Last May, one very early morning, I went out weir fishing. I was exhausted from work the night before, and not really looking forward to getting up and getting on a boat with all the wet and the cold. But when I got there—when I met Shannon and Ernie and Shareen and motored out and saw the weir—everything changed. I was awake suddenly, wide awake, and the morning was ethereal, magical.
I've never seen anything simultaneously so sturdy and fragile as the weir. It was made of posts—hickory posts, driven deep down into the sea bed—with a series of nets that let the fish in. They could swim out, but they can't figure out how, and so they get trapped—hundreds and hundreds of squid, mackerel, butterfish.
When I got home, I got Alex and Ernie in touch. The Eldgredges sell mostly through a CSF—a community supported fisheries program that's run just like a CSA—but they had enough to sell to Alex, too. Last year, the big run was butterfish, and he got a whole tote full for the markets. His restaurant and the one where I work fried them up and ran them as specials—fish and chips served head on, skeleton in. There were a few leftover for staff meal one night—sweet, rich flesh with tails that crunched like potato chips.
This year, it's mackerel that keeps swimming in. Alex brought some home last night—those glossy bodies up there—silvery, midnight blue, amazingly fresh. We ate them whole, escabeche style, pan fried. I slivered carrots and onions while Alex cleaned the fish—heads off, tails on, guts tossed and body cavity washed out. While he seared I made an olive tapenade—plenty of garlic, green olives, salt.
I'd never really eaten much mackerel, but I was sold pretty quick. Some people think they're oily, but when they're fresh like this, they're fleshy and sweet and rich. The marinade added tang, the tapenade gave them brine, and we both cleaned our plates. There was something about them that was just right—the crisp maybe, or the give. Whatever it was, it fit the night, the mood, the season—so if you have a chance, dig in.
MACKEREL ESCABECHE WITH CARROTS, SHALLOTS, & OLIVE TAPENADE
Escabeche is a Mediterranean thing. The general idea is to take an oily fish, poach or fry it, and serve it with an acidic vegetable marinade. It's also popular in Jamaica, although it tends to be much spicier down there. We adapted this recipe from one we found over here, and found it absolutely delicious.
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, plus more for frying
2 large shallots, thinly sliced
2 medium carrots, peeled, trimmed, and cut into 2-inch long slivers
4 sprigs fresh thyme or 2 teaspoons dried
2 bay leaves
3 large garlic cloves, minced, divided
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
salt and freshly ground pepper
1/4 cup minced green olives
four 8 ounce mackerel, guts and heads removed
Heat up the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the shallots, carrots, thyme, bay leaves, and a third of the garlic and cook until the vegetables are softened, about 8 minutes. Remove from heat and transfer to a shallow serving dish. Stir in the vinegar, season with salt and pepper, and set aside.
Mix the remaining garlic with the green olives to make the tapenade, then set aside.
Fill the skillet with about 1/4-inch of olive oil. Heat the oil over high heat until shimmering. While you wait, season the mackerel with salt and pepper. When the pan's hot, add them to the skillet and cook until the skin is brown and crisp, about 4 minutes. Turn the fish and cook another 3-4 minutes on the other side, or until the flesh is cooked through and the skin is crisp.
Serve each fish with a large spoonful of the vegetables and their marinade and a sprinkling of olive tapenade on top. Eat from the tail to the head, taking the flesh on the top half first, then gently pulling the skeleton out before eating the rest. About one fish per person makes a good serving.
P.S. If you're looking for local mackerel, Alex thinks he'll be getting it in to his Eastham and Truro markets until about mid-June!