Sunday, September 11, 2011

from fish lips to fried fins

These days one sees offal and variety meats with some consistency on local menus, and this is a good thing, for surely the whole animal should be used. Admittedly, the choice of offal is still relatively limited and consumption is viewed as exotic, but in general, the direction is the right one. Eating of offal and variety meats in the US had been dying out in the last generation or two- beyond the very occasional liver and onions, organs and offal were certainly not a part of the landscape growing up in my house (though mine was the first generation not to be familiar with offal). Happily, though, we have seen something of an 'entrail Renaissance' in the past decade. European cuisine, with a stronger emphasis on offal has, in various guises in various places, helped to legitimize off-cuts, especially in light of the American 'discovery' of authentic European traditions in the past few decades. The American restaurant patron is also a different creature from 20 years ago, and not only is prepared for, but strongly expects certain ingredients, cuts, and preparations. Again, this the right direction.

Nonetheless, this renaissance is largely limited to feathered and furred animals. The boneless fillet is still the standard in the fish business. Chefs pride themselves on their wide selection of fish, but, with very few exceptions, the plate presented to the diner will contain a boneless fillet or steak of fish. More and more restaurants have whole fish on their menus, and this is also a good thing, but the fish body is nothing more than a vehicle for those same fillets.

Why is this? To begin with, we are not a fish eating country. Even coastal areas in the US tend to be less fish-focused than similar cities elsewhere in the world, and inland areas have only in recent years found dependable sources of fresh seafood. As a result, not only patrons but chefs as well tend to be much less comfortable with fish than with meat. I write this not as an accusation, but as a statement of fact, and I believe that most chefs would agree with the assessment. So relative unfamiliarity with fish in general would pretty much guarantee the same for fish offal and by-cuts.

So what parts does a fish have, and which of them taste good? The only parts for which I have found no culinary use whatsoever are the gills and scales. I have found, after much reading, research, and tasting of evil concoctions, that the rest are good eating, in some way or another. Folks around the world already know this, and it's time we all realized it too. After all, it is a much more rational use of a wild resource.....

What follows below is an introduction. Each part is given brief treatment here- this post is intended to be the first in a series on the issue, exploring in some depth the possibilities of offal and by-cuts. Future posts will explore one cut or part in detail, with culinary uses in other cuisines, histories, facts, preparation, and broad recipes. Look for a new post weekly.

In this series of posts, you will find references to a good number of very familiar fish. This is no accident. Snapper, grouper, tuna, drum- all are commodities, and so cuts from these species will be more readily available. I have intentionally stuck to more well known species.

FISH LIPS- Not all fish are large enough nor equipped with the right lips for cooking. Chinese connoisseurs claim that groupers and some sciaenids (croakers) produce the best lips and it is difficult to argue the point, given the shape of the lips and the size that some of those fish attain. Certainly our common black drum produces nice lips, especially if the fish is over 10 pounds. Regardless of species, the lips are either brined and dried or used fresh. Fried, they make an interesting addition to any soup, though they are just as good on their own, or with a nice salad. Lips may be presented with the bones in, or as picked meat.

EYEBALLS- I really enjoy eyeballs from small fish, when they are fried. However, I have never cared much for the eye from any animal more than a few pounds, neither finned nor furred nor feathered. The taste is good, but the texture is just not for me. Fish weighing one pound or less produce superior eyeballs, both in terms of taste and texture. Especially good are those from whole fish that have been salted and fried (I learned this through several years of copious consumption of pla dtu).

FINS- Fried very crisp, the fins from certain fish make very good snacks. Flounder fins are of course the most well-known, but small grunts work just as well. Caudal fins make good eating even from bigger fish (up to two pounds).

CHEEKS- This is an easy one, and certainly the most common 'off-cut'- Halibut and Toothfish cheeks are almost commodities now, and groundfish cheeks have been the 'fishermen's cut' for a very long time indeed. Some fish have more pronounced cheeks than others, but most fish weighing at least 10 pounds will have nice cheeks. Cheeks from slightly smaller fish (4-10 lbs.) are more work and almost as rewarding. Anything smaller than that would be best dealt with using the entire head (of which more follows below).

COLLARS- Depending on the fish and the market form, one will eat either collar or throat. Both have parts in common, and essentially refer to the same cut.
THROATS- These are one of the easiest cuts to prepare. Simply grill, fry, roast, or steam (if you fry or grill the throats, please see the comment above concerning fins). There is one central bone which is easy to pick out.

INTESTINES- Squeezing intestines is never a pleasant task, though cleaning fish intestines is certainly better than cleaning hog gut. After initial preparation and soaking in salt water, the intestines are ready. Chop them for use in stuffings, soups or stir-fries, or deep-fry.

SPINAL MARROW- We are obviously talking about marrow from a fish at least 15 lbs. While spinal marrow may be harvested from all fish, the task is overly tedious when dealing with small fish. From a blackfin or yellowfin tuna weighing at least 25 lbs., the spines break easily, and provide enough marrow to make the exercise profitable. Not all large fish produce tasty marrow, but tunas and their relations are consistently good, as are most jacks and other pelagic species. Excellent almost beyond description when exceedingly fresh and raw, and damn good roasted or poached.

RIBS- This is another cut that may only be had from a limited number of fish. Probably the most famous fish ribs are those from the humble Buffalo, a filter-feeding freshwater fish allied to the carp. Buffalo ribs have fanatic followers in some parts of the South and Southeast. The ribs are rather elongated, and the meat is thick at that point of the fish. Eat them separated into individual ribs and deep-fried. I have also found that decent-sized to large warsaw groupers yield very nice ribs (see the first post on this blog for more on that). Cobias produce possibly the tastiest ribs, and the fish doesn't have to be very large for good rib chops.

SWIM BLADDER- This is the thick-walled white sack which is found against the ribs in the upper reaches of the gut cavity- fish use them in order to remain neutrally buoyant. This is also what you are eating if you order fish maw soup at a Chinese restaurant. Use them fresh by frying them first and adding them for a unique taste and texture in soups or salads (they taste and feel eerily similar to the bit of skin right on top of a chicken drumstick, the little piece with meat firmly attached). Or, brine and sun dry them. They do not taste fishy at all when fresh, and barely fishy when dried.

LIVERS- Most fish livers deserve praise...while others are best regarded at arm's length. Find out for yourself. Triggerfish livers in particular are very good. Good fish liver may be treated exactly as chicken livers, though bear in mind the liver is a tiny bit more watery. Use them to finish rustic sauces for fish, or even as part of the protein in a mayonnaise.

OTHER ENTRAILS - two little words: tai pla. easy to make, easy to use, smells like death, tastes like heaven.

SKIN- Scaled skin is fried crisp and well salted. That is pretty much all that is needed (except for maybe an aioli). They make pretty good wrappers for containing all sorts of stuffings as well.

GALL BLADDER- Just like a pig, though the size of most fish makes gathering enough bile problematic. However, a large enough fish (10 lbs. and up) will yield enough bile for a small amount of sauce (which is more than enough- as they used to say, "a little dab will do you"). More on the wonders of gall bladder bile later...

HEADS- Some fish heads are best in soup (snapper, grouper, whitefish), while others seem intended for the grill (think tunas, mackerels, cobia). However, what about a more complex dish, where a head (or heads) was the focus of the dish (I am thinking of the Scottish Krappin Heid here)? Stuffed fish heads are the future.

BACKBONES If the fish butcher is competent, there will not be much meat left on the backbone (unless we're talking salmon, of course). However, properly treated, the dressed and cooked frames make an agreeable snack to be picked at by everyone at the table. I would suggest lightly battering the frames prior to frying.

fertilizer- When all edible possibilities have been exhausted, and you are left with nothing but gills, scales, and picked-over bones, then bury with dignity those remains. Might as well let the worms and ants have their shot too.

Look for the first installment- "Swim Bladders"- in the next few days.


  1. Amen.

    I like the guts too:

  2. Nice - can't wait to read more.