Mackerel is a love it or hate it fish. Line-caught and eaten within hours of landing, it's up there with species that cost three or four times as much. Passed along the distribution chain when it is days old, it soon turns fishy and unpleasant. There's no compromise - you can't leave it in the fridge for an extra day and expect customers not to notice.
In season, mackerel is on all of Nathan Outlaw's UK restaurant menus. His two-star flagship in Port Isaac serves it as one of the five fish courses and it's on the Fish Kitchen menu as a starter. The Mariners, Outlaw's pub at nearby Rock, chargrills it, and within 24 hours of landing, it's on the lunch menu at the Capital in London.
Mackerel is an oily fish, which is the main factor when it comes to deciding how to handle it. Classic barbecuing, with or without fennel, takes some beating, but it also lends itself to curing and smoking (both hot and cold), so long as the smoke enhances its flavour rather than disguising any staleness.
Outlaw has 32 types of fish to choose from over a year and his reputation depends on quality. If mackerel is a reliable source for all his operations, it's because - at every level - it's included on merit.
"I've always had chefs that have worked with me for a long time, and that's my secret," says Nathan Outlaw. Doing a quick calculation, he guesses that the average time spent in his employment across his four UK outlets is six to seven years. Reliance on his team's experience has, he says, dictated the pace at which he has grown: "That's where it goes wrong for some people. You've got to be patient and have those alongside you who understand how you work."
Chris Simpson, his chef at Restaurant Nathan Outlaw, joined him in 2004 at his first venture, the Black Pig in Rock. They cook side by side, except for the five days a month when Outlaw goes to his Dubai outpost, Nathan Outlaw at Al Mahara, or to check out Fish Kitchen, the Mariners pub or the Capital.
All his restaurants devolve from the Port Isaac HQ: "If there wasn't this, we wouldn't have anything," he says.
The process begins with the raw materials and he won't downgrade those to meet a lower price. He admits his customers wouldn't expect his mackerel dish as the main course on his eight-course menu, but it merits its spot as an earlier course. By the same token, the Mariners has no trouble selling turbot for four at £100.
Outlaw applies the same exacting standard to all his core ingredients - his carrots, garlic and onions - as modern cooking, he feels, often neglects these. "Chefs are more concerned about how a dish looks. Yes, I want things to be appealing to the eye, but it's when customers eat their first mouthful that they think, 'this is something special'."
That dedication affects the way he puts a menu together. "I'm too young to have signature dishes," he says. Instead, he builds his repertoire around recipes that can be adapted. The onion stock with the cured and smoked mackerel (on page 30) may, on another service, accompany half a lobster. A pickle or chutney at the Fish Kitchen may crop up at the Capital.
With his focus on loyal staff and unimpeachable ingredients, Outlaw says he can be more relaxed about the pounds and pence: "I tend not to linger too much over the financial bit, because if you talk about money all the time, things don't work," he says. "We're independent and financially sound."
Smoked and cured mackerel, onion, ginger, mushrooms and chilli
Serves four as one of the first three courseson an eight-course menu
Cold smoked mackerel
Two 350g-450g line-caught mackerel
50g table salt
50g caster sugar
Fillet the mackerel in the usual way. Lay the fish on its side. Cut on the slant behind the pectoral fin towards the head (1). Turn the fish over, repeat and sever the head (2).
Cut down the middle of the belly. Open up the fish and discard the guts. Wipe out the cavity carefully, but don't wash it. Lay your hand flat on the fish with the thumb holding up the belly flap. Remove one fillet in a single slicing action, starting at the head and continuing to the tail (the knife will cut through the rib cage)(3). Turn the fish over and repeat.
Lay each fillet skin-side down on the prep surface and cut away the long rib bones. Pin-bone with tweezers, pulling out the small bones in the direction in which they point (4). Trim the fillet to obtain an even shape(5). Dry the fillets on both sides. Sprinkle the skin and flesh with a mixture of table salt and caster sugar (6).
Put the fillets on a tray, wrap it in film and refrigerate for 20 minutes. Rinse off the cure with the minimum of water and pat dry. Cold oak-smoke for two hours at about 28ÂºC and then refrigerate until service.
10 x 80g onions
100ml rapeseed oil
Juice of Â½ lemon (to taste)
20ml ginger juice
Weigh the peeled onions and note the weight. Quarter them and fry them rapidly in two batches until well-coloured. Put them in a clean pan with the same amount of water as the onions weighed, bring to the boil and simmer for 20 minutes. Strain off the liquid into a fresh pan and press the juices retained in the cooked onion pieces into the broth.
Reduce to approximately 160ml, add the lemon and ginger juices, and cool.
Pickled onion, shimeji mushrooms, courgette
50ml each water, white wine vinegar and dry white wine
50g caster sugar
50g shimeji mushroom
20ml neutral oil
10ml sherry vinegar
1 small courgette, sliced
2 small radishes, sliced
50ml chilli oil
Make a pickling liquid by bringing the water, white wine vinegar, wine and sugar to the boil and then cool. You will only need half of it, but making a smaller quantity isn't feasible.
Peel and halve the onion. Put it in a vac-pack with the pickling liquid. Seal on maximum and steam 12 minutes. Cool and then slice thinly.
Cut off the tops of the mushrooms and sauté in oil for a few seconds. Deglaze the pan with sherry vinegar. Season and reserve.
Slice the mackerel fillets across their length. Each piece will be less than a centimetre thick. Discard the thin tail-ends. Put up to seven slices per serving on small soup plates (Outlaw's are made to order by Bodmin potter Chris Prindl). Pour onion stock around them and add the mushrooms, courgette slices and radishes. Finish with drops of chilli oil.
Dirler-Cadé Pinot Gris Grand Cru 2012 (Alsace). The acidity cuts through the oiliness of the fish, but there is enough sweetness to balance the chilli and ginger in the broth.
Restaurant Nathan Outlaw
Opened 2007 in Fowey, Cornwall; moved to Rock in 2010, then Port Isaac in 2015
Chef Chris Simpson (with Nathan Outlaw for 14 years)
Seats 30 Covers served per day 30-50 on lunch days
Open Wednesday to Saturday for dinner; Friday and Saturday for lunch
Average food spend Fixed price menu: £125 for dinner and £62 for lunch
Type of menu Seafood tasting menu (vegetarian menu with 24 hours' notice)
Barbecued butterflied mackerel, green sauce, tomatoes
1 large mackerel (about 400g)
Roasted and ground black peppercorns
Butterfly the mackerel, remove the head and gut it. Trim the fins. Open the fish like a book and flatten it. Remove the backbone with the rib cage. Take out the small bones running down the two fillets (either with tweezers or by cutting out the two rows). Rinse and pat dry. Season lightly with salt and pepper.
1tbs soft brown sugar
1tbs red wine vinegar
Chopped tarragon (to taste)
Chopped chives (to taste)
150g quartered mixed tomatoes
Put the sugar, salt and vinegar in a bowl. When the vinegar has dissolved, stir in the herbs. Pour the dressing over the tomatoes and leave for about 30 minutes before service.
3 garlic cloves
2tbs capers in vinegar, drained
6 salted anchovies
2 large gherkins
Handful rocket leaves
Handful broad leaf parsley
Â½ handful mint leaves
1tbs red wine vinegar
1tbs English mustard
100ml extra virgin olive oil
Chop the garlic, capers, anchovies and gherkins and set aside. Chop the rocket, parsley and mint separately. Combine the mixtures. Stir in the vinegar and mustard and the oil to bind it to make a kind of salsa verde.
Finishing and plating
The Mariners uses an Ox grill heated by charcoal bricks and 10% moisture ash. Ensure the fish surface is dry. Put it on the grill skin-side down and cook until the skin chars and start to blister. The flesh should be three-quarters done.
Heat a metal tray or baking sheet. Put the mackerel on it, skin-side down, for a couple of minutes to finish cooking. Season it again.
Serve with tomatoes and a quenelle (about 50g per portion) of the green sauce. Beer Sharp's Brewery, also based at Rock, owns the freehold of the Mariners. Accompany the mackerel with it best bitter, Doom Bar or Pilsner.
Chef Zack Hawke (with Nathan Outlaw for three years)
Covers served per day 120
Open Seven days a week, lunch and dinner
Average food spend £20
Type of menu An individually priced, wide range of prime-cut meat specials and prime fish on the bone
Ginger-cured mackerel, beetroot, basil and ginger yogurt
Serves four as one of the five starters on the menu
200g sea salt
150g caster sugar
2tsp black peppercorns
2tsp coriander seeds
100g fresh ginger, peeled and grated
4 mackerel, filleted, pin-boned and skinned
Blitz the salt, sugar, peppercorns and coriander for three minutes in a Thermomix or similar food processor. Add the ginger and blitz for two minutes more. Spread the mixture over the fillets on both sides. Cover the tray on which they are lying with film and cure for one hour.
Make about 20 servings
100ml olive oil
1 red onion, diced
1 garlic clove, diced
50g fresh ginger, grated
600g beetroot, peeled and shredded
300g soft brown sugar
600ml cider vinegar
2 bay leaves
Salt and pepper
Heat the oil for the chutney. Add the onion, garlic and ginger and sweat for about a minute. Stir in the beetroot and cook two minutes more. Add the brown sugar, cider vinegar and bay leaves. Bring to the boil and simmer till the beetroot becomes syrupy. Season and decant into a clean container.
Basil and ginger yogurt
Makes 10 servings
250g Greek yogurt
25g basil, shredded
Juice from 75g grated ginger
Drops of rapeseed oil (optional)
Combine the yogurt ingredients and leave in the fridge until the yogurt becomes a pale green.
Rinse the salt and sugar off the mackerel, using as little water as possible, and pat dry. Chop the mackerel quite coarsely. Arrange portions in the centre of a small plate, and spoon the beetroot chutney on top. Pipe a cordon of basil around the fish. Finish with drops of rapeseed oil.
AlberiÁ±o Mar de Frades NV Brut.
Outlaw's Fish KitchenOpened July 2013
Chef Tim Barnes (with Nathan Outlaw for seven years; also trained at Restaurant Nathan Outlaw)
Covers served per day 100
Open Tuesday to Saturday
Average food spend £30
Type of menu Individual small plates and Outlaw's Fish Kitchen to Share set menu
Grilled mackerel, oyster mayonnaise, cucumber chutney
Serves four as one of five starters
2 large mackerel, filleted and pin-boned
30ml neutral oil
Brush the mackerel with oil and season very lightly. Grill skin-side up under the salamander until three-quarters done. Rest skin-side down on a preheated metal tray.
Â½ green chilli, deseeded and chopped
1 shallot, finely diced
1 garlic clove, finely diced
50ml white wine vinegar
50g caster sugar
1tsp mustard seeds
1Â½tbs chervil, chopped
1Â½tbs dill, chopped
Salt and black pepper
Grate the cucumber and squeeze out excess moisture. Combine with chilli, shallot and garlic. Heat the vinegar, sugar and mustard seeds to dissolve the sugar. Combine with the cucumber. Cool, add the chopped herbs and season.
2 Pacific (gigas) oysters
2 egg yolks
Juice of Â½ lemon
300ml neutral oil
Shuck the oysters and put their flesh and juices in a bowl with the egg yolks and lemon juice. Blend for 30 seconds. Add the oil slowly in a stream to form an emulsion. Season.
Serve the fish with 30ml of the oyster sauce and a quenelle of chutney (about 50g).
Clotilde Davenne Saint-Bris Sauvignon Blanc with notes of grass and asparagus. The region's terroir is known for its oyster-shell soil.
Outlaw's at the CapitalOpened October 2012
Chef Tom Brown (with Nathan Outlaw for four years)
Seats 34, plus two dining rooms (14 and 20)
Covers served per day 60
Open Monday to Saturday for breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, and dinner; Sunday for breakfast, afternoon tea and bar food only
Average food spend £55
Type of menu Set menu: 5/5/4 plus cheese; lunch menu: 3/3/3
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