Recipe: Mackerel Arriganate
Last night I dreamt that mackerel were playing with my head. When I woke I saw that mackerel were, indeed, tumbling around in my bed. But I acted fast, turning a potentially treacherous situation, optimist that I am, into something fine. I cooked them.
And since it’s summer I cooked them in high summer fashion (summer in Naples fashion, actually). “Arriganate” means with oregano. Oreganata is the more familiar Italian-American spelling, but I would guess most of my blog readers will know both terms.
It’s interesting that I’m posting a recipe for arriganate since, I have to admit, I don’t really like oregano, either dried or fresh. What kind of Southern Italian doesn’t like oregano? First off, they put it in everything, and being so strong it gets tired-tasting fast. And to me the dried kind (which they prefer to fresh in Southern Italy), even when it’s imported and still attached to its rustico branches, tastes a little like pencil shavings. The flavor of fresh oregano depends on its variety and how played out the plant is. Often it’s harsh, and can become more so when its oils are released in cooking. But I’ve come up with a fix. Now what I do when I want that arriganate feeling, I blend fresh marjoram, a sweeter more floral cousin to oregano, with fresh thyme, in about equal parts. I’ve found that this produces the spirit of oregano but without the rough edges. Try it. See what you think.
3 medium summer tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and cut into small dice (and lightly drained if really watery)
1 tablespoon Spanish sherry vinegar
5 large marjoram sprigs, the leaves chopped
5 large thyme sprigs, the leaves chopped
2 summer garlic cloves, thinly sliced
A palmful of salt-packed capers, soaked and then drained
The grated zest of 1 large orange
Freshly ground black pepper
Extra-virgin olive oil
2 small (single serving) Spanish mackerel, gutted but with the heads left on
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
In a medium bowl, combine the tomatoes, vinegar, herbs, garlic, capers, and orange zest. Season with salt and pepper. Drizzle in about ¼ cup of olive oil, give it all a good stir, and let it sit for a few minutes so the flavors can mingle.
Choose a baking dish large enough to hold the fish and all the sauce with some breathing room (the tomatoes should spread out nicely all around the fish).
Drizzle a little olive oil into the dish. Season the mackerel with salt and black pepper, and then lay them in the dish. Pour the tomato sauce over the fish.
Drizzle a bit of olive oil over the top, and bake, uncovered, until the fish is just tender, about 15 minutes or so, depending on the size of your fish. Check by sticking a knife in at the backbone; the flesh should be just starting to pull away from the bone, but you should still feel a bit of resistance. Take the dish from the oven, and let it sit for about 5 minutes before serving (fish always continues to cook a bit as it sits, and this also gives the flavors a chance to settle). This dish goes well with a simple potato salad, maybe just tossed with olive oil, shallots, and a little parsley, and a glass of lightly chilled Chianti.