Monday, August 17, 2015

Smoky mackerels from Shanghai

Shanghai and the surrounding provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang are famed for their appetizers and cold dishes, the things that are offered at lunch, as bar snacks, and as delicious appetizers. One of the most famous of these is pomfret cooked in a method very similar to what we have here, and a recipe for this can also be found in my upcoming cookbook, All Under Heaven.

Mackerel is fantastic here, too... and maybe even more perfect than pomfret, as it is an oily fish with a dynamic flavor that can stand up to being marinated, deep-fried, and then tossed around in a powerfully seasoned sauce. Make sure that the sauce is over-seasoned so that the flavors still pop when the fish is served cold.

Five-spice “smoked” mackerel
Wǔxiāng xūn qīngyú  五香薰鯖魚
Serves 4 to 6

Fish and marinade:
1 to 1½ pounds mackerel filets (about 3)
1 tablespoon grated ginger
½ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine

2 cups peanut or vegetable oil (used okay if it smells fresh)

¼ cup Shaoxing rice wine
1 tablespoon regular soy sauce1 tablespoon rock sugar (more or less)
1 tablespoon black vinegar
½ cup water
2 teaspoons five-spice powder
6 thin slices ginger
2 green onions, trimmed and cut into 1-inch lengths

Cilantro or other greens, as needed
1 green onion, trimmed and sliced in to thin shards

1. Start this at least a day before serving. Rinse the mackerel, pat it dry, but don’t slash the sides, as the fish will “bloom” in the hot oil as it cooks, which means that the flesh will separate into flakes that are held together by the skin and bones. You can keep the backbone in the fish, if there is one, as this is easy to remove once the fish is cooked. Place the fish in a work bowl, toss with the marinade, and refrigerate for at least one hour and up to a full day, as this helps to mellow out the flavors.
Marinate the fish

2. Set a wok with the oil over medium heat. Pat the fish dry with paper towels and fry the fish in batches — only 2 filets fit in my wok at a time, and you don’t want to crowd them. Fry the fish until nice and brown all over, shaking the wok to loosen the skin from the metal, and then gently turning the fish over a couple of times to cook it evenly. Remove the fish to a work bowl as it is browned and repeat with the rest of the fish until all are ready.

3. While the fish is frying, simmer the sauce ingredients together in a small pan. When the sauce and solids have reduced to around a cup, taste and adjust the seasoning (see the headnotes). Pour the sauce over the cooked fish and turn them over so that the flesh side sits in the sauce. When the bowl has cooled to room temperature, cover the bowl and refrigerate for at least a couple of hours, and turn the fish over in the sauce whenever you think of it so that every piece gets bathed in those delicious flavors.

4. To serve, pick out as many bones as you can easily see and then slice each cold filet on a deep diagonal into around 5 to 6 pieces. Arrange the fish on cilantro or other greens, drizzle the strained sauce over the top, and garnish with the green onion. Serve cold or at room temperature.

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