Restorative, I think, is the best word for this. It almost didn’t get made because, yesterday, I’d had the sort of day where I wanted to just give up and have toast for dinner. The sort of day where you feel like inanimate objects are forming malicious plots against you. You know the ones? I found myself shedding a little tear or two of self-pity on my way home because a car honked at me at the traffic lights, and not because I’m a wuss, but because it was the last straw. And, OK, because I’m a wuss.
Thank goodness I felt sorry for the broccoli looking so neglected and yellowing in the fridge drawer. I thought I’d better just at least boil it in a little water. And then I might as well cook the other vegetables too, and then all it needed was for a quick white sauce to come together, some parmesan to mix with the breadcrumbs that were already waiting in the breadbin, and suddenly we were sitting down to a big, steaming savoury comfort blanket of a dinner.
The title may make it sound a little earnest, but that’s the great thing about this dish: you can feel, with the dark green vegetables and the oily fish, that you’re doing something good and sensible for yourself, but it’s also rich and velvety enough to be satisfying and to not feel wrong, on a bleak January day. It’s a winner, all round.
Smoked mackerel, broccoli and spinach bake Serves 3 generously, or 4 with bread/potatoes on the side
I should admit that the original title, smoked mackerel and chard bake with a crunchy top, is much more appealing than mine. But I didn’t have any chard, so I couldn’t exactly call it that. Instead of half broccoli and half chard, I used broccoli and spinach with a leek for good measure; it’s nice to have the greens, but I imagine this recipe would be quite forgiving of any vegetables you want to throw at it. The addition of lemon, mustard and nutmeg to the white sauce adds a lift of interest and stops this being too retro-bland.
400g chard or spinach (I used frozen leaf spinach)
400g broccoli (one average sized head)
1 leek (optional)
350-400ml chicken or vegetable stock
60g plain flour
100ml semi-skimmed milk
juice of 1/2 lemon (1 tbsp)
1 dsp wholegrain mustard
1 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
200g smoked mackerel (about 2 fillets)
100g mature manchego, parmesan or any strong, hard cheese (I actually used 75g because I balked at using so much of my parmesan in one dish)
Wash and chop the vegetables. If using the leek, slice it thickly and rinse thoroughly in a colander to get rid of any dirt lurking between the layers. If using chard or fresh spinach, wash and slice into ribbons. Separate the broccoli into small florets, chopping the stalk separately into 2cm chunks (you might need to peel the outer layer of stalk if it’s particularly big and thick).
Boil water to a depth of about 2cm in a large pan and cook the broccoli, leek and frozen spinach for 5-7 minutes with the lid on. If using chard or non-frozen spinach, add after the first few minutes of cooking the broccoli. The vegetables should be tender, but not too soft as they’re going into the oven later. Remove them with tongs (you want to keep the cooking water) and pile into a baking dish or casserole.
Preheat the oven to 150c. Have the stock ready for the white sauce. Melt the butter in a medium-sized pan over a medium heat. Whsen it has melted, add the flour and whisk together, stirring frequently for a few minutes to cook out the flour. At this point it should smell toasty and delicious, and also a bit like chicken nuggets (though that might just be me). Add the leftover vegetable cooking liquid and the stock, whisking to remove any lumps. Gradually add the milk, whisking, and continue to cook for 5 minutes. It should be creamy and thick enough to coat the vegetables but not stodgy. Add the lemon juice, mustard, nutmeg and pepper and check the balance of flavour. You shouldn’t need salt as the fish and cheese are pretty salty already, and even I thought that was enough.
Peel the skin off the mackerel and tear it into chunks over the vegetables. Pour over the white sauce and mix well. Grate the cheese and mix with the breadcrumbs. Scatter this over the top of the dish and bake in the oven for 35 minutes, or until the topping has darkened and crisped.
Adapted from Rosie Lovell’s ‘Spooning With Rosie’.