SERVES 4: We stuff mackerel whole and roast them directly on a baking sheet for the best flavor and texture.
WHY THIS RECIPE WORKS Mackerel, like many other oily fish, can get a bad reputation, fueled by memories of greasy smoked fillets or dry, overpowering fresh preparations. But when cooked properly, mackerel is moist and silky and a great canvas for strong Moroccan flavors. We decided to roast the fish whole, which not only created a dramatic presentation but was also a good way to protect the flesh and keep it moist—sometimes too moist. We found that both baking dishes and roasting pans caused the fish to exude moisture and steam in their juices, which proved detrimental to the fish’s flavor and texture. Roasting the fish on a rimmed baking sheet delivered far better results due to good air circulation. Since mackerel stands up so well to bold flavors, we weren’t timid with our approach. We chose the powerful flavor of preserved lemon, putting its fragrant and floral notes front and center. Red pepper added sweetness, and green olives added a tangy brininess. If you can’t find preserved lemons, you can make your own (see here). If mackerel isn’t available, you can substitute trout. The mackerel heads can be removed before serving, if desired.
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 red bell pepper, stemmed, seeded, and chopped fine
- 1 red onion, chopped fine
- ½ preserved lemon, pulp and white pith removed, rind rinsed and minced (2 tablespoons)
- ⅓ cup pitted brine-cured green olives, chopped
- 1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley
- Salt and pepper
- 4 (8- to 10-ounce) whole mackerel, gutted, fins snipped off with scissors
- Lemon wedges
- Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 500 degrees. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add bell pepper and onion and cook until vegetables are softened and well browned, 8 to 10 minutes. Stir in preserved lemon and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Off heat, stir in olives and parsley and season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Grease rimmed baking sheet with remaining 1 tablespoon oil. Rinse each mackerel under cold running water and pat dry with paper towels inside and out. Open cavity of each mackerel, season flesh with salt and pepper, and spoon one-quarter of filling into opening. Place mackerel on prepared sheet, spaced at least 2 inches apart. Bake until thickest part of mackerel registers 130 to 135 degrees, 10 to 12 minutes. Carefully transfer mackerel to serving platter and let rest for 5 minutes. Serve with lemon wedges.
MAKES 4 preserved lemons (VEG)
It is important to wash, scrub, and dry the lemons well before preserving.
*. 12 lemons, preferably Meyer
*. ½ cup Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt or 6 tablespoons Morton Kosher Salt
1. Wash and dry 4 lemons, then cut lengthwise into quarters, stopping 1 inch from bottom so lemons stay intact at base. Juice remaining lemons to yield 1½ cups juice; reserve extra juice to use as needed.
2. Working over bowl, gently stretch 1 cut lemon open and pour 2 tablespoons salt into center. Gently rub cut surfaces of lemon together, then place in 1-quart jar. Repeat with remaining cut lemons and salt. Add any accumulated salt and juice in bowl to jar.
3. Pour 1½ cups lemon juice into jar and press gently to submerge lemons. (Add more lemon juice to jar if needed to cover lemons completely.) Cover jar tightly with lid and shake. Refrigerate lemons, shaking jar once per day for first 4 days to redistribute salt and juice. Let lemons cure in refrigerator until glossy and softened, 6 to 8 weeks. (Preserved lemons can be refrigerated for at least 6 months.)
4. To use, cut off desired amount of preserved lemon. If desired, use knife to remove pulp and white pith from rind before using.
NOTE It takes at least 6 weeks to make your own preserved lemons; however, if necessary you can make a quick substitute: Combine four 2 inch strips lemon zest, minced, 1 teaspoon lemon juice, ½ teaspoon water, ¼ teaspoon sugar, and ¼ teaspoon salt. Microwave mixture at 50 percent power until liquid evaporates, about 1½ minutes, stirring and mashing lemon with back of spoon every 30 seconds. Makes about 1 tablespoon.
Preparing Preserved Lemons
Gently stretch open quartered lemon, pour salt into center, and rub cut surfaces together; place in 1-quart jar. Pour lemon juice into jar and press gently to submerge lemons