Crispy Sichuan Pepper Mackerel with Rhubarb and Star Anise Sauce


I think today is the last of our summer days for a wee while. Unlike in many other countries, where seasons are either clearly defined, or a climate firmly established, Britain seems subject to the vagaries of a temperate maritime climate. I know by very definition ‘temperate’ should exclude ‘vagary,’ but with the Arctic systems looming large and frigid to our north, and an ill-mannered jet stream popping up and down like an attention-seeking toddler, we just don’t stand a chance at settled weather.

So, for the past week and a bit we here on this tiny weather-whipped island have been going at the barbecuing and skin-frying like there’s no tomorrow. Not for us the gradual tan or the weekend grill-out – oh no. The smells of lotion and charred meat have been wafting our way, every day, since the mercury nudged above 20C a week ago. And now it’s due to drift away and be replaced by a more skin-friendly 15C. I for one am a little bit, whispering this, grateful. It is heck of a difficult to be self-employed (-ish) when the usual, work-friendly Zeus-like clouds and wind are replaced by warm zephyrs and sunrise-to-sunset sunshine. It is frankly too much to bear. But bear it we must for another day or two. Once we are back on track with the scudding clouds and jolly hailstones I promise to break out the salad recipes. In the meantime, a seasonal, lightly cooked recipe: interim fare for interim times. 
Today’s recipe features sustainable and seasonal mackerel. I am a new-ish convert to fresh mackerel, having had a few dodgy experiences in the past. But, like all new converts to anything, I am nearly evangelical in my zeal. Not only is it one of those fish that you don’t have to feel guilty eating, it is also quick, delicious and exceedingly nutritious. A very pretty fish too: A supermodel among its piscine brethren. I can only imagine how jealous monkfish are of its sleek and iridescent skin and its shining, small eyes. 

Nutrition-wise it’s right up there in first-class. Known for its mega Omega 3 fatty acid content, it is also replete with such goodies as selenium (which is increasingly hard to get due to poor soil),Vitamins B12, A, D and K, calcium, potassium, phosphorus and magnesium. And of course it is an excellent source of protein – 21 grams per 75g (3 oz) serving. Although it has 15g of fat in each such serving, very little is saturated, with most being heart-healthy unsaturated, and the rest fatty acids. 

As for its Omega 3 content, only kippers and anchovies outmatch it. A 50-gram portion (2 oz) gives you the one gram per week recommended by most health bodies. The American Heart Association advises at least two servings of oily fish a week. Interestingly, the Japanese seemingly get through one gram of Omega 3 in a day. Check here for the ups and downs of Omega 3.

Mackerel, being a particularly robustly flavoured fish, is classically partnered with equally robust and assertive gooseberry, those translucent spring-green orbs found in crumbles and creamy fools. But quite a few of us like it with the squeaky clean sharpness of rhubarb. 

Mostly the latter pairing is simple, with the rhubarb gently stewed with just enough sugar to keep the eater from wincing, and the mackerel gutted and grilled. My recipe is also simple, but perhaps turned up just a notch in flavour and derring-do. How so? Sichuan pepper. This pretty little berry proves an able counterpoint to the unctuous and rich taste of fresh mackerel, and goes exceedingly well with the other southwest Chinese spicings of ginger and star anise.

I slip Sichuan pepper into a number of recipes, most often as a sub for Vietnamese pepper in last year’s Crispy and Sticky Black Pepper Tofu. Lately I have been getting quite a lot of mileage out of my little pot of these tongue-buzzing little berries. Soon I will post a very simple – and completely leftfield – use for them that had Mr A and Miss R fighting over the last morsels. I think they might actually be addictive. In a good way. 

We love things a bit spicy in the food to glow house, but Sichuan (or Szechuan if you like) peppers are not actually hot as such. Rather, they provide a unique numbing and lemony lightning bolt that cuts through spice and adds a totally different dimension to the cooked dish. And neither are they peppers. I did know that, but I didn’t realise that they are members – after a fashion- of the citrus family, from the prickly ash tree. It is thought that these unusual berries were first added to Sichaun dishes to partially numb the mouth for the super hot chilli-based dishes that would follow. It is also one of the five ingredients in the rather lovely and mild five-spice powder, along with star anise, fennel, clove and cinnamon. 

If you are at all nervous about the sensation of Sichuan pepper– it has been likened to touching a 9-volt battery to the tongue! – try mild and fragrant Vietnamese pepper or just fresh, top-quality black pepper. The small amount I call for here will not shock you in any way, but it’s fine to leave it out. If you use it, lightly toast the berries in a pan before grinding in a pestle and mortar. Or you may have it already ground, in which case a little heating before use wouldn’t go amiss, especially if like me you will scatter over a little zingy extra bit on the finished dish. Try it if you dare!

Crispy Sichuan Pepper Mackerel with Rhubarb and Star Anise Sauce

Last Year: Fish Pie – healthily decadent comfort food

Miss R’s Track of the Week: fun. and Hayley from Paramore’s cover of Gotye’s Somebody That I Used Know (on BBC Radio 1 Live Lounge so there is a minute of chat first, but well worth sticking around for – a really great acoustic number)


Rhubarb Sauce

250g  (9 oz) trimmed rhubarb stalks, cut into 1 cm pieces
2 tbsp caster sugar or coconut palm sugar
2 star anise
1 ½ tbsp grated fresh ginger (frozen is fine)
100 ml (3 ½ oz) water or orange juice (I use water but orange is classic)
Salt, to taste (a pinch)

4 mackerel fillets, cut from 2 fresh mackerel (fins trimmed)
cornflour for dusting
light rapeseed oil for frying
1 heaped tbsp Sichuan berries, lightly toasted and then ground

Make the rhubarb sauce by putting all ingredients except the rhubarb in a saucepan; bring to the boil and then simmer until the liquid is slightly reduced – about 10 minutes. Add the rhubarb pieces, give a stir and pop on a lid. Let the rhubarb soften completely – about five minutes. Now you can either leave intact or mash it a bit. Well-cooked rhubarb tends to ‘fall’ so you might not have a choice in the matter. Let this cool a bit while you prepare the fish and any side dish, like new potatoes and a green salad.

For the fish, put some cornflour (or wheat flour) on a plate and mix in about three-quarters of the Sichuan pepper. Coat each fillet, redistributing or adding to the pepper and flour if need be. Heat the oil over a medium-high flame and fry the fillets until cooked through. I find that two minutes on the skin side and one minute on the flesh side is perfect. Place two fillets on each plate along with a good spoonful of the rhubarb sauce and an extra scattering of the pepper on the fish. Eat immediately. Serves 2, with extra sauce. PS This would be fine for low-fiber diets, but less pepper and just one spoon of sauce.
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10 thoughts on “Crispy Sichuan Pepper Mackerel with Rhubarb and Star Anise Sauce

  1. Well this I cannot wait to try as it is a combination of some of my favourite things and I’ve never put them together so I just cant wait to make it. Brilliant idea, thanks Kellie.
    BTW you are very good with your continued work throughout the sunny weather……I am guilty of being lured into the sun and away from anything even vaguely work, chore, or computer related. Ooops, better go and catch up now that the haar has rolled in….

    • I am a charlatan, Niki. I hadn’t touched a computer (or phone as computer) since, mm, Friday. Let me know if you make this odd combo – I know you like your mackerel :D PS No haar here but my, the temperature has dropped. I have changed into leggings, long sleeves and a cardi. Back to normal then…

  2. A most compelling combination of flavors! I too have steered away from mackerel but your conversation of nutrients and sustainability has me intrigued! Local salmon from Monterey Bay always seems to catch my eye at the fish market.

    • Trout & salmon are still my favourite oily fish but mackerel – at least here – is in season, completely sustainable, wild & is great fresh or lightly smoked. I am making fresh mackerel fishcakes tonight with some Thai herbs I have stashed in the freezer. Hope you try mackerel in some form or another. Grilled on the BBQ with some herbs stuffed in the cavity is brilliant. My mum-in-law is the mackerel bbqing queen!

  3. It’s funny, we’ve been enjoying about a week of hot, summer-like weather but a cold front just blew in! (And I have to say, the cold (70′s-ish) weather is a nice refresher from the 90′s heat wave and humidity we’ve been having. I’m such a fall/winter/spring lover…lol!) As for the fish, it looks amazing. Fish is always a favorite in my house but I’ve never made mackerel…actually, I don’t think I’ve ever eaten it! Sounds lovely with the rhubarb sauce.

    • Faith, you must try mackerel if it’s easily available. It’s great on the grill stuffed to the gills (ha ha) with fresh herbs & lemon, filleted and broiled or fried (like this). I went to a slow food preserving class and the chef did both hot-smoked & pickled mackerel right before our eyes. It was unbelievably scrumptious. Long may your cooler weather reign (but not ‘rain’).

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