Wholly Mackerel: We Fished, We Cooked, We Ate

Unlike the writer, Jacob Brock of Indiana, 11, pulled in a four-pound Spanish mackerel on Jake Hiles's charter boat in Virginia Beach.
Unlike the writer, Jacob Brock of Indiana, 11, pulled in a four-pound Spanish mackerel on Jake Hiles's charter boat in Virginia Beach. (By Jake Hiles)
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By Tim Carman
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Less than 24 hours before we were supposed to board the Matador in Virginia Beach for a day of deep-sea fishing, my father-in-law gave captain Jake Hiles two pieces of information he deemed vital: that I had never been fishing, and that I was from Nebraska. The comments had their intended effect: The captain recommended a steady dose of Dramamine, beginning even before I went to sleep that night.

I ignored Hiles's advice. I considered the whole scenario a slight against Midwesterners. And that, as you might have predicted, turned out to be a mistake.

The weather forecast was so miserable that Hiles tried to persuade Stuart, my father-in-law, to postpone our family fishing expedition. But Stuart told the captain our schedule was inflexible. Besides, we wanted fresh fish for the dinner that my wife, Carrie, and I planned to prepare that evening. As much as we all hated the idea, we would be forced to drop lines under a steel-gray sky with winds gusting between nine and 20 mph. "It'll be fishable," Hiles told me from his captain's chair, "but it'll be uncomfortable." I asked what he meant by "uncomfortable."

"Just rockin' and rolling," he responded. He said that with a kindly smile, the sort you reserve for small children and ignoramuses. At age 30, the ruddy-faced, scraggly-bearded Hiles might be the youngest salty old dog I've ever met.

Turns out I didn't even make it out of Rudee Inlet, where the Matador is moored. As first mate Scott Wade fished the inlet for bait, I made my way down from the captain's deck, barely able to navigate the ladder as the 42-foot boat violently teetered right and left, left and right. With trembling hands, I tore the protective packaging off a motion-sickness pill and popped it with the sick greed of a junkie hoping to calm his shakes. I promptly lay down on the narrow padded bench in the Matador's "salon."

Only twice did I pry myself from the bench and attempt to fish with Stuart, Carrie, mother-in-law Kay and sister-in-law Molly. The first time, I retreated as soon as I saw the giant green buoy bobbling madly just a few yards off the Matador's stern, as if the float were a physical manifestation of my internal world. The second time, I actually succeeded at placing a fishing pole in my hand -- for about five minutes.

As I sank onto the padded bench yet again, Wade picked up my spinner rod and reel and started to secure it back into its overhead hooks. I gamely told the young man that he could leave the pole on the floor; I would be back up in no time. He beamed broadly at me, as I suspect he has been trained to do with all customers, and said just one word: "Yeah."

The family fishing trip, as it turned out, was a bust in more ways than one. Carrie, too, got seasick, and the poor conditions made for poor fishing. All told, the family walked away with only a few pounds of Spanish mackerel -- expertly filleted by Wade right on the boat -- and one beautiful bluefish that Molly snared. Negotiations immediately commenced over how many of the fish Carrie and I could use for the evening's dinner. Kay agreed to let us have all the Spanish mackerel, which was generous. The family loves Spanish mackerel, and Kay loves to cook it.

For reasons I don't understand, Stuart, Kay and the rest of the clan are mostly alone in their love of this stinky fish. It can be difficult to find Spanish mackerel in supermarkets, even along this strip of the Atlantic seaboard, where the fish is plentiful and the locals love it. "Mackerel is one of the loveliest fish there is, one of the tastiest, cheapest, most versatile, and most plentiful," writes Mark Bittman in "Fish: The Complete Guide to Buying and Cooking." Even so, he adds, "it's scorned by nearly everyone, the symbol of stinkiness, a fish we think of as too strong-flavored, too oily, and too fishy."

Spanish mackerel's oily character, however, means you can play rough with it. You can broil it or grill it without the worries associated with delicate white fish, which can tumble to their deaths through the grate of a scorching-hot grill or turn dry and lifeless inside a sealed oven. You can also pair Spanish mackerel with bold ingredients without drowning out the fish's natural flavors.

Equinox chef and co-owner Todd Gray played precisely to the mackerel's strengths when I called him from Virginia Beach in search of a decent recipe. His preparation calls for brushing the fillets with a whole-grain mustard mixture and oven-broiling them to medium doneness. The thin fillets (we left the skin on, in a nod to summer vacation laziness) more than held their own against the forward assault of the mustard, surviving the heat of the broiler with just enough moisture to maintain their rich, soft texture. Gray's recipe proved to be a vacationer's best friend: easy to prepare, easy to secure the ingredients and easy on the palate.

Chef Morou Ouattara's recipe, on the other hand, proved too worldly for the chip-and-dip culture of Virginia Beach, at least when it came to finding some of the ingredients. I had to make more concessions than a newspaper union negotiator. Ouattara had suggested I try a Spanish mackerel version of the shocked escolar that he'd served at his now-defunct Farrah Olivia in Alexandria. Unfortunately, his recipe stipulated mirin for brining the fish, real wasabi powder for mixing an accompanying aioli, and agar, a gelling agent, for making a garnish of soy pearls. The local grocer, not surprisingly, had none of those.

But Carrie and I made do. For the soy-wine brine, we substituted Riesling and a little rice vinegar in place of the mirin, hoping to re-create the latter's defining flavors. We concocted a different kind of aioli -- ours spiked with lime and mustard -- when the "wasabi" we bought tasted like something manufactured at Union Carbide. And we completely punted on the soy pearls, since we were more likely to find Bigfoot than agar in Virginia Beach. Despite the defilements to Ouattara's carefully calibrated recipes, the entire family was delighted with the sweet, rich shocked mackerel, particularly when it was chased with bites of the chef's spicy pickled zucchini, which we prepared in hours, not the days Ouattara had suggested.

I wish I could say that the meal erased the foul taste in my mouth left by the fishing expedition, but that would be a lie. My father-in-law's talk with the captain had laid out a recipe for disaster, and I'm afraid I followed it to a T. No mere dinner could restore my dignity.

Tim Carman writes the Young and Hungry column for the Washington City Paper.

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