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Giving Props To (And Recipes For) Fresh Mackerel

Mackerel and a poisonniere by Nancy Jenkins

I spotted a pair of fresh Atlantic mackerel at my fishmonger in Umbria, Italy, this morning, their unmistakable sleek, glossy skin, marked like the waves of the ocean, steely blue and gray. It’s astonishing that a fish so reputedly fragile could be brought so far, from the Atlantic coast of France to this little market town in the Tiber valley, without damage, and yet this pair smelled as fresh as a sea breeze.

Of course I snatched them up and brought them home to try a favorite Elizabeth David recipe (from “French Provincial Cooking”), one she says comes from the Breton coast, near where my fish were caught.

In some quarters, mackerel has a reputation as poor folks’ food, and fancy chefs often scorn it. But I adore this fine fish. Beautiful to look at, even more so to taste, rich and fat and full of healthful Omega 3 fatty acids, mackerel is just the thing to pick me up after a surfeit of meat, which I’ve been consuming at a tremendous rate in the last couple of weeks. Nothing truly beats the mackerel you catch off a dock in Maine on a calm, early summer evening — jigging for mackerel, it’s called — but any fresh mackerel is worth the very slight effort it takes to prepare it. Emphasis is on “fresh,” however — your nose will tell you immediately if it’s not, but the visible evidence is just as reliable: When the shiny skin goes dull and the eyes lose their luster, that’s a fish to reject.

If you catch the mackerel yourself, gut it right there on the dock and toss the guts back in the water where they’ll make a fine supper for some other creature, whether finned or winged. If you’re buying from a fishmonger, have him or her gut the fish for you but leave the head and tail intact for a handsome presentation. The best mackerel recipe is the simplest: Build up a fire on the grill and throw the whole fish on, let the skin blister and bubble, then turn the fish (carefully — use a wide spatula and try not to break up the fish) once only, and cook the other side to a blister. Because the fish are small, rarely reaching as much as a pound, they cook quickly and are done in minutes. Serve with a wedge of lemon and enjoy!

Any fish you don’t consume immediately can be turned into a sort of soused mackerel, a recipe that comes from the eastern Adriatic and is reminiscent of Spanish escabeche.

Soused Mackerel


1 to 1½ pounds fresh mackerel, grilled or broiled

¾ cup extra virgin olive oil

1½ cups water

Zest of an organic lemon

Juice of the same lemon, plus enough white wine vinegar to make 1½ cups

2 bay leaves

1 tablespoon sugar

3 garlic cloves, crushed with the flat blade of a knife

1 teaspoon black peppercorns

Pinch of sea salt

3 or 4 fresh rosemary sprigs


1. Combine everything but the fish and simmer together for half an hour or so to reduce.

2. Once the marinade is reduced, set it aside to cool and then pour it over the fish — either the whole grilled fish or the fillets, which, once cooked, are very easy to lift off. Leave to marinate overnight or in the refrigerator a couple of days. Serve as part of an antipasto or meze.

But back to the Elizabeth David recipe, Maqueraux a la Façon de Quimper, which is simply poached mackerel with an egg-butter-mustard sauce. I use olive oil instead of butter — it goes better with a rich fish like mackerel. This is also a splendid sauce to serve with poached or grilled salmon.

Maqueraux à la Façon de Quimper

Adapted from Elizabeth David’s recipe in “French Provincial Cooking.”

Makes 2 main course servings, or 4  first-course servings


For the fish:

2 fresh mackerel, each weighing a little under a pound

6 cups water

1½ cups dry white wine

2 bay leaves

1 teaspoon black peppercorns

1 carrot, scraped and coarsely chopped

1 small yellow onion, peeled and coarsely chopped

1 branch celery, coarsely chopped

Handful of fresh parsley, coarsely chopped

For the sauce:

2 egg yolks

1 tablespoon Dijon-style mustard

Freshly ground black pepper

½ teaspoon lemon juice, or more to taste

2 tablespoons chopped green herbs (parsley, chervil, tarragon, chives, dill, fennel tops)

¼ to ⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil


For the fish:

1. As soon as you get the mackerel home, gut them, if necessary, and rinse under running water. Keep them very cold until ready to cook. Put them in a bowl with ice cubes piled around and set the bowl, covered, in the refrigerator.

2. Make a court bouillon for poaching: In a saucepan or fish kettle large enough to hold the mackerel, combine the water, wine, bay leaves, peppercorns, carrot, onion, celery and parsley. Bring to a boil and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes.

3. Drain the mackerel and add to the simmering liquid. Bring back to a gentle simmer and cook for just 10 minutes, then remove the fish immediately from the court bouillon and set aside to cool.

4. When cool enough to handle, lift the skin off the fish and take the fillets off the bones. Check to be sure all the bones are gone, then arrange the fillets on a serving platter and keep cool while you make the sauce.

For the sauce:

You can make the sauce by hand in a bowl, using a wire whisk, but it is easier to make in a blender or food processor.

1. Combine the egg yolks and mustard in the processor and buzz briefly. Add the pepper, vinegar and herbs, and buzz once again, just to combine.

2. Now, with the motor running, slowly add the olive oil, just as you would with mayonnaise, a few drops at a time at first, and then in a steady dribble. The sauce should mount like mayonnaise but for this recipe it should be no thicker than heavy cream. Taste and add more lemon juice if it seems to need it.

3. Pile the sauce in the middle of the serving platter and serve immediately.

Top photo: Mackerel and a copper poissonnière. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Zester Daily contributor Nancy Harmon Jenkins is the author of many books about Italy and the Mediterranean. Her most recent books are "Virgin Territory: Exploring the World of Olive Oil," published by Houghton Mifflin in February 2015, and "The Four Seasons of Pasta," published by Avery in October 2015.

  • Janet Mendel 5·14·13

    Nancy: Yes! mackerel, “the other blue fish.” Here’s a recipe from Cádiz (Spain).

  • Robyn Eckhardt 5·14·13

    Coincidentally I had just returned from the market with a whole mackerel and found this on my FB page. I’ve already got the ingredients to cook it Indian style but these are filed away for next time. Maybe tomorrow, even.
    (Mackerel is also great stewed with Vietnamese caramel).
    By the way, there is a Penang dish called asam (sour) fish that uses pretty much the same technique as the soused mackerel above. The fish is usually fried then soused with a sweet-sour white vinegary liquid seasoned with (and colored by) fresh turmeric.

  • pierino 5·16·13


    Absolutely correct about guttng the mackerel immediately, otherwise the flesh can get pretty rank. I used to live at the beach in Southern California and we would go out on day boats fishing for bass and have to fight off the mackerel like they were cockroaches. Most we would throw back. But handled properly they can be good eating.

    • pierino 5·16·13

      During my fishing years it would mainly be the Asian guys who held on to the mackerel. The reason we referred to them as “cockroaches” was their abundant omnipresence. We would be trying to get our bait down to the bottom kelp where the bass and halibut hangout and the mackerel would come zipping in and seize it on the drop down.

  • Karen Strickholm 5·16·13

    YES! Love mackerel. My favorite item to get at sushi bars is Spanish mackerel. In LA the sushi bars along Sawtelle Blvd. in West LA sometimes have it. Going to try that soused mackerel — thanks, Nancy, for a terrific article!

  • Marcella Hazan 5·16·13

    It was the cheapest fish in the market when I was growing up in Cesenatico, and it was on our table at least once a week. It didn’t come from the Atlantic, it came from the Adriatic, and we called it sgombro. My father roasted it in olive oil in a pan with garlic and rosemary. No one who has been tempted by Elizabeth David’s fussy recipe can imagine how good it could be.

  • Doreen Schmid 5·16·13

    Timely, indeed! I panfried a couple last night in ghee, and with some wild fennel and served them with caramelized fennel and,of course, lots of lemon wedges — yum! Thanks for the terrific recipes, Nancy. You are in Umbria? I am soon headed to San Sebastian for a few days of eating and then Venice.

  • Sylvia R Tawse 5·16·13

    Last Thanksgiving in a little fishing village on the Nayarit Coast of Mexico, I came upon a huge family picnic of 40+ all enjoying a small mackerel, pulled direct from wood-burning open grill. So wonderful to seek little kids beside their uncles and grandmothers, pulling the smoky flesh off the bone and folding into warm corn tortillas with salsa and shredded cabbage. I believe they call Mackerel “Siena” in Spanish but would love confirmation.

  • Betty Frost 5·16·13

    When I read your article it made me think of the first time I had Mackerel. I was taking a cooking class from Susan Loomis and it was one of the dishes we prepared. I loved it. Then I read your comment that Susan posted a recipe on her blog. I definitely have to check it out. Thanks for the reminder.

  • Nancy Harmon Jenkins 5·18·13

    Thanks for all your comments. I’m happy to discover that mackerel has so many fans.
    Carissima Marcella, I know mackerel also exists in the Mediterranean–I have beautiful photos of mackerel being sold in a market beneath the Galata Bridge in Istanbul where it is also a great favorite. And your father’s recipe sounds delightful–reminds me of the way my mother cooked it in Maine (except no garlic!). But Elizabeth David’s poached mackerel with a simple mustard sauce is actually very delicious and easy and not at all fussy. Breton cooks are sometimes as expert as Italians–and sometimes, dare I say it, even more so!

  • Sue Style 6·19·13

    Love all this mackerel-mongering, Nancy, and great to be reminded of Elizabeth David’s Brittany recipe. Another idea coming soon on Zester, for ceviche – one of my faves, especially when the weather is blistering (as now in Alsace, finally)

  • carlo middione 6·20·13

    Loved your story, Nancy. It reminded me of my Mother’s rendition, much like Marcella Hazan’s mouthwatering version, except we added a big pinch of red chili flakes. Also, in good weather she would build a large fire right on the dirt in our garden, and mount an old refrigerator grate over stones or bricks. She would make a large bowl of salsa verde, garlic parsley, lemon juice, sea salt and pepper. Then came the huge bunch of fresh rosemary tied in a bundle and pounded on a rock with her fists to release the esters. This was the brush dipped in the sauce to baste the mackerel while it cooked and crackled over a fire that Richard Wagner would have loved (I think he wrote some music to celebrate Ma’s dish) – heaven on a plate. More of the sauce was slathered on the crunchy-skinned fish. Crusty bread, cool white wine and Ma’s love – wow. I am going out to buy mackerel right now, and boy, do I have the perfect spot for a roaring fire. Hmmm, now to find some Walkure to help me.