Sea Change

I often encourage everyone to buy whole chickens and bone-in cuts of meat because the bones–either trimmed off while still raw, or gathered after eating–allow the luxury of meat to be enjoyed again as stock later on. As I told a recent class I taught here, stock is the single most useful from-scratch ingredient one can have in the kitchen; it’s the easiest way to make your food better and more like things you pay big bucks for out in the world. And I used a shrimp shell reduction (to make paella-flavored fettucine) in that class to illustrate the point; crustacean shells are pure gold in the stock pot the next day. But when it comes to fin fish, I often buy fillets instead of whole fish. And that’s missing an opportunity. I had this epiphanette last night as I stood over a steaming pot of beautiful fish stock.

I took the black sea bass carcass that Gerard gave me at lunch on Tuesday (see previous post) and dropped it in a pot with carrot, leek, celery, parsley, fennel, onion, garlic, and ginger and filled it to cover with water. If I’d had some open white wine, it surely would have gone in, but I didn’t. In any case, the stock was richly flavored after about 45 minutes of gentle simmering. While it did so, I ground some grass-fed local beef stew meat with more garlic and ginger, then mixed in some sesame oil, soy sauce, and a drop of sudachi juice along with salt and pepper, and folded them into big wontons using the leftover skins from the lamb pops on Saturday (two posts back).

I strained about half the fish stock into a smaller pot and added diced black radish and some broccoli to cook until tender while I simmered the wontons and distributed them among the bowls. Stock and vegetables to cover, usukuchi shoyu to season, and a shake of togarashi for color and zip. The stock was wonderfully satisfying, and the strongly-seasoned beef inside the wontons offered an interesting contrast to the oceany flavors of the soup. This was a serious bowl of dinner, and it was made possible by one humble fish skeleton.

So I would encourage you to buy whole fish when possible. Obviously a tuna might be a tad unfeasible, but sea bass are an excellent size. Don’t be daunted by filleting a fish; it’s really easy and the worst thing that will happen is that your fillets will end up a bit raggedy the first time you try it. There are lots of demo videos on the YouTubes. Just make sure you have a sharp knife. If you do a hatchet job, just cut the fillets into pieces and cook them that way in a curry or stew or just broil them. Hell, do it that way anyhow; nobody will know. And you’ll have a head and skeleton that can easily make you a gallon of fragrant and inspiring stock that will make your next clam chowder a thing of sublime luxury. If you’re scared of filleting, just rinse the fish off, stuff some herbs in the cavity, and broil it whole. You can still use the skeleton exactly like you would use a roast chicken carcass.

My upcoming article is on whole-beast cookery, and fish are not exempt. Beyond the ethics of using the entire animal, the act of extracting quarts of culinary magic from a handful of bones is an absolute good: the presence of a few kinds of homemade stock in the freezer multiplies our dinner options by orders of magnitude. I’m going to buy clams tomorrow; the visions of chowder will torture me until I do.

5 comments to Sea Change

  • Love the photo of the fish in the stockpot – he’s gorgeous.

  • Huh. How do you keep your fish stock from turning the corner onto unbearably funky street. My attempts at fish stock (excluding shellfish) have been way overpowering. Is it the aromatics? Or the short cooking time? I should know how to do this but I have failed miserably at fish stock many times.

    That bass is masterfully filleted. Kudos to whoever did it.

  • Peter

    Zoomie: And delicious.

    Jacquie: I would say yes to both the aromatics and the short cooking time. Also, the super-freshness of the fish (which shouldn’t be a problem for you) and the low-temperature simmering. A fish is not like a beef bone; it doesn’t need hours and hours of cooking to give up its flavor.

  • It never occurred to me to make fish stock, although I do other kinds regularly. Thank you for this. I will have to keep my eyes open for a whole fish.

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I'm a painter who happens to also spend a lot of time growing, making, and writing about food. I'm particularly interested in the intersection of frugal peasant cooking techniques and haute improvisation. And I have a really great personality.

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