This is a variation on the Sicilian idea of spaghetti con le sarde, using mackerel instead of sardines. From my rudimentary knowledge of culinary Italian, I think it is probably called something like spaghetti con (lo) sgombro. The raisins, pine nuts and saffron betray the Moorish influences in Sicilian cooking, with fennel, chilli and lemon adding further layers of robust flavour. There’s a bit of extra effort required in removing the skin of the mackerel, but it should only be the work of a few seconds. Try to find the freshest mackerel you can. Mackerel’s appeal fades the longer it has been out of the sea.
400-500g mackerel fillets
100ml extra virgin olive oil
2 tsp fennel seed
8 tbsp chunky breadcrumbs (from two-day-old bread) or panko
4 cloves garlic, crushed
2 good pinches dried chilli flakes
Sea salt and black pepper
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 medium fennel bulb, finely chopped (keep any feathery fronds)
8 anchovy fillets in oil, drained
125ml dry white wine
6 tbsp raisins
2 good pinches saffron
4 tbsp toasted pine nuts
350g dried spaghetti
A big handful of mint leaves, torn
Zest of 2 lemons and juice of 1
Start by skinning the mackerel fillets. Place skin down on a chopping board, hold onto the tail and, using a sharp knife, cut across the flesh at the tail end, stopping before you cut through the skin. Holding onto the skin at the tail and with the blade parallel to the board, slide the knife back and forth towards the other end of the fillet, so the skin peels away from the flesh. Discard the skin and cut the flesh into pieces roughly 2cm square.
Put a large pan of generously salted water on to boil, so you’re ready to cook the pasta.
In another pan, heat 1 tbsp of the oil and add the breadcrumbs, 1 tsp fennel seed, 1 pinch of chilli flakes and a quarter of the garlic. Stir over a medium heat for a minute or two until crisp and golden, but without letting the crumbs and garlic burn. Season with a pinch of salt, tip into a small bowl and put to one side.
In the same pan, heat the remaining oil over a medium heat. Add the chopped onion and fennel, the saffron and the remaining garlic, chilli and fennel seeds. Add a good pinch of salt and sweat for 8-10 minutes until the onion is soft and sweet. Stir in the chopped anchovies and stir until they have broken down into the onions. Add the raisins and wine and cook until most of the wine has evaporated. Remove from the heat.
Meanwhile, put the pasta on to cook.
A few minutes before the pasta is done, put the onion mixture back on the heat. Add the pine nuts and mackerel and cook for a couple of minutes over a medium heat until the fish is just cooked through.
Strain the pasta in a colander or sieve, saving a couple of ladlefuls of the cooking liquid.
Toss the spaghetti in the pan with the mackerel mixture, lemon zest and juice, and most of the mint, adding enough of the pasta water to help things get acquainted. Season with black pepper and more salt if needed.
Divide between wide pasta bowls, then scatter with the spiced crumbs, together with any reserved fennel fronds and a few extra mint leaves.
Lucas Hollweg is an award-winning food writer, cookbook author and cook. A former Sunday Times journalist and cookery columnist, he writes for a wide range of food publications. His most recent book isGood Things to Eat.