Grilled whole mackerel with a spice crust is the best way to prepare the fish but it took me years to figure it out.
Mackerel is a pleaser
Mackerel has everything going for it: it’s an oily fish, omega-stuff, cheap as chips and not deadly bony. It can play upscale roles as escabeche or a samphire stuffed roll, or it can be casual: smoked, potted or pâté-ed.
Nobody ever claims for it to be their favourite fish but I don’t think there are many mackerel haters. Mackerel can accommodate even those who are wary of any fish bonier than tuna as it is cheap enough to be filleted into thin strips of flesh devoid of any bones whatsoever. Awful waste, but a way to persuade finicky eaters to accept the super healthy mackerel option.
Make no bones about it
I can understand it to an extent: I’m not big on bony fish. Sardines best come in tins for my liking and my East European roots don’t equate with the love of herring. I like cooking a whole fish but I don’t call it a good meal when it ends up with the plate festooned with bones all around. Fish don’t have breasts which puts a lot of us off.
On the other hand there’s the blissful ease of sticking the whole fish, head, eyes and all, into the oven or under the grill and transferring all the effort into eating it. Those whose fish comes in boneless strips on sterile trays shrink- or vacuum-wrapped will not appreciate it but us who visit the fishmonger’s stall every week will surely sympathise.
Some fishmongers are kindly and skilful enough to ask what we’d like done to the fish but others clearly begrudge being asked to gut, scale or heaven forbid fillet the thing. So we are often happy to toss the fish in the oven as it came from the sea.
Whole fish works
I didn’t use to follow that approach with mackerel, most often cooking fillets, sometimes stuffed, sometimes sticky; often a hatchet job of filleting by moi même. Mackerel being mackerel it always came out good but I’d never tried grilling it whole until a fleeting glance of a recipe by Ben Tish. This works beautifully!
The timing might seem suspiciously short but you can trust it unless you have a monster of a fish. The spice crust smells heavenly when it cooks but make sure you massage the basics (salt and pepper and olive oil) into the fish as the coriander et al won’t permeate deep into the flesh.