What may scare some with regard to seasonal cooking is the unpredictability of when and where produce might be available. A sudden change in weather can have an almost immediate effect upon the fields; a late frost wiping out a crop in one fell swoop or a rainy spell forcing us to wait even longer for those precious first picks. Nature and her somewhat whimsical ways are being further and further removed from our reality by the steady, year-round range of fruit & vegetables provided by the supermarket.
However letting nature be your culinary guide has two benefits, in my mind. The first is that produce is likely to taste better, having fought against all the natural odds to make it to that stage of full ripeness. The energy it takes to draw sugars and minerals from a branch or the soil is the source of flavour in a plant, so the longer it’s left to do its thing, the better. Secondly, cooking seasonally lets nature do the thinking for you, as ingredients that are in season at the same time are naturally designed to compliment each other – think basil & tomatoes, chestnut & celeriac,peas and broad beans.
It took me until I landed in Ireland to realise that fish have seasons too, and therefore are not meant to be on the fish counter all year round. At my cookery school, we were only allowed to cook with ingredients that naturally fell into our hands – fruit & vegetables from the kitchen garden, meat taken from the school’s own animals and fish brought up daily from the boats that came into Ballycotton, the fishing village a couple of miles down the road. One memorable evening in early June, a group of students went out with one of the boats and came back with an overflowing basket of mackerel, whose season had just begun. The whole school gathered in the courtyard for a last minute barbecue and formed a filleting production line, tossing fish onto the grill as quickly as they’d been cut. Not to be outdone, a second group of us headed out the following evening, determined to bring in a bigger catch. Choppy waters and several hours later, we had caught not a single fish. Michael, our weathered captain, explained that in the first weeks of the season, you can’t rely on hooking mackerel every day.
I can still taste that Irish midsummer meal of the freshest, most incredible fish I’ve ever tasted. It’s what makes me happy to wait until nature throws flavour my way, secure in the knowledge that it will have been worth waiting for.
Baked whole mackerel with tomato, feta & dill salad
This recipe pairs the first of the summer tomatoes with the sensational ridged cucumbers you can grow in your garden or find in a good greengrocer. It would work equally well with another oily fish like salmon, which you could roast en papillote with the dill and lemon. I would stick to oily fish, as their dense flesh contrasts nicely with the bright, acidic salad. For a more robust meal, serve with gently boiled new potatoes or a bowl of herbed couscous.
One whole mackerel, cleaned and its head removed
Small bunch dill
One large beef tomato or 200g cherry tomatoes
1tbs red wine vinegar
Preheat the oven to 200 degrees, fan
- Line a baking tray with tin foil. Cut the the mackerel open lengthwise all the way along its belly and season the cavity well with salt, pepper and a good glug of olive oil. Rub salt and pepper into its skin.
- Slice half the lemon into cm thick rounds, then cut these into half moons. Place three along the baking tray, along with a couple of fronds of dill.
- The other half moons and a small handful of dill can be pushed into the fish cavity. Place the fish on top of the lemon slices on the baking tray, cover with a good splash of olive oil and cook in the oven for 15-18 minutes.
- Meanwhile, cut the cucumber and tomato into around 3cm chunks (or in half, if using cherry tomatoes). Season well with salt and pepper and toss in a bowl with the rest of he dill, roughly chopped.
- To make the dressing for the salad, whisk the red wine vinegar with three tablespoons of olive oil and the juice from the remaining lemon. Pour over the tomatoes and cucumber, mix well to coat.
- When the timer for the fish goes off, use a thin, sharp knife to slice through the skin and gently lift the flesh away from the backbone. If it comes away easily, the fish is cooked.
- At the last minute, crumble the feta into the fruits and mix well. Scatter over a serving dish and lay the fish on top, drizzling with the juices from the tin foil.
- To eat, simply lift each fillet from the bone. Serve with dry white wine and a basket of bread, to mop up the juices.