Pickled, smoked mackerel is a fishy feast

A couple of plump mackerel, after being pickled, are placed on the grill. The tinfoil holds damp wood chips that will provide the smoke.
John Holyoke | BDN
A couple of plump mackerel, after being pickled, are placed on the grill. The tinfoil holds damp wood chips that will provide the smoke.
Posted Aug. 28, 2014, at 1:34 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 28, 2014, at 1:52 p.m.
A failed flip of the mackerel has them looking a little haggard, but hopefully they'll still taste good.
John Holyoke | BDN
A failed flip of the mackerel has them looking a little haggard, but hopefully they'll still taste good. Buy Photo
Mackerel on a plate.
John Holyoke | BDN
Mackerel on a plate. Buy Photo

After spending a day on the high seas with Capt. Pete Douvarjo of Eggemoggin Guide Service, I returned to Bangor with a few fish and some advice from the good captain.

Pickle the mackerel overnight, he said. Use vinegar and whatever pickling spices you like, then smoke them up the next day, the captain said.

There was a problem or two with Douvarjo’s instructions, however: I’ve never pickled anything. And I don’t have a smoker, and I haven’t smoked any food product. Ever.

My boss (and our regular food writer) Sarah Walker Caron told me that she might not be producing a fish-based recipe after our trip. It might be up to me. That turned out be true … and here we are.

This is my first stab at a food column. Feel free to laugh at my expense. If you’re particularly adventurous, feel free to try the recipe. And if you know something about pickling and smoking, feel extra free to rely on your own knowledge.

John’s Pickled Mackerel a la Capt. Pete Douvarjo

2 mackerel, cleaned

6 ounces vinegar

Various spices that sounded like they would taste good

1 bag mesquite smoking chips

A couple pieces of aluminum foil

Pretty simple, eh? Oh, wait. It gets better.

First off, I’ll share my “pickling spices” with you. I used salt, dill weed (pickles? dill? no-brainer), along with mustard powder, garlic salt, more salt, ancho chili powder (an odd choice, I know) and even more salt (pickling recipes called for brine, so I kept adding salt).

I poured the vinegar and liberal doses of my pickling concoction into a plastic bag, then tossed the mackerel in and pickled them overnight. More or less just like Douvarjo said.

Then, on Wednesday night, I started trying to smoke my fish. According to the clearly accurate instructions I found on the Internet, I soaked two handfuls of mesquite chips in water for about 20 minutes, then crafted a very tidy aluminum foil receptacle for them. I tossed them on top of the heat source of the gas grill and cranked up the heat.

From that point on, things got a bit hectic — in a low-and-slow, two-hour smoke kind of way. Seeking help (but never really asking for it), at that point I started to update my Facebook page, hoping that someone, anyone, would pitch in and help me out. Eventually, you’ll see, they did. Unfortunately, it might have been too late.

Me via Facebook: “It took awhile, but I’m finally smelling smoke out of my novice-level tinfoil smoker. Two things: I’m not sure mesquite goes well with mackerel. And I’m not sure I’ve got enough propane to smoke these fish. Wish me luck. And if I fail, Sarah Walker Caron will likely make me write this as a food column. So there’s that.”

My friend Chris Lander: “Good luck, my friend.”

Me: “I smell like a firefighter already. A fishy firefighter. Who was trying to douse a mesquite tree.”

Me (later, after flipping and mutilating the mackerel): “Update: The smoke smells wonderful. The mackerel is not as pretty as it once was, and the fire department has likely been notified that there’s a fish on fire on [my street]. But did I mention that the smoke smells wonderful? I gotta find something else to smoke. Anybody got a spare pig? A rack of ribs? Hell, even a fresh raccoon would probably do.”

Me (moments later): “P.S.: This smoking stuff is addictive. Apparently the Surgeon General was right.”

Me (a few minutes after that): “Another update. The sun is setting. The mosquitoes have shown up. This smoking thing is overrated.”

Me (as doubt starts to creep in): “Capt. Pete said two hours at 200 degrees. But I’m guessing on the temp. All my heat is on the smoke side, instead of the fish side. Thermometer reads 260 (or something like that. It’s getting dark). I’ve been using the hand-o-mometer to estimate that the fish side is 100 degrees cooler than the smoke side. Which might mean my mackerel has been smoking at the right temp, some of the time. Or it might mean something different. Time to make a decision, I guess.”

Note: I didn’t make a decision. I just kept on smoking.

My (former) friend Andy Bean: “It sounds like YOU have been smokin’ something. Shouldn’t need too much smoke for those itty bitties. Did you get them from your fish tank?”

Me: “Big grill, Andy. Those fish weighed 6 pounds apiece.”

Me: “And that’s what you call a fish story.”

Me (after smoking the fish for an hour and a half): “Realized there’s an air conditioner running full blast just above my smoker/grill. I suspect my stepson’s bedroom may smell like a fire sale (for fish) at Marden’s. Oh, well. It’s not like he’ll be going to high school orientation smelling like badly smoked mackerel or anything. What? Tomorrow is freshman orientation? Again, oops. I think fish is done (whether it’s done or not).”

My friend John Kirk (three hours after his advice would have been helpful): “You need a real smoker. Mesquite is too strong for macks. Apple or cherry or alder.”

Capt. Pete Douvarjo: “Kirk is right, John. Mesquite is for short-time cooking …”

Douvarjo also told me I should have used water with the vinegar, so that the fish were “lightly” brined. Oops. Honestly, the mackerel actually turned out surprisingly well. My wife and I both sampled some and enjoyed it. We did decide, however, that it would taste even better if we refrigerated it, then served it as an appetizer, on crackers, with a bit of cream cheese. That’s my story, at least.

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