The Heaven & Earth fishcakes I made the other day left me with half a smoked mackerel to dispose of, which really isn’t a problem, or if it is, it’s a nice problem to have. And a very easy one to solve. After all, just put it pretty (i.e skin) side up on a plate with a generous spoonful of punchy horseradish sauce and a slice or two of good, chewy, rustic bread, maybe a little bunch of dressed watercress, and you have a dish that would sit happily on the menu at St John, indeed, quite possibly does as I write. A filleted half mackerel would work very well as a lunch or light supper for one, or a starter for two just like that, but in order to stretch it out to a full dinner for two, you do probably need to go a little further.
|Fillet your mackerel|
In that last post, the one about the fishcakes, I also wrote, briefly, about culinary pairings, those things that just go so well together it’s hard to believe they weren’t designed with each other in mind, in that case in the context of black pudding and apple. Well here’s another such pairing (that was implicitly referred to by joint presence in the ingredients list for the fishcakes, but not drawn attention to): smoked mackerel and horseradish. And here’s another: beetroot and horseradish. I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this… that’s right, two other things that go well together? Try smoked mackerel and beetroot. I’m sure a boffin could explain why this should be, why two things with a mutual affinity for a third thing, should also have an affinity with each other, but I’m sure it’s not coincidence, and that there are good reasons for it at the level of very basic chemistry. Beetroot and horseradish, incidentally are two corners of the triangle of another good example of this phenomenon that springs immediately to mind, the third being roast beef. If you don’t believe me, next time you have some cold roast beef and you’re looking to make a sandwich with it, add a couple of slices of beetroot. You’ll thank me.
With beetroot, you can of course by the precooked and peeled, plastic wrapped fourpacks from your local supermarket, and these are perfectly good, and easy and still pretty cheap. But it is much more satisfying, tastier and cheaper to cook your own, and it’s no great effort, although it does take time, and, admittedly, can get messy when it comes to peeling – although less so if you can get hold of some of the yellow or white or even candy-striped varieties of beetroot that are now becoming more widely available in farmer’s markets and, admittedly fancy, food stores. And don’t worry that there’s anything ‘Frankenstein’ about these fancy new non-red beetroots, they are in fact traditional native varieties that have been driven to near extinction by the overwhelming ubiquity of their pink blooded cousin. A bit like red squirrels, but less cute. Not necessarily less tasty, mind, although I wouldn’t suggest for a minute that you eat red squirrels, eat grey ones. They taste good, like gamier rabbit, and their numbers need controlling, for the sake of the red squirrels and us all.
But back to beetroot: You can simply boil your beets, or roast them, but my preferred method is something between the two: to bake them in a foil covered roasting tray with a little boiling water in the bottom. Just trim the stalks off the beets (if they’re young, fresh and in good enough condition you can keep the stalks and leaves for the salad) and put them whole, or halved, depending on size, and unpeeled into the roasting tray with a few stalks of thyme or rosemary, or both, a bay leaf or two, a couple of whole, lightly crushed cloves of garlic, a few peppercorns and mustard seeds and pour over enough water fresh from the kettle to fill the bottom of the tray to half an inch (1cm) or so, cover the tray with foil and pinch it tight, then put in the oven at around 180 for about an hour, or until a knife will easily pierce the beets but still feel resistance. It may take a bit longer, I find the timing quite variable, depending on the size, and I suspect the freshness of the beets. Once the beets are cooked, they can be easily, if messily peeled, just by scraping with a knife, or even rubbing with your fingers once they have cooled down enough to comfortably handle. They will keep, in Tupperware in your fridge for a good week or so, so it’s okay that you are unlikely to use a whole bunch in one meal. Two decent sized beets per person would probably be about right for a main course salad in which they were the main feature; in an example like this one, where they share star billing, one per person should be enough.
Boil some new potatoes (enough for a regular portion per person), and some beans (green, fine, bobby or runners). For the sake of efficiency I like to steam my beans over the potato pan. The beans obviously cook quicker so when they are done I take the steamer off the pan and refresh them in cold water (this is to stop them carrying on cooking in their own heat and prevents them going limp and grey. Proper chefs always say iced water, but they are used to working in professional kitchens with access to unlimited supplies of ice, in a domestic kitchen I think it’s fine just to run the beans under the cold tap then tip them into a bowl of fresh cold water. Keep your ice for your gin and tonics).
Meanwhile, cut your peeled beets into asymmetric chunks (or symmetrical if you prefer, who am I to tell you how to cut your beets…), and flake your mackerel fillet.
When the potatoes are cooked and ready to strain, tip the beans into the colander first, then the potatoes, so the beans get re-warmed. Then tip the potatoes and beans back into the pan and dress with salt, pepper, extra virgin olive oil and the zest and juice of half a lemon. Then add the beetroot, and the flaked mackerel fillet, and a teaspoon or two of horseradish sauce, or, even better, if you have it, grate over some fresh horseradish. Mix everything loosely together with some salad leaves (precisely which leaves is up to you and the season, but robust peppery flavours like rocket or watercress will always be good). Aesthetically I think the ideal is for the beetroot to marble everything with beautiful smears of pink, not uniformly coat everything, and it’s worth mentioning that, because aesthetically this can be one of the loveliest dishes to look at, for really very little effort, and without being poncey or having to apply any kind of refined skill. So why not? And it tastes damned good too.
|A very pretty salad|
If you don’t have smoked mackerel, incidentally, or can only get hold of the shrink wrapped supermarket stuff, then beetroot and anchovies is another fine pairing. You could just substitute a few salted fillets for the mackerel in the salad described above, or mix it up with boiled eggs, or goat’s cheese, or any combination you fancy.