While fish and walnuts might seem like an unlikely combination, it is a time-honoured tradition in the Mediterranean, Middle East and Balkan states, with the nuts used in both sauces and stuffings. In stuffings, the nuts are usually coarsely chopped to provide texture as well as moisture, and to complement oily, richer fish such as brown trout, carp and mullet. Walnuts are popular fillings for mussels with Macedonian and Turkish cooks, and are also used to fill pasta and meat [beef, lamb and kid], as in the elaborate Saudi recipe for a whole milk-fed lamb with saffron rice and walnut stuffing.
WALNUT-STUFFED MACKEREL WITH BLACK-EYED PEA SALAD
2 large cloves of garlic, finely chopped
200 gm walnuts, coarsely chopped
45 gm [1/2 cup] breadcrumbs, made from day-old bread
60 gm sultanas
400 gm can chopped tomatoes
¼ cup torn flat-leaf parsley leaves 1 tbsp chopped marjoram or oregano, plus 12 sprigs extra
8 green onions, white and green parts finely chopped separately
6 blue mackerel [about 400gm each, see note], cleaned
Lemon cheeks, to serve
Rocket and black-eyed pea salad
200 gm [1 cup] dried black-eyed peas, soaked in cold water overnight
1/2 Spanish onion, halved and thinly sliced, tossed with 1 tsp sea salt for 15 minutes, rinsed and drained
100 gm Kalamata olives, halved and pitted
2 tbsp lemon juice
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra, for drizzling
100 gm [4 cups, loosely packed] wild rocket
1. For rocket and black-eyed pea salad, drain peas and cook in a saucepan of boiling water for 20 minutes or until tender, then drain. Transfer to a bowl, add remaining ingredients except rocket, season to taste and toss to combine. Just before serving, stir in rocket.
2. Combine garlic, walnuts, breadcrumbs, sultanas, ½ cup chopped tomatoes, parsley, chopped marjoram and white part of green onions in a bowl and season to taste.
3. Season mackerel to taste, then divide stuffing equally among cavities. Place fish, stuffing-side up, in an oiled roasting pan, scatter with marjoram sprigs and reserved green onion tops. Spoon remaining chopped tomatoes around fish, drizzle generously with olive oil and bake at 180C for 25-30 minutes or until fish are just cooked through. Stand fish for 5 minutes before serving drizzled with pan juices, rocket and black-eyed pea salad and lemon cheeks.
Note: blue mackerel are sometimes sold under the name slimy mackerel, but are a very flavoursome fish with scale-free skin.
* For a Turkish version, using blue mackerel with heads removed, make a stuffing with a mixture of cooked finely chopped onion, pounded hazelnuts and walnuts, and raisins. Spice generously with a mixture of ground cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and allspice, then stir in plenty of chopped flat-leaf parsley and dill, spoon into fish cavities and secure with toothpicks. Dust fish in flour, dip in beaten egg and breadcrumbs and shallow-fry in olive oil on both sides until just cooked through. Serve with lemon wedges.
* Legumes and fish are a common Greek pairing. For a mashed bean dish to accompany the above fish, make a skordalia. Place 6 cloves of garlic and 1/2 tsp sea salt in a mortar and, using a pestle, crush to a paste, then slowly add ¾ cup olive oil, drop by drop, until sauce is thick and emulsified, then stir in 1 tbsp white wine vinegar and season to taste. Using a potato masher, coarsely mash 200gm soaked and cooked black-eyed peas or dried white beans, then stir into skordalia.