Mackerel in saor with a winter salad - Venetian dish is packed with flavour

Mackerel in saor
Mackerel in saor

Hai mangiato così tanto pesce che per tornare a casa puoi nuotare nei canali invece di camminare,” laughed the bartender as he brought over yet another plate of sardines from the trays of cicchetti lined up along the tiny counter.

Yes, it was entirely possible that I was now half-fish, half-human and capable of swimming home via the canals instead of on two feet after demolishing the greater part of the tiny bar’s sardine stocks.

Mackerel in saor with a winter salad

Mackerel in saor with a winter salad

It was our first evening back in Venice and, after leaving our luggage in the hall of our flat, we had ended up in a wooden-shuttered bacaro tucked away in one of the tangled alleys close to the Ponte dell’Accademia. It was a good decision.

We ate plate after plate of sardines soused in a simple agrodolce marinade made with wine vinegar, onions and raisins, astride wedges of griddled polenta and ordered more of the tiny flying saucer-shaped cipolla onions, this time served whole.

Sarde in saor is a traditional Venetian dish dating back to the 1300s.

Preserving fish in flavoured vinegar kept it safe to eat, while the marinating time – at least six hours and preferably overnight – builds in layers of saor, which translates as flavour.

The white onions used in the classic recipe are traditionally grown in nearby Chioggia before being sliced and fried until lightly golden, at which point white wine vinegar is poured in and cooked off.

Wine-soaked raisins modulate any tendency towards sharpness, adding sweetness and texture and, while some Venetian cooks also add pine nuts, my favourite version did not, so I haven’t included them in my recipe, although you may wish to.

Instead of sardines, I’ve used mackerel, the prince of our seas, whose creamy flesh stands up well to robust, acidulated flavours, remaining firm even after 24 hours in the fridge.

Left whole instead of filleted, the mackerel is pan-fried until its flesh cooks through and the flour it is coated in crisps up.

The end result is a good, robust meal for winter, each mackerel serving two people alongside the fennel and orange salad and wedges of griddled polenta.

Just balance a piece of fish and raisins on top of the polenta and take a bite.

Winter salads need brightness and here the slices of orange cut across mackerels tendency to richness, while the fennel adds a fresh touch of anise.

I’ve used blood oranges because their raspberry-inflected flavour and red-tinged colour is utterly beautiful but any sweet orange variety will do.

I don’t add much in the way of dressing, letting the juices of the oranges mingle with a few drops of olive oil, salt and pepper.

MACKEREL IN SAOR – INGREDIENTS

120ml/4floz white wine

2oz raisins

2lb/900g mackerel, heads & guts removed.

A handful of plain flour, seasoned with salt and pepper

180ml/6floz olive oil

1 medium white onion, sliced thin

80 ml/2½oz white wine vinegar

METHOD

Pour the wine into a bowl and add the raisins to soak for 30 minutes, drain and set aside. Add olive oil to frying pan and heat until hot.

Pat the mackerel dry, dredge in seasoned flour, then place in the pan and fry until cooked through and the skin is crispy. If you prefer, you can place the fish on a greased baking sheet and cook in the oven until done.

Once cooked, remove from the pan and allow to cool.

Wipe the pan clean and add more olive oil, then heat to medium. Add the onion and cook until lightly golden.

Add the white wine vinegar to the onion, reduce the heat to medium-low then continue cooking until they are soft.

Now stir in the raisins, season to taste with salt and pepper and allow the mixture to cool.

Place half the mackerel on the base of a large dish, then cover with half the onions.

Now place the rest of the mackerel on top and cover with the remaining onions. Marinate in the fridge for at least six hours.

FENNEL AND ORANGE SALAD – INGREDIENTS

1 large fennel bulb

2 good-sized oranges

salt

1 tbsp olive oil

METHOD

Using a mandolin or a sharp knife, cut the fennel into thin slices, saving the fronds for garnishing.

Slice the oranges into rounds, then cut away the peel and pithy edges with a sharp knife, ensuring you retain the juice.

Place the fennel and orange slices into a bowl.

Mix the orange juice with the olive oil and a pinch of salt, then pour over the salad.

GRIDDLES POLENTA – INGREDIENTS

½ tsp salt

150ml milk

150g coarse cornmeal

40g butter

600ml water

METHOD

Put the milk in a large, heavy-based pan along with the salted water, then bring to the boil.

Measure the polenta and keep close at hand.

When the pan comes to the boil, start pouring in the polenta, allowing it to run in a steady stream from your fingers; this will stop it from clumping.

Whisk continuously until the polenta is incorporated and then keep stirring for two minutes until it thickens.

Turn the heat down to minimum and stir regularly, ensuring the polenta is not allowed to stick to the base of the pan and burn.

Cook for about 35 to 45 minutes, until it begins to pull away from the sides of the pan. Stir in the butter and remove from the heat.

Pour the polenta into a wide pan and chill in the fridge until set, then slice into wedges.

Heat the olive oil in a pan until hot and fry the wedges until they are crispy. Serve alongside the fish and salad.

-- Follow Nicola on Twitter via @NicMillersTale