The sky was what is called a mackerel sky - rows and rows of faint down-plumes of cloud, just tinted with the midsummer sunset ~ H.G. Wells
Sometimes, I get this wonderful feeling having just finished a meal. It's not just the sensation of being pleasantly full where, twenty minutes ago, I was starving. It's more than that. It's the feeling of nourishment. Feeling not just as though any old thing has come along and filled up the growling gap in my stomach, but something fresh, vibrant, nutritious. I can almost feel the vitamins and minerals seeping into my bloodstream. Although I cook pretty healthy food most of the time, I don't get this feeling as commonly as perhaps I would like. When I do, though, it is a lovely thing.
When I think back to the number of times I've felt well and truly nourished after a meal, there seems to be a common denominator. Mackerel.
It is fairly widely acknowledged that mackerel, like all oily fish, is indeed very good for you. But so, apparently, are parsnips and yoghurt, and I hate them. No, there is something more to my love for mackerel than simply knowing of its nutritional benefits.
Perhaps it's the gorgeous texture; dense, hugely flavoursome and almost meaty, it provides instantly satisfying bulk to any salad. Maybe it's the deep, rich flavour, almost like bacon in its satisfying saltiness. I love mackerel in all its guises: the smoked fillets have an incredible depth of flavour that makes them ideal for lifting all sorts of salads, whereas one of my all-time favourite simple meals is a whole, glistening mackerel, gutted and grilled and served on the bone where its juicy, moist flesh flakes effortlessly away. There's something almost primal about tucking into a whole fish with its head still on, simply grilled, its skin crispy and its flesh moist within. It is one of the simplest of foodstuffs, yet it is nourishing and deeply satisfying.
The intense richness of mackerel, particularly smoked mackerel, means that you need something sweet or sharp to go with it. In the summer I make a salad of wild rice, chopped mango, smoked mackerel and oodles of lime juice, chopped mint, basil and coriander. It being January, however, fresh mangoes aren't really at their prime, and it would feel slightly wrong, somehow, to try and pretend it's summer when I am wearing my dressing gown around the house over my clothing. This is my winter version of a healthy and vibrant mackerel salad.
When I made my first post-Christmas trip to the market a couple of days ago, I was thrilled to discover that blood oranges are in season. These are one of my all-time favourite fruits, both for their gorgeous appearance and for their tart sweetness, so much more exciting and exotic than a normal orange. Last winter I made a lot of blood orange salads to serve with whole grilled mackerel, and I couldn't resist gathering up a load of these lovely fruits to try another variation.
I've also read a lot about the combination of beetroot and orange; I normally don't like beetroot, finding it too sweet, but pairing it with a sharp orange like a blood orange tones down a lot of its natural sugars and makes it taste earthy and delicious. Ditto the carrots, which I actually prefer raw to cooked. However, roasting them in wedges at a high temperature with olive oil turns them wonderfully burnished and delicious, a far cry from that horrible sickly pre-packaged beetroot you can buy.
This salad is simple. Roast wedges of beetroot and carrot until golden and caramelised. Toss with a dressing made from blood orange zest, a little olive and sesame oil and some seasoning. Add blood orange segments, coriander, wilted beetroot leaves, and finally some peppered smoked mackerel. I chose the peppered fillets rather than the plain ones because I thought the heat of them would go well with the sweet root vegetables.
This is a substantial salad, perfect for serving as a main course. It's also ideal for this time of year, when people are trying to cut back on carbohydrates and the like - you don't need anything to go with it. It's just nutritious vegetables and fruit, and protein-rich mackerel. Just looking at it is enough to make you feel you've achieved that new year's resolution to eat more healthily: you can't argue with a plate bursting with crimson, marigold and deep greens.
If you're not a fan of mackerel, you could use trout or sardines. Or, for a non-aquatic version, try thin slices of roast lamb or beef, or crumbled feta/goat's cheese, or grilled halloumi. The possibilities are almost endless, but I'd urge you to try the combination of beetroot, carrot and orange. It may sound odd, but it works wonderfully.
I really love this salad; it feels indulgent, somehow, despite being healthy - I think it's the richness of the mackerel, as well as the refreshing vibrant flavours in there from the orange and coriander. I can guarantee that, were you to eat this for dinner, you would come away feeling well and truly nourished.
4 small beetroot, leaves attached
4 large carrots
A couple of handfuls of baby spinach (if not using the beet leaves)
Salt and pepper
2 blood oranges
A large bunch of fresh coriander
1 tsp sesame oil
150g peppered mackerel fillets
Pre-heat the oven to 190C. Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil. Cut the beetroot into thin wedges, and cut the carrots into thick batons. Boil the carrots for about 5 minutes, then remove with a slotted spoon and tip into a roasting dish. Boil the beetroot in the water for 5 minutes too, then add it to the carrots. (Boiling them separately stops you ending up with purple carrots).
Toss the beetroot and carrot with some olive oil, salt and pepper, then roast for about 40 minutes until soft and caramelised.
Meanwhile, zest the oranges into a large bowl. Remove the skin using a sharp knife, then cut the oranges into segments and add these to the bowl. Finely chop the coriander and add this too, along with the sesame oil and some seasoning. Stir well.
Finely chop the beetroot leaves and stalks, then place in a hot pan with a little water and cover with a lid, allowing them to steam until tender. If using baby spinach instead, you can either wilt it in a hot pan or add it raw to the salad.
When the vegetables are cooked, allow them to cool for a few minutes before adding to the orange dressing. Add the spinach/beetroot leaves, and toss everything together. Pile onto plates, and top with the mackerel fillets.