Countless times I’ve been walking along a bridge or wharf, checking out what people are catching, and seen them throwing back so-called ‘trash’ fish, in the hope of catching a bream, snapper, flathead or other such ‘desirable’ species. The fish that find their way back are often the slimy mackerel, yellowtail scad (yakkas), leatherjacket, mullet and salmon. While I love eating flathead and the occasional bream and snapper, I am keen to share some delicious ‘trash’ fish cooking techniques and some basic ideas for recipes, in the hope that others might start to see the light! Once you’ve tried a few of these recipes, you might even start to throw the flathead and bream back in favour of trying something that is arguably a little bit more interesting.
Slimy mackerel are most often used as baitfish or ‘fun with the kids’ in Australia. ‘Pickers’, ‘tiddlers’, ‘trash’ and ‘kingfish lollipops’ are all words frequently used to describe them. ‘Dinner’, ‘delicious’ and ‘extremely healthy and sustainable’ are not. The fish markets (and commercial fishing industry) call them blue mackerel, which is their proper common name. The Europeans and Asians have been switched onto blue mackerel for years, and they are becoming more and more common on the icy shelves of your local fishmonger. Still surprisingly cheap (about $5.99/kg last I checked), it will only take a few MasterChef episodes before they end up like the famous lamb shank: from cheap, delicious obscurity to wanky, expensive popularity.
The good thing is is that they are easy to catch and you can usually get a few once you find them. Now, these are OILY fish, which means they are packed full of omega 3s and all that healthy fishy stuff. However, it also means they benefit from being cooked with lots of HEAT and depending on your palate, some nice flavourings to take the edge off the fishyness. Cooked under a super-hot grill (see Garfish recipe) with some salt and pepper, they are delicious. They’re also extremely well-suited to smoking, and will rival any smoked fish in the sea. They also marry well with strong Asian flavours…try dusting some with flour, deep frying til crispy, and covering with a simple sauce made from one chilli, one clove of garlic, a teaspoon of standard honey and a few tablespoons of soy sauce. Garnish with shallots and thinly sliced ginger and enjoy with a cold beer.
Repeat above treatment. Another thing I tried when in Laos was ‘yakka on a stick’. It was just a yellowtail, skewered and cooked over a really hot smoky bbq, probably fuelled by something toxic and nasty. Cancer and the ever-present fear of jelly-belly aside, this thing was delicious, and I’d love to try it again.
These are an interesting one, as they sometimes turn up on fancy restaurant menus, but people seem to regard them as useless, annoying and difficult to deal with. I think part of the reason they get a bad name is from offshore fishos, who sometimes encounter them and can lose heaps of gear when targeting other species. Perhaps the saddest thing I saw was a couple of older anglers, husband and wife, fishing off the navy wharf at Eden. They were catching heaps of jackets, and were simply leaving them to die on the hot concrete in the hope of catching something more desirable. I asked whether they were going to eat them, to which they replied, no, but killing them would make it easier to catch whatever else was down there.
Anyway, whinging aside, leatherjacket have a delicate and sweet flesh, with a beautiful soft texture, and are great to eat. They are also easy to clean, just take off the head, get a finger under the leathery skin and rip it off. Take out the guts, which often come with the head, and you have a delicious little whole fish that is suited to a variety of treatments. Steamed with a bit of coriander, chilli, ginger etc, they are delicious, but also barbequed whole, deep fried, pretty much anything. They’re a bit annoying to fillet because of the large bones, but a whole fish looks great on the plate and one of the best bits about eating fish is picking away the delicious morsels of delicate flesh that come when eating whole fish.
Mullet are another one that people often catch and throw back. Similarly to slimies, they are usually an oily fish (depending on which species), so sea (bully) mullet and bigger sand mullet are best suited to lots of heat, smoking and depending on palate, some nice strong flavours. Yellow-eye mullet, which can sometimes be caught in good numbers from the surf and estuary sand flats, are far more delicate, almost reminiscent of a garfish or whiting. These fish are delicious steamed in foil over a hot fire, with a little butter, salt and pepper, maybe a splash of white wine and a little lemon to finish.
I’m a big advocate of eating Australian salmon and can’t understand why so many people dislike them. I guess it’s just personal preference, but possibly because they need to be treated appropriately to get the most out of them. This means bleeding them as soon as they’ve been landed; a quick snap of the neck will usually rupture the main artery and they will bleed out fast. To assist this, I bury them head down in the sand, or place them straight on ice. My fish are usually caught, cleaned and in the fridge or frying pan within an hour or two of catching them. Crumbed, barbecued, in curries and fish cakes are my favourite, with the first two methods being suited to the smaller, more tender fish. It’s one of the best textured fish around, and if you’re squeamish or trying to impress your girlfriend you can remove the bloodline if you want. But I like this part…it’s the healthiest bit, and reminds me of tuna. It’s probably not dissimilar from tuna in that it’s the really aerobic muscle that fish like salmon and kingfish use to put up such a good and often protracted fight.
I hope this has given you a few good reasons to keep a few more of these often dismissed fish. One of the best things about them is that, to the best of my knowledge, the stocks are in pretty good shape. Like I alluded to in the beginning, a lot of our approach to these fish is arguably cultural, and in a world of increasing pressure on natural resources and rising food prices, it makes sense to take a second look at sustainably harvested and wild fish. These fish fix protein incredibly efficiently and don’t require land clearing, chemicals and pesticides in their production. Aside from all this, they’re generally delicious, so give them a go. Like me, you might find that you start to specifically target them, and have a great time in the process.