Fancy Fish: My panseared mackerel filets in tomato-sauce.

by cookingbrains09

panseared mackerel in tomato sauce
Winter is back in Groningen and I have been longing for a hearty summer meal for quite some days now. Just to lift my spirits and feed my soul and body (I can’t believe I just wrote that). When I think of summer I think of Italy and Spain and the lovely fish dishes I had there. As a student I have neither the money nor the time (yes, studying is hard work) to just book a flight and visit the coast of Gibralta, just to fight my winter depression. But I do have the time and the money to create my own little summer treat. Fish with tomatoes is one of my favourites and my panseared mackerel filet in a tomato sauce just has it all. It’s cheap, nutritious and taste heavenly.

It all comes down to practice. At least that’s what they say. And while it is being said about an awful lot of things, it might actually be true when it comes to cooking. I’m not quite convinced that it is the perfection of technique that makes it so. Quite on the contrary. Perfection can be a bitch. In her book “The Power of Mindful Learning” Havard psychologist Dr. Ellen J. Langer addresses the negative effects of over-practice. According to Langer, too much practice can easily lead to automatization. And granted, while being able to carry out pretty much any task without giving it much active thought seems like a benefit in settings that don’t require much or any thinking (I once worked in a factory where I unwrapped, stacked and re-wrapped hundreds and thousands of books each day), automatization can also become slightly disadvantageous or at least unnecessary every now and then (When I am at my parent’s place, I often end up placing the empty yoghurt cup, which I was meaning to throw away, in the dishwasher, simply because holding something in my hand and seeing the dishwasher triggers this kind of behavioral program).

However, there are times when automatization can have more serious consequences than inappropriately placed yoghurt cups – I wouldn’t want a surgeon to carve around my heart, while she is thinking about all sorts of things BUT the knife she just put inside me. I won’t go on to argue that making mistakes in cooking was as dangerous as performing an open chest surgery or handling heavy machinery, because a burned steak will not literally break your heart or skull. But it can be quite a demotivating thing. The reason why I think cooking requires mindfulness and attention, is that we deal with living products. No two steaks will be quite the same, nor will two potatoes or fish. With every second passing by the structure, texture, moisture and taste of something changes and it would be impossible to have one standard procedure that always will yield the best result.

What practice can do, however, is give experience. The more you do something the more of a feeling you get for it. So really, the best way to go about cooking, for me, is to just do it. Things will burn. You might oversalt or undercook. But that’s fine. Is it exactly this, the understanding of the nature of an ingredient by constant practice, that will make you better every single time. If it wasn’t robots would work in Michelin Star restaurants. But they don’t.

I for one suck at filleting fish. I just do. And that’s not too bad, because I have almost no practice. All the tiny bones and also the not so tiny ones caught me totally off-guard, when I tried to filet this magnificent mackerel. Because it looks so much easier when you watch someone do it online:

So, look at these beautiful filets. I am quite proud to be honest. Doing something you’re not really good at and actually finishing is great feeling. Now, sure, I’ve lost quite a bit of meat. But I won’t next time – or at least the time after (or the time after that).

mackerel filet
Today’s dish is some proper hearty food. It has a punch and then some more. I panseared the filets, skin side down in a smoking hot pan and finished cooking them in a tomato sauce. It might sound a lot like tinned mackerel and maybe it is a bit. But there is nothing greater than a flavourful main-course with a loaf of dark bread and a sharp refreshing salad. This really is a poor-man’s dish. One mackerel, that easily feeds two people, comes at 1,50€ at the market and canned tomatoes or black olives are not exactly caviar either.

Panseared mackerel with in a tomato sauce

Olive oil
Canned tomatoes
Black olives, with stone

For the garnish:
Green olives
Cherry tomatoes

  1. Prepare a light tomato sauce. I use one can for two filets. Add to a pan with tiny bit of olive oil. Warm up and add a bit of minced garlic. Use salt and pepper to the taste. Make sure to crush down all larger bits of tomato, so that it becomes more smooth.
  2. If you want to try filleting your own mackerel have a look the video I posted above. It is not as easy as it looks, but it definitely is not very hard either. You will need to filets to feed two people. If you want to spare yourself the work, buy the mackerel already filleted.
  3. Heat up your pan. And I mean it, it must be really hot. I prefer not to use non-stick pans for this task, because high temperatures can damage their coating. Cover the bottom of the pan with olive oil and let it heat up a bit. You want the oil to start smoking.
  4. Dry the skin-side of your filets and glace them with a few drops of olive oil (This means – rub in a few dros, so that the skin-side is lightly coated). The glacing will help prevent sticking. Put the filet into the pan, be careful this will spit and hot oil on your skin is not cool.
  5. To prevent the fish from sticking to the pan, start to shake it constantly (The movement of the pan should come from your wrist). The pan needs to be incredibly hot, as to avoid sticking. Lower the heat once the skin is browned.
  6. If you want your meal to be smoky and strong, add the tomato-sauce to the pan. The roasting-aromas will be in the oil and flavour your dish, If you prefer to keep the flavour as bit cleaner, fruitier and lighter, remove the filets from the pan, remove any excess oil using kitchen paper and add it to the pan with the tomato-sauce.
  7. Destone the black olives by pressing on them using a glass, your hand or a heavy knife. Once you have squeezed the olives, the stone can be pressed out easily. Using de-stoned olives is not an option! They are not as moist and flavourful. If you can’t get any destoned black olives, don’t use any olives. I like to leave them whole. Add the olives to the mackerel and tomato-sauce. The earlier you add them the more they will flavour the sauce, the later you add them the less time they will have had for that.
  8. Let the mackerel cook on a low heat, this might take up to 10 minutes, depending on the thickness of your filet. The mackerel is cooked when the lightly translucent pink meat has turned completely white.
  9. The garnish: I like to use green olives, because they contrast the red of the sauce nicely. Take a nice green olive with stone and cut off 4 little pedals (The stone cannot be pressed out as easily as you would with black olives so cutting off the meat will yield better results). Chop a few cherry tomatoes and add to the chopped olives. Add capers, olive oil, a bit of garlic, salt and pepper.
  10. Once the fish is cooked, remove the filets from a pan and plate. Quickly add a bit of water to the sauce, if necessary, stir to make it smoother and add a bit of lemon-juice. Spoon the sauce around the filets and spoon your garnish over the filets. Make sure not to introduce too much of the garnish’s liquid. Scatter over some watercress (Use coriander, parsley or basil if you can’t get watercress).

Serve with nice thick chunks of sourdough bread and a slice of lemon for everyone. Just spoon the fish on your bread and enjoy. Since this dish is quite heavy, a light and sharp salad might balance things out rather nicely.