Ever the thrifty and conscious fishermen, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Nick Fisher have adapted a classic gravad lax (gravlax) recipe in The River Cottage Fish Book to accommodate more sustainable mackerel.
Both salmon and mackerel are sweet, oily fish, so it's swapping mackerel for salmon is an easy transition to make. Whole mackerel comes cheap at most fish markets, and they're (fairly) easy to fillet following Fearnley-Whittingstall and Fisher's hilariously detailed instructions. But in my mind, the best part of this recipe is that the small cured fillets are ready to eat in as little as 24 hours (or up to 48)—so much faster than old-fashioned gravlax.
Why I picked this recipe: A unique alternative to gravlax in 2 days (or less)? Yes please.
What worked: The cure had the perfect balance of sugar and salt; my fillets emerged well-cured but not tough after 48 hours.
What didn't: I had a tough time removing all of the pin bones when I filleted the fish myself. They're fairly easily avoided when eating, but a bit of a nuisance.
Suggested tweaks: As written, the cure is dead simple. Adding other herbs, spices, and/or liquor (Aquavit and juniper, anyone?) would be add welcome variety.
Reprinted with permission from The River Cottage Fish Book by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Nick Fisher. Copyright 2012. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc. Available wherever books are sold. All rights reserved.
- about 10 very fresh, medium-large mackerel
- For the Cure
- about 1/2 cup (100 grams) superfine sugar
- about 1/3 cup (75 grams) coarse salt
- about 1 tablespoon (15 grams) coarsely ground black or white pepper, or a mixture
- A large bunch of dill, coarse stems removed, finely chopped
- For the Accompanying Sauce
- 4 teaspoons English Mustard
- 4 teaspoons light brown sugar
- 2 teaspoons wine vinegar
- 2 to 3 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
- 6 tablespoons crème fraîche
The quickest way to prepare the mackerel is to take the fillet from either side of an ungutted fish, bait-cutter style – i.e., slicing from head to tail as close as possible to the backbone. Wipe any blood or guts from the board you are working on as you go. The whole frames (i.e., skeletons with heads and tails still on and guts attached) from which the fillets have been taken can be kept and frozen, then used later for pot bait.
Mix together all the ingredients for the cure. Sprinkle some cure lightly over the bottom of your chosen tray, box, or dish, then place the first layer of fillets on it skin side down, with the thin edges just overlapping. Then sprinkle another, slightly thicker layer of cure over. Arrange the next layer of mackerel skin side up and sprinkle over another layer of cure, then place the next layer skin side down (as shown, above left). Keep going until you’ve used all your fish, or filled the dish.
Put the board/lid/plate on top of the final layer and weight it down with a brick, storage jar, or whatever comes to hand. Place in the fridge. You can eat the gravad max after 24 hours, but 48 is best. For really big fillets, you could wait for 72 hours. Remove the board and lift out the fillets carefully, one at a time. Give them a very quick rinse and then pat dry immediately with a clean cloth or paper towels.
You could serve whole fillets, leaving the problem of cutting it away from the skin and avoiding the pinbones (which are still there, running down the middle of each fillet) to your guests. Or, you could be kinder and trim the fish before serving. So, place the cured fillet on a board, skin side down, and run a flexible filleting knife between the flesh and the skin. Alternatively, you can sometimes just start the process with the knife, then peel the skin off with your fingers.
Now slice the skinless fillet off either side of the pinbone line to give you 2 long fillets – and a very thin waste piece in the middle with the pinbones in it, which you should discard. The belly-side fillet may require a final trim to remove the fine belly bones.
For the sauce: mix the mustard, sugar, and vinegar together. Add the dill, mix well, and leave to macerate for a few minutes. Mix again, then stir in the crème fraîche. Serve the mackerel – 2 whole fillets or 4 trimmed pieces per person – with the creamy sauce on the side and plenty of brown bread and butter.