel is not just a single fish but an entire family. For the sake of clarity (and because this is how you’re most likely to find them labeled), their Japanese names are the best to use.
There is aji, Trachurus japonicus, usually labeled Spanish mackerel, though it is more accurately a jack mackerel (“Spanish mackerel” is one of those names that, like red snapper, has become attached to a wide variety of fish; true Spanish mackerel is Scomberomorus maculatus, and it is caught only on the East Coast). Aji is a full-bodied fish with a telltale line of hard, sharp scales leading to the tail. For most of the year, it is the king of the mackerels, with moist flesh and a flavor that is almost mild (well, for a mackerel). This is the mackerel you will usually use for whole-fish preparations.
There is saba, usually Scomber japonicus or Scomber scombrus, commonly called Atlantic mackerel (most of what you’ll find in the market comes from Norway). These are almost always sold in fillets and usually frozen. Handled carefully, they are still very good.
And then there is sanma, the torpedo-shaped Cololabis saira, sometimes called saury or saury pike. This is the most distinctive of the mackerel, with a thick strip of dark, fatty meat running down each side that has a texture almost like marine foie gras. In Japan, they say these fish are particularly fatty and delicious in the fall, after they’ve spent the summer building up their winter reserves. Sanma is best reserved for simple grilling or broiling so as not to overshadow this unusual property.
In its season, which usually runs from October to April, you can also find sawara, Scomberomorus niphonius, called Japanese Spanish mackerel. It is by far the most delicate of the mackerels.
Aji and sanma are small fish, about half a pound each -- one fish makes a good serving. Saba are a little bigger -- between 1 and 2 pounds each -- but since they’re always filleted, you might not notice. Sawara are quite a bit bigger, weighing up to 15 pounds. These are all distinctly different from the king mackerel that is caught off the East Coast, which can be as big as 100 pounds.
Mackerel are so plentiful in the ocean that we tend to take them for granted. In this country, they are almost nonexistent in most fish markets, aside from those catering to a Japanese American clientele.
This is by no means the case in the rest of the world, where the fish is far more likely to get its just renown. There are festivals to celebrate the mackerel in Rosses Point on Ireland’s northwest coast, and France’s Trouville-sur-Mer in Normandy. And Japan has its own festival in Matsuura, near Nagasaki, which bills itself as the mackerel capital of the world.
At one time, that was an honor that could have been claimed by Southern California, had anyone cared to do it. In the early 1980s, mackerel landings totaled as much as 35,000 tons a year here; more than 20,000 tons were caught in 2000. Now the catch is on the wane, part of what seems to be a cyclical fluctuation as the sardine population increases. Still, there were 4,000 tons taken in 2003, the last year for which statistics are available.
Most of these are the extremely edible Scomber japonicus (saba) and Trachurus symmetricus (a kind of jack mackerel similar to aji). But because they are so underappreciated on these shores, most of them will be shipped overseas.
That’s too bad, really, because our local mackerels deserve a place of honor in their own home.