Spanish Mackerel, Saffron and Honey with Blood Orange – Fennel Salad. If you make nothing else from us this year, make this. It’s crazy delicious, one of my contenders for the tastiest thing Jody’s cooked in the past year, and it’s as uncomplicated and fun as bright new socks. Contrary to what you may think, the recipe doesn’t involve filleting your own mackerel. Unless you want to. If so, have it. That’s what we did, but only because the whole fish were so gorgeous I couldn’t bear not photographing them (your fishmonger should do the job for you). You’ll also notice that there are three fish and only four fillets, when you’d expect six. That’s because we roasted the third mackerel whole. If Spanish mackerel’s around, we can’t get enough of it. Make this dish.
And no whining about, “Oh, mackerel, that’s one of those ‘fishy’ fishes, isn’t it?” Atlantic mackerel, yes. Spanish mackerel, no. Not that there’s anything wrong with Atlantic mackerel. We planned on using it, but when we couldn’t get any, we switched things up. I grew up eating, reluctantly, canned mackerel, because in winter in rural Michigan that and canned salmon were often the only seafood at hand. Spanish mackerel bears no relationship to that. Many people don’t recognize Spanish mackerel when it’s put in front of them. The meaty, white flesh makes an excellent partner to seasoning because its flavor doesn’t disappear (one of my objections to sole). [Start soapbox.] This dish combines so many things that I love – cured olives, mint, lemon, honey, smoky pepper, pine nuts, fennel and blood oranges in a great salad. The seasoning in both the vinaigrette and marinade screams southern Mediterranean, one of my favorite culinary loci. If it sounds like I’m on a soapbox here, I am. I will eat this over lobster any day of the week. Seriously. [End soapbox.] But if you want to substitute something else, go ahead. I’m just as happy not to see the price of Spanish mackerel ascend to the empyrean realms of other once-less-desirable fish that have become trendy.
You can simplify or downscale things–omit the saffron, or just make the fish; or you can make the salad, and once you’re won over by that, go back later and give Spanish mackerel a try, but I’m urging you to light all the fireworks at once. And after you’ve done that, you can do that increasingly rare thing these days, introduce someone else to a new pleasure. Enjoy. Ken
NOTE: The Syrian War has disrupted supplies of Aleppo pepper. We listed it in the ingredients because we are part of what the Christian Science Monitor refers to in an article about disruption of the Aleppo pepper supply as the “small number of home chefs who enjoy its almost-smokey flavor.” Small? I beg your pardon. Dedicated and loud about Aleppo pepper? Absolutely. While Aleppo pepper may be temporarily in short supply neither it nor the Syrian farmers who grow it are forgotten, and we can’t wait for the day when they can go back to work without threat. If, perchance, you happen to have some Aleppo pepper and use it in this recipe, the marinade will not be as red. We had to fall back on paprika, which is a brighter color.
Spanish Mackerel, Saffron and Honey with Blood Orange - Fennel Salad
- ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
- ½ teaspoon saffron
- 3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
- 3 tablespoons honey
- 1 teaspoon minced garlic
- 1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper or sweet paprika
- 1 tablespoon chopped mint
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1½ pounds Spanish mackerel fillets
- 8 ounces shaved fennel, about one 10 ounce bulb
- 2 scallions, thinly sliced
- ½ cup small mint leaves, or large leaves torn
- Supremes* from 1 blood orange, juice reserved–use a regular orange if blood oranges aren’t available
- 3 cups arugula
- ½ cup chervil leaves (reserve a few chervil sprigs for garnish)
- 2 tablespoons chopped pitted cured black olives
- 3 tablespoons toasted pine nuts
*If “supremes” aren’t part of your culinary vocabulary, then check out last week’s Dutch Babies with Blood Oranges for an explanation and some photos showing how to easily segment them from an orange.
- Line a sheet pan with foil. Brush the foil with 1 tablespoon oil.
- To make the marinade, rub the saffron between your fingers, crumbling it into a bowl with the lemon juice and zest. Allow this to steep for 15 minutes in a warm place, then stir in the honey, garlic and Aleppo pepper or paprika. Transfer 2 tablespoons of this mixture to a second bowl for the marinade. Set the first bowl aside for the vinaigrette. Add the chopped mint then whisk 2 tablespoons of oil into the second bowl to finish the marinade.
- Score the skin side of the fillets with 4 shallow cuts. Season the fish on both sides with salt and pepper. Brush the fillets on the flesh side with the marinade and refrigerate 30 minutes.
- To make the vinaigrette, add the reserved orange juice to the lemon juice, honey, etc. in the first bowl. Slowly whisk in the remaining olive oil.
- Add the fennel, olives and scallions to the bowl with the vinaigrette. Toss gently.
- Preheat broiler.
- Lay the fish, skin side up on the foil-lined pan. Broil 4-5 minutes or until the skin is crisp and the meat is cooked through. I like to stop while the center is still a little pink as it will continue cooking once it’s removed from the broiler.
- While the fish is cooking, add the torn mint leaves, the arugula, chervil and pine nuts to the fennel mix. As soon as the fish comes out of the oven toss the salad once, then add the supremes and gently toss just enough to get some vinaigrette on them without breaking them. Arrange the salad on 4 plates. Set the cooked fish atop the salad, garnish and serve.
I’ve had one version or another of this salad from Sicily to San Francisco yet never get tired of the combination of fennel, orange and olives. In the winter, it’s a bright note in what can otherwise be a dark and dreary culinary landscape. When I can find blood oranges, I grab them. I love the color and the sharp acidic flavor. Cured olives are salty and intense which is why I call for chopping them and only using a few tablespoons. If you choose a brined olive, you can use more and keep them in bigger pieces.
When I first put this recipe together, I had Atlantic Mackerel, a darker fish, in mind. They both work. In fact, just about any non-delicate fish would as well–bluefish, bass, salmon and even shrimp–you’d just have to adjust the cooking time.
P.S. I wouldn’t have hated adding a second blood orange to this salad.