I’m trying to be bolder with fish. Because, really, there’s nothing to be scared of, so why do I rarely eat it whole and unashamedly fish-shaped instead of in neatly filleted form? Mackerel is relatively cheap, good for you, and sustainable so I’m after cultivating a taste for it other than smoked and sealed in supermarket packs. It just so happens that I love dates, so this seemed as good a place as any to start. First stop, the fishmonger’s in the covered market, where I promptly humiliated myself by asking if they had any mackerel while, ahem, standing right in front of it. In my defence, they were bigger than usual…
So, mackerel successfully purchased, gutted, and placed in a carrier bag, I skipped home…where I promptly thrust the resulting pungent whiff and fish-blood dripping package in the fridge until Tom came home to wash away the gory bits. I, meanwhile, busied myself with mixing chopped dates and diced cubes of butter and toasted almonds into a stuffing. Perhaps I’m not quite ready to graduate from fish cookery school just yet.
Luckily, if you too are a nervous mackerel eater, this may be just the dish. The stuffing is very sweet and rich, the broth is aromatic with the must of saffron and a gentle kick of cayenne, there’s a lot going on that the fishiness stands up to but is also slightly tamed by. I was surprised, as someone who can find mackerel and sardines too dense and powerful, how much I liked it here. It also, with dates and cinnamon and ground ginger and heat, feels almost festive: “this would make a great Christmas dinner”, as Tom put it. Well, I think I could be happy with that.
Date-stuffed mackerel with spicy broth and couscous Serves 2
You’ll need approximately one mackerel per person, but mine were whoppers, as noted above – about twice the weight specified. We saved what we couldn’t eat and I tossed it into a salad of boiled waxy potatoes, green beans and walnut pesto for lunch today. I halved the amount of stuffing, but you’ll want to double it again if your fish are as big as ours or they won’t be stuffed as much as comfortably full (don’t double the spices).
2 x 175g mackerel, scaled and gutted
around 1/2 tsp each of ground ginger and cinnamon
150ml fish stock
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp, or a good pinch, of saffron threads
small bunch of coriander
for the stuffing:
1/2 small onion, finely chopped
1/2 tbsp olive oil
5 moist dates (I used deglet nour)
10g blanched almonds, toasted
about 1 tbsp chopped mint leaves
finely grated zest and juice of 1/2 small lemon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp harissa
for the couscous:
1/2 tbsp olive oil
For the stuffing, gently saute the onion in a small pan until soft and translucent. Tip into a bowl while you prepare the other ingredients. Pit the dates and roughly chop. Crush or chop the almonds quite small – you want some chunks and some powdery bits. Dice the butter. Add the dates and almonds to the onions with all the other stuffing ingredients and some salt and pepper. Mix everything together with your hands until sticking together.
Preheat the oven to 180c. Wash the mackerel (or get obliging boyfriend/housemate to do it). Bloody bits will make it taste bitter, so be thorough. With a sharp knife, open out the slit in the tail end a bit more so you have a bigger pocket for the stuffing.
Pour a little olive oil into the bottom of an ovenproof dish or baking tray. Season the inside of the fish, fill them with the stuffing, and lay them in the dish. Drizzle a little oil on the outside and rub with the ginger and cinnamon. Season again on the outside. Roast in the preheated oven for about 20 mins, or maybe 10 mins longer if your fish are on the large size. You can tell if it’s done by having a poke with a knife and seeing if the flesh pulls away easily from the bones.
Put the couscous in a bowl, boil the water, and pour it over. Cover with a teatowel for 5-10 mins until all the water has been absorbed, then fluff up the grains with a fork (I’ve simplified the original instructions to the way I normally do couscous, because I wasn’t about to faff about with two soakings and a steaming).
Bring the stock to the boil and add the cayenne. Pour a little boiling water on the saffron and let it steep for a few minutes, then add that too. Taste for seasoning.
Chop the coriander roughly. Get out two big, flat soup or pasta bowls (we had to cut our fishies’ heads off to get them to fit) and divide the couscous between them. Pour over the broth. Top with the mackerel and strew with coriander.
Adapted from Diana Henry’s ‘Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons’.