It’s always a joy to find sushi-grade tuna, especially out here in the sticks where the seafood is not renowned for its freshness. I do love raw fish, even though large pelagic species like tuna contain more and more mercury, courtesy of coal-fired power plants, making it less and less safe to eat with any regularity. Since canned tuna is thus more or less absent from our diet, the occasional indulgence in some number one ahi can be justified. But since it’s chilly, and cold food is not indicated for such conditions, I put a little spin on it to make it seasonally appropriate, and followed it with a real winner of an accidental discovery.
I chopped the fish up into medium dice-sized pieces and tossed them with minced shallot, lime zest, and salt. I kept it simple so the flavor of this beautiful fish would not be buried. Then I formed the tartare into balls and seared them hard on one side. I served them with a sauce made from an egg yolk and soy sauce whisked together with sansho pepper. Warm, creamy, bright, salty, and satisfying: like a big meatball that’s mostly raw but in a good way. It’s a decadent departure from sushi, and makes for a compelling first course.
Next up, a Spanish mackerel fillet. Unlike tuna, mackerel are small, fast-growing, and lower down on the food chain so they accumulate many fewer industrial toxins in their flesh. They and their ilk (sardines, menhaden, anchovies) are sustainable species that we should all be eating more of. Because they are oily, though, with a stronger flavor than other species, some people do not enjoy them. Since my wife numbers among these people, I have worked to develop techniques to ameliorate the fishiness. I’m pleased to report that escabeche handsomely counters this flavor and makes for a highly addictive result, even for the oilophobes among us.
To begin, I cut the fillet in two and floured it, then browned the skin sides thoroughly before flipping them over to color and firm the flesh sides. Flour gives a nice crispness and prevents sticking in the iron or stainless pan that you’re using because of course you don’t have any teflon in your kitchen. Then I removed the pieces to a glass container that held them snugly and poured over a marinade made of sherry vinegar, homemade ketchup, and homemade smoked salsa, agitating the dish to coat both pieces well. They sat in the marinade for about half an hour while I made the rest of the meal. Longer would have been fine, too; they soak up the flavor.
In the same pan that I cooked the fish in, I softened slivers of onion and bell pepper until meltingly tender, then added cubed potato, saffron, and smoked paprika and let them slowly brown all over, stirring and shaking regularly to flip the little spud cubes onto unbrowned sides. Once they were tender—Iberian homefries, really—I scraped them into a bowl and put the mackerel back in the hot pan with the sauce to heat through and reduce for a minute, then served the fish on top of the steaming, fragrant potatoes.
What made this an accidental discovery was that tomato sauce I “invented” by combining the things I had on hand. You know those canned sardines in tomato sauce? The ones your Mom used to have in the cupboard, and which every now and then you would eat on toast because there was nothing else in the house? Well the combination of vinegar, ketchup, and smoked salsa (all homemade, and thus of very high quality and flavor intensity) combined with the oily fish made for an astonishingly vivid recreation of that pantry standard, but in three-dimensional surround sound. And the crispy, salty, funky potatoes were an ideal foundation. This was a winner: so rich, intensely flavored, and umamitudinously soul-satisfying with the unforseen resonance with a childhood taste touchstone. If you or someone you love doesn’t like oily fish, try this. And if they do, try this.