Exotic Seafood Countdown #19: Mackerel

First, we apply the anchovy test. Nobody’s indifferent about that little Mediterranean fish, but everybody’s familiar with them. And you either love them or hate them. If you like anchovies, please join my movement to get mackerel back on local menus.

New Orleans restaurants from the inexpensive to the fancy used to cook Spanish mackerel from the Gulf. Its popularity began to decline after World War II. Now it’s herd to get unless you’re a fisherman or know one. Sushi bars are about the only consistent restaurant servers of mackerel.

Here’s why. Mackerel is a strongly-flavored, oily fish. That’s what its fans like about it. It’s a good taste, but much more assertive than most people like in their fish. The average fish-eater would call it–ironically–“fishy.” In any other food that cognate adjective would be a good thing. Don’t you like orangy oranges? Beefy beef? Chocolatey chocolate desserts?

There’s nothing weird about mackerel. The several species are related to tuna. Its populations in the Gulf are substantial. Because they’re fast and effective predators, they quickly grow to twenty or more pounds–although smaller ones are better. Their meat is on the gray side (another turnoff for some people).

Like Charlie the Tuna, Spanish mackerel has good taste. It likes to eat is speckled trout. And it tastes good, too. You can cook mackerel in all the usual ways. It’s quite good fried. Broiled or grilled is nice, too. Sauces with big flavors of their own are natural companions, because the flavor of mackerel stands up to them. (I’m thinking of the preparation several local Italian restaurants make with artichokes, olives, capers, mushrooms, lemon and butter.)

The mackerel in sushi bars are very small. (I’m not sure they’re local.) The great way to have it prepared is as raw sashimi, cut right off the whole fish. Then the remainder of the fish (head, bones, tail, skin) is sent to the kitchen, which fries it. You can eat that pretty much whole. Exotic, but delicious.

This is today’s item in a countdown of unusual seafood found on menus around New Orleans. Included are both species from faraway waters, and local fish and shellfish that we don’t find very often in restaurants or markets.

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