An underrated fish meets its match


It took me several weeks to open a bottle of lemon olive oil someone gave me as a gift. Every so often, I would move the bottle out of the way to wipe crumbs off the counter, but I didn’t dare twist open the top. I knew once I did, I’d end up pouring it compulsively on everything.

Vying for attention next to the regular olive oils — the good one for sautéing, the better one for salads and garnishes — it lured me with the promise of containing two of my favorite ingredients, olives and lemons, pressed together into a golden oil.

And at upward of $35 for a rather small bottle, it would become yet another expensive staple in my already pricey pantry. (I’m looking at you, aged balsamic.)

It was a bowl of escarole, green and succulent, that made me relent. A slick of lemon olive oil, along with some grated garlic and a pinch of chili flakes, was exactly what it was begging for. The combination of the greens’ snappy bite and the oil’s fragrant tang was bright and deep.

What makes lemon olive oil taste so intense is that, unlike my workaday salad dressing of lemon juice and olive oil, it doesn’t display the sharpness of citrus juice. Instead, it’s all about the heady oil from the lemon zest along with olive oil. And while it does contain some acidity, it’s a lot more subtle.

As predicted, once I opened it, I couldn’t get enough of the stuff.

Luckily, lemon olive oil turns out to be very easy and economical to make at home. While it may not be quite as nuanced as the cold-pressed stuff in the bottle, it’s still richly citrusy and perfumed, and a jar of it will last a month. It’s fantastic on salads, pastas, fish and my current obsession, avocado-anchovy toast.

Here, I pair the oil with mackerel, one of the most underrated fish I know. Pale-fleshed and much more delicate than people think, it has more character than, say, your average ultra-mild white fish, like flounder. But it’s a lot gentler and less fatty than everyone’s beloved salmon — and it’s more sustainable.

The tender fish, roasted along with olives, basil and cherry tomatoes, makes a zippy dish perfect for any given weeknight — whether you’re cracking open a bottle of store-bought lemon olive oil, or making your own.

Mackerel With Lemon Olive Oil and Tomatoes

Yield: 4 servings

Time: 45 minutes

Ingredients

For the lemon oil:

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Finely grated zest of 1 large lemon (save naked lemon for garnish)

For the fish:

6 to 8 large basil leaves, plus more for garnish

1 1/2 pounds Atlantic mackerel fillets, or use cod or black sea bass (tautog) if unavailable

Fine sea salt and black pepper, to taste

1 to 2 tablespoons lemon olive oil, more as needed

3/4 cup olives, preferably a mix of green and black, pitted and halved, or chopped

1 cup halved or quartered cherry tomatoes

Preparation

Step 1: Make the oil: In a small saucepan over medium heat, warm the olive oil and lemon zest until you see the first tiny bubble appear on the side of the pan. Immediately turn off heat. You don’t want the mixture to simmer.

Step 2: Let infuse for at least 20 minutes (and preferably an hour) before using; you do not have to strain it. Oil can be made up to a month in advance. Store in a sealed jar at room temperature.

Step 3: When ready to prepare the fish, heat oven to 425 degrees. Place the basil leaves on a rimmed baking dish and arrange fish on top. Sprinkle fish with salt and pepper, then drizzle the lemon oil over the fillets. Top with olives. Scatter tomatoes around the pan.

Step 4: Roast until the fish is just cooked through, 5 to 7 minutes for thin fillets and up to 12 minutes for thick fillets.

Step 5: Cut naked lemon into wedges. Serve fish drizzled with more lemon oil, garnished with lemon wedges and torn basil leaves.

And to Drink ...An oily, assertive fish like mackerel needs to be paired with a sharp, assertive wine. The recipe adds acidity to the fish with its element of lemon, so seek out whites with lively acidity, too. Sauvignon blancs from the Loire would be delicious. So would any number of Italian whites, like Etna Bianco, vermentino from Liguria or fiano from Campania. You could try a dry German riesling or a leaner Austrian one. Grüner veltliner may work, too. Picpoul de pinet, an obscure white from southern France known for its acidity, would be superb, as would vinho verde from Portugal. Experimentalists could try a fino or amontillado sherry, fortified wines that go against all I have said about acidity, but will nonetheless pair surprisingly well. — ERIC ASIMOV


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