Beetroot, blood orange and carrot salad with peppered mackerel

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.

Beetroot, blood orange and carrot salad with peppered mackerel (serves 2 hungry people):

  • 4 small beetroot, leaves attached
  • 4 large carrots
  • A couple of handfuls of baby spinach (if not using the beet leaves)
  • Olive oil
  • 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.

Seared venison, kumquat compote, beetroot and savoy cabbage

"The venison first shall be the lord o' the feast; To him the other two shall minister" ~ Shakespeare, Cymbeline

Sometimes you can't beat a good piece of red meat, seared in a blisteringly hot pan on the outside until it scorches, left to rest for a few minutes and then sliced open to reveal a perfectly pink interior glistening with moisture. Even better when the red meat in question is one that is good for you, amidst all the headlines about red meat being linked to bowel cancer. Venison is I suppose what you would call red meat (though actually, it's almost more of a very dark purple), but it is low in saturated fat, high in iron and vitamins, and very low in cholesterol. What's more, it has the succulence of (beef) fillet steak but rather more flavour. There's also the notion of grandeur about it: 'venison' to me conjures up images of grand Tudor feasts, servants carrying home the spoils of one of Henry VIII's (pre-leg ulcer) hunting trips, huge deer carcasses draped over their shoulders.

I normally cook venison with some sort of red wine jus, with a little redcurrant jelly and something like whole redcurrants or blueberries added. I've also made it with a quince and rosemary compote, which was absolutely delicious. However, I'm always in search of new and exciting meat and fruit pairings, and I vaguely recalled a recipe I read somewhere that mentioned a kumquat compote. Off to the market I went, to procure some venison and kumquats.

They're a funny little fruit. A member of the citrus family, the skin and pith are sweet while the inside is quite sour - kind of the reverse of an orange. I nibbled a whole one, and it was pleasantly refreshing, but I'm not sure I could sit there and eat them raw from the bag. So I cooked them with fresh ginger, shallots, cinnamon, cumin, brown sugar and vinegar to form a beautiful orange compote, thick and jammy with whole pieces of kumquat that had a crunch rather like the peel you find in thick-cut marmalade. It's hard to describe the taste of the compote: it has a lot of sharpness from the vinegar, but that is matched by the sugar, and you end up with something very sweet and very moreish. It works perfectly with the iron-rich gameyness of the meat, though I'd actually eat it as it is on porridge, or with ice cream. 

To accompany the venison, some of my favourite winter vegetables: mash, roasted beetroot, and savoy cabbage. I absolutely adore cabbage - braised red cabbage is probably my favourite, but I have a new love for savoy. When lightly steamed, its leaves have so much texture and a hint of bitterness that makes them a perfect match for rich-flavoured meat dishes. They also provide a nice colour contrast on a plate that is predominantly dark purple. The beetroots I just roasted in foil in the oven. I actually intended to mash them with the potato, but they don't mash particularly well, so I ended up serving them in chunks. They gave a new textural dimension to the dish, which is otherwise rather soft.

As for the venison, I left it to marinate in red wine, juniper, bay, thyme, rosemary and garlic for half a day before drying it and searing it in a hot pan for a couple of minutes on each side. I also left it to rest for about ten minutes under some foil while I made the mash - this does make a real difference. It means that the juices don't trickle out of the meat when you cut into it and make a mess of the plate, and it makes the meat a lot more succulent.

This is a dish I'm rather proud of; all the individual elements work very well together, and the kumquat compote is just wonderful. I'd make double and save some for dessert one day, if I were you - sadly I didn't have the foresight. But I think this is just what you need when those cravings for a good old-fashioned plate of meat and vegetables arises. If I owned a gastropub, it'd be there on my menu without a doubt (one can dream...).

Seared venison, kumquat compote, beetroot and savoy cabbage (serves 4):

4 venison steaks (or 2 large ones - you want a total weight of about 800-900g)
Large glass of red wine
6 juniper berries, crushed
2 garlic cloves, crushed
2 sprigs thyme and rosemary (or 1tsp dried thyme and 1tsp dried rosemary)
2 bay leaves

200g kumquats, quartered lengthways
1 inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and finely diced
2 shallots, peeled and finely diced
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground cumin
75ml white wine vinegar
40g light muscovado sugar

4 baking potatoes, peeled and cut into four
2 large beetroot, scrubbed but not peeled
1/2 savoy cabbage
Olive oil
A dash of milk
Salt and pepper

Marinate the venison steaks in the wine and aromatics for at least an hour before you plan to cook it. When you are ready to cook, remove from the marinade (reserve it) and dry the steaks thoroughly with kitchen paper before seasoning them.

Roast the beetroots at 200C, wrapped in foil, until tender. (If they take forever, cut them into smaller pieces - some of the colour will run out, but it doesn't really matter).

For the compote, fry the ginger and shallot in a little oil until softened. Add the spices and the kumquats, and cook until the fruit has softened slightly. Then pour in the sugar and vinegar, cover with a lid and leave to simmer until the fruit has softened even more. Remove the lid and reduce until you have a thick, jammy consistency. Taste - you might need to add a little more sugar.

For the mash, boil the potatoes until soft. Drain and leave to dry out for a few minutes before mashing or pushing through a potato ricer. Stir in seasoning to taste, along with butter and milk.

When the mash is done, keep it warm while you cook the venison. Heat some oil in a large saucepan until quite hot - you want the steaks to sizzle as soon as they hit the pan. Place the steaks in the pan and cook for a couple of minutes on each side (this is for rare meat - you can cook it more if you like, but venison should ideally be served rare as it toughens very quickly). Put on a plate and cover with foil while you cook the cabbage and make the jus.

For the jus, strain the venison marinade and pour into the hot pan you cooked the steaks in - it should bubble and reduce to about 6tbsp of liquid. Taste and check the seasoning.

For the cabbage, finely shred the leaves, heat a little oil in a large saucepan with a lid and stir fry for a few minutes. Add about a centimetre of water, put the lid on, and leave to steam until tender but still crunchy. Check the water level sporadically to make sure it doesn't boil dry. Season and stir through some butter before serving.

To serve, place the mash on the plate and surround with beetroot and cabbage. Slice the venison steaks into thin strips and place on top, drizzle over some jus, then top with the compote.

Beetroot and goat's cheese risotto

Dramatic-looking food. The addition of grated beetroot to a normal risotto recipe turns it alarmingly sanguine, contrasting nicely with snowy white clouds of goat's cheese crumbled over the top when serving. It needs quite a lot of cheese to set off the beetroot's rather cloying sweetness, and a few handfuls of rocket stirred in at the last minute would probably be a good addition too. 

Thanks to Jon for the lovely photos.