Welcome to a Carolina coastal summer. You can tell it’s summer because the temperature and humidity tend to run hand-in-hand, and they are generally in the 80s and 90s. Most days, the temperature drops enough in the late afternoon that it’s comfortable enough to relax outside; that’s when relaxing with an easy meal prepared outside hits the spot. 

This is a recipe for those times. There are provisions for frying or baking, but you get that little extra flavor from cooking them on the grill. Some folks who prefer their fish fried choose to cook them outside on their fish cooker or the side burner of their grill so they can enjoy being outside, too.   

Many fishermen like to catch king mackerel, but the opinions vary greatly regarding its value as table fare, covering the full range from “I love it,” to “No way.” This is a recipe those who enjoy the larger mackerel will appreciate, and it may be one that convinces some of the naysayers to soften their stance. It calls for removing all the dark or red meat and using only the prime portions of the fillet.

While these pieces taste the best, they are also the pieces that contain the Omega 3 Fatty acids that lower triglyceride levels, decrease the potential for cardiac issues, help alleviate arthritis and are classified as beneficial to our health. That alone should be all the encouragement needed to give this recipe a try. You’ll probably like it, too. 

Kings are favorites of so many fishermen because they can be caught from just off the beaches to well offshore. Sometimes, they even become so engrossed in feeding they follow bait schools into the harbors at Charleston, S.C., Morehead City, N.C., and Southport, N.C. They can even be caught by fishermen from ocean piers.

King mackerel can get big, and even the smaller ones make long runs and know how to buzz a reel. They begin to arrive as the water warms and baitfish gather in spring and hang around until the water cools and the baitfish move on in fall. They are often found close to bait schools and will usually hit a live bait, especially early in the morning and late in the afternoon. It’s nice, too, that these are the times most comfortable for fishermen.

Care of all fish begins as soon as they hit the deck, especially with oily fish like mackerel and tuna. They should be covered in ice as soon as the hooks are removed. Some fishermen clip the rig off their line and shove a king into the ice immediately, then remove the hooks later. When the sun is as hot as it is during July and August, even a few minutes of exposed on deck can negatively affect the quality of fish. They will always be best when covered in ice immediately. 

Grilled king mackerel croquettes

I’ll probably take some abuse for this, but I like to eat king mackerel. They actually have some taste and aren’t so mild that they’re bland and only taste like their marinade or breader. I grew up in a commercial-fishing family, and we often ate what wouldn’t sell, so I was introduced to stronger-flavored fish early on and have been eating them for years. I was already an adult when doctors determined the Omega 3 fatty acids they contained are beneficial to our health. I never considered myself a culinary trend-setter, but with king macks that may be the case.

Just like growing your own fruits and vegetables, catching the fish you eat makes them better in many ways. Small kings can make the clicker howl, while larger ones find passing gear and make the reel scream like few other fish. That wailing sound raises the hair on the back of your neck and kicks your heart rate into the stratosphere. Feeling the power of a king’s strong, fast runs and listening to the sound of the screaming reel creates plenty of adrenaline and energy to work them to the boat.

The quality and flavor of fish can be affected by how they are handled on the boat and how they are cleaned. Get them on ice immediately. Seriously, they should be covered in ice, not just tossed in a fish box or cooler that has some ice on the bottom. Kings are easy to bury in ice. Grab them by the tail and use their pointed head to push them down.

Some fishermen are naturals at fish cleaning and some just never get it. I have made this dish from steaks, but I like it best when made from a fillet cut from near the tail. Younger kings are better, too, but remember they must be at least 24 inches (fork length) to be legal. I remove the skin and separate the fillets in the middle to trim away all brown meat and any traces of red in the fillets. This makes a lot of difference in the flavor.

I don’t do much frying, but I know others sometimes prefer their fish fried to get the right crispiness. This is a recipe you may prefer to fry, and I have included directions for that. It’s up to you to decide if you prefer it grilled, baked or fried. It is definitely crispier fried, but it’s also easy to overcook the fish by cooking it to golden brown. Remember that when frying; the fish will continue to cook and brown a little after being taken out of the pan, so you have to have the confidence to remove it just before it looks ready. 

One of my friends suggested when grilling, to run it inside for the last few minutes and finish it under the broiler to make it crisper. I haven’t tried that, but it sounds like a reasonable idea. 

This dish is at its best when the patties are just turning a light, golden brown. If you prefer your fish well done, it may overcook the onions and peppers. Most fish is best when cooked as lightly as you can brown the breader. I recommend eating this as lightly done as you can handle. Once the breader has changed color, the egg has cooked enough to hold things together and it’s ready.

One thing to always remember is that all fish dishes are best with fresh fish you caught earlier the same day. 

INGREDIENTS:

1 pound king mackerel fillets

2 eggs

1 small, sweet onion (or 1/2 a larger one) 

1 jalapeno pepper

1 tube low salt or unsalted saltines

1 cup spicy seafood breader

1 tbsp blackened seasoning

1/2 tsp cayenne pepper

1 tsp coarse ground black pepper

1 tsp Texas Pete Cha Sauce 

Zest of 1/2 lime

Olive oil

Salt to taste

Non-stick cooking spray

Water

PREPARATION:

Chop the king mackerel into fine chunks. Some folks find that with thicker fillets, pan-searing them a minute or so on each side helps with firmness to chop them into the small pieces needed for this. Mince the onion and jalapeno. Remove the jalapeno seeds first. Crush the saltines. Beat the eggs.

Put the king mackerel into a bowl and add onion, jalapeno, blackened seasoning, cayenne pepper, lime zest, black pepper, Cha sauce, salt to taste and mix well — you can add a little water to help if the mixture is stiff, but only add in very small amounts. Add crushed saltines, eggs and 2 tablespoons of olive oil and mix well.

Shape mixture into patties. Roll patties in seafood breader mix. Cover a section of the grill with aluminum foil and poke numerous holes in the foil before spraying it with non-stick cooking spray or use a grill tray, like one used for vegetables and things that will fall through the grill, and spray it with non-stick cooking spray. Preheat grill to 400 degrees Cook for 10 to 15 minutes. Turn and cook another 10 minutes or so until lightly brown. If you want to finish this under the broiler, take it inside as soon as you notice the breader darkening and broil it for a few minutes to make the breader crispier.

This can also be cooked in the over or fried. If cooking in the oven, cover a cookie sheet with aluminum foil  If frying, cover frying pan bottom about 1/4-inch with olive oil and heat to medium-medium high. Cook patties until lightly golden brown on both sides. Place cooked patties on paper towels to drain for a minute or two.