’Forget-Me-Not’ Mackerel with Barberries

Uskumru Dolmasi

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In this dish you are required to reach down the throat of a fish and pull out its insides, including the bones, in order to make it empty enough to satisfy the Turkish compulsion to stuff everything they see.

Uskumru dolmasi is one of the oldest surviving Ottoman seafood recipes, mentioned in seventeenth century palace documents, and nicknamed unutma beni (don’t forget me) because meyhanes in past centuries would send plates of stuffed mackerel to the homes of their regular customers on the last night of the fasting month of Ramadan, to remind them of what they’d been missing. It was the earliest form of advertising by letter box drop, but we doubt if anybody rejected it as junk mail.

Ingredients

  • 4 blue mackerel, whole

Barberry Stuffing

  • 50 g ( oz) dried barberries (or currants)
  • 1 large onion (about 250 g/9 oz., chopped
  • 200 ml (7 fl oz) olive oil
  • 100 g ( oz) pine nuts
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon allspice
  • 3 teaspoons salt
  • 20 flat-leaf (Italian) parsley leaves, finely chopped, plus extra to garnish

Mackerel Coating

  • 150 g ( oz/1 cup) plain (all-purpose) flour
  • 3 eggs
  • 190 g ( oz/1 cup) fine polenta
  • 300 ml (10½ fl oz) olive oil

Pomegranate Dressing (Optional)

  • 1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses (to make your own)
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 20 pomegranate seeds
  • 10 parsley leaves, finely chopped

Method

Clean the blue mackerel by removing the gills and the organs without a knife. You need to push your fingers into the throat of the fish and hook them under the gills. Pull gently so the gills and the attached organs come out. Use scissors to cut off the fins, being careful not to tear the skin. Wash thoroughly.

Gently massage the fish on each side for 5 minutes to soften the flesh until you can feel the spine. Gently break the tail, turning it 90 degrees, up then down, without puncturing the skin. Push the points of a pair of scissors through the gill hole and use them to sever the head from the spine. You can now remove the spine from inside the fish. Cover the fish with a dry cloth so you can hold it with one hand. With the other hand, reach through the gill hole and, with your thumb and forefinger, gently pull out the spinal bones. Scrape off any meat that’s attached to the spine and put in a bowl. Using a cocktail spoon, remove all the flesh from inside the fish and add to the bowl.

Put the barberries in a bowl, cover with water and leave to soak for 15 minutes. Finely chop the onion. Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large frying pan over medium heat. Add a drop of water to the oil. If it sizzles the oil is ready. Sauté the pine nuts for 2 minutes, then add the onions and fry for 3 minutes. Add the fish meat, spices, salt, parsley and barberries and fry for another 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from the heat and leave to cool for 5 minutes.

Stuff a quarter of the mixture into each fish, using a long-handled cocktail spoon. Pack the stuffing in tightly, and use your fingers to mould it into a fish shape.

Now make the coating. Sift the flour into a bowl. Lightly whisk the eggs in a separate bowl. Put the polenta in a third bowl. Heat the oil in a frying pan over medium heat. Add a drop of water to the oil. If it sizzles the oil is ready. Coat each fish with flour. Dip in the egg. Thoroughly coat with polenta. Carefully place the stuffed fish in the pan, two at a time, and cook for 8 minutes each, giving them a quarter turn every 2 minutes until the skin is golden brown and crisp. Drain on paper towel.

If using, mix the pomegranate molasses, olive oil, pomegranate seeds and parsley together in a small jug (pitcher).

Serve the uskumru dolmasi hot, splashed with a little olive oil and parsley and, if you like, the pomegranate dressing.