Fried Mackerel with Cassoulet Beans & Herb Garlic Crumbs

Here’s a dish that packs a punch! I wanted to make a cassoulet that our pescatarian friends could eat as well, but still preserve that depth of flavour and that heartening warmth of the meaty versions. Fat is an important part of a good cassoulet, so don’t be shocked by the quantities of oil I have added. If your friends are meat eaters, use duck fat, which gives much the better flavour. I used canned beans and I’m not at all ashamed of it. It’s a good product that has been used in households all over the world for more than 150 years, so if you have the time to make (or can) your own, go ahead, if not, these are great!

Cirio gets my vote for a great canned tomato and La Molisana is reliable too.

I had a little problem with my mackerel fillets. I bough them frozen and let them defrost slowly in the chiller and when I took them out just as my cassoulet beans were about finished, I noticed the pin bones had not been removed! As there wasn’t enough time to do it and still have my beans be perfect, I just cut the fish lengthwise on either side and lifted the bones out. But that left me with these long torpedo shaped pieces of fish. As was my intention all along, of course…

You are absolutely going to love this recipe and if you think the smoked salmon as well as the anchovies is overkill, think again!

Mackerel Cassoulet

For the Garlic Breadcrumbs:
  • 2 Tbsp Italian breadcrumbs (pan grattato)
  • 2 Tbsp very finely chopped garlic
  • 2 Tbsp finely chopped parsley
  • ½ tsp fine sea salt
  • 1 Tbsp duck fat or olive oil

Start by making the breadcrumbs. Heat the fat in a small pan and when it is hot, add the breadcrumbs. Keep stirring them until they are nicely browned, then take off the heat and stir in the garlic and parsley. Salt and spread on a paper towel to absorb excess oil. The breadcrumbs will at first clump together, but should in the end be loose enough to sprinkle over.

For the Cassoulet:
  • 3 mackerel fillets
  • 1 green capsicum, diced medium
  • 1 brown onion, diced medium
  • 6 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
  • 100g smoked salmon
  • 1 small can anchovies, drained (25g net weight)
  • chilli flakes to taste
  • 50ml white wine, or a dash of vinegar or verjuice
  • ¾ can diced tomatoes (300g out of a 400g can)
  • 1 can cannellini beans (±400g), drained
  • 3 Tbsp duck fat or olive oil (go with the fat, if you have it)

Check your fish fillets for bones and trim any raggedy ends off. Cover and return to the chiller immediately. Dice both capsicum and onion into roughly 1cm dice. You can put these into one bowl, as we will fry them together anyway. Peel the garlic and chop it very rough. Cut the smoked salmon into large bits. The size and shape will not matter, as they will crumble away in the frying and stewing. We are not interested in the texture, just the smokiness of the salmon.

Drain your can of beans. You don’t need to drain this completely, just pour the top water off. Open the can of anchovies and pour most of the oil off or keep it for another use and we are ready to start our beans.

Heat one tablespoon of the fat or oil in a cast iron pan or dish, or anything other that can go straight into the oven after frying. When the fat is nice and hot add the garlic and give it a quick stir to flavour the oil. That should take about a minute or two. Try not to brown the garlic. Now add the capsicum and onion to the pan and fry on medium high heat for about 5 minutes. A little browning is fine, but you don’t want too much caramelisation.

Once the mix is fried, add the chilli flakes and diced salmon and the other tablespoon of duck fat or oil to the pan and fry until the salmon is completely opaque and starting to fall apart. This should take no more than two minutes. Add the anchovies and whatever of their oil is left straight from the can. Stir well to dissolve and be careful not to burn the anchovies. Deglaze with the wine and leave to evaporate almost completely.

Now add the tomatoes, complete with their juice, but do it slowly. Look at your mix and try not to turn it into a soup. Cassoulet is quite thick, it isn’t a runny thing. We will have another 30 minutes in the oven, which will dry things out a bit, so stick to the ¾ can the first time around, then next time you make it, you can adjust to get it just the way you want it. Simmer for five to ten minutes. Taste the thing once or twice. Once the tomatoes have mostly fallen apart and the onions and capsicums are soft, you are done.

At this point you can cover the pan and leave the whole thing to cool down. You could even make this a few hours in advance and give yourself time for an aperitif before dinner. If you make it in the morning for the evening, keep the mix a little wetter, as the beans will absorb some moisture, even in the chiller.

Heat the oven to 200ºC well before you need it. Put the cassoulet in the oven just 30 minutes before serving. Once the edge of the pan bubbles nicely, your beans are done. Once the beans are done, turn off the heat and start frying your fish. Dry the fillets well and salt them generously. Grind black pepper on the meat side and heat the last tablespoon of duck fat in a frying pan until smoking hot. Add the mackerel fillets skin side down and fry until the edges are nicely browned and the meat is pretty much opaque. There should be no need to fry the meat side, as long as the cassoulet is hot.

Take out the cassoulet beans and place the mackerel fillets on top skin side up. Sprinkle the breadcrumbs all over and serve immediately. You can use other fish to make this dish, but I feel that a meaty, oily fish is best suited for this rustic dish. You could try it with big slabs of cod. If you don’t want to be bothered with frying fish last minute, throw some tuna steaks into the freezer for an hour and then flash sear them on both sides and quickly chill them in the freezer for ten minutes. Now you can just put them on top of the cassoulet beans and roast the whole thing together. For more detailed information on how to fry fish, check out my previous post How to Fry Fish.

NOTE:          I used about a tablespoon of pretty mild chilli flakes, but I don’t really want to give you a quantity. If you hit a super hot chilli flake, one tablespoon full might kill you.

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