Fish Heads, Fish Heads!

18 May

Dear Zoe, 

While you’re off in the seat of government perfecting strawberry cake, I’ve been at an only sort-of-grown-up version of summer camp, but with beer–finishing my big epic poem about drag queens, oceans and paradise, and being only occasionally helpful to Beck in planning this wedding. Wish you were here bigtime, and soon you will be. When you gals arrive there’s going to be some kind of explosion of birdsong and endorphins raining from the sky. Looking forward to it.


So the poets and wedding planners alike have been quitting work around eight pm and making dinner together, and being that we’re in cape cod, that the pond right outside is stocked with bass and trout, and that both Chris and I have this sort of weird kill and eat drive that makes me look askance at the little grey squirrels, fish is on the menu as often as possible. Chris, who is a poet/fiction writer/ computer whisperer/ google-obsessed info-gatherer, has memorized the best spots in the pond for depth and therefore larger fish, has perfected his night-crawler gathering and identified the ideal size of worm, has been manfully heaving the boat into the pond every evening and rowing out, and has therefore caught several fish, four of them edibly sized and all of them delicious, golden scaled bass (and a few little pumpkin seed). I, being flakey and sometimes lucky, caught a monster two-foot trout from the shore on day one and haven’t caught anything since, because I can’t be bothered to change my lure or my line length (sometimes this is a problem in poetry too — how many tens of pages of four-foot rhyming stanzas of flashy compound adjectives can the average reader really take?).

So! This is a post about self-caught fish. There are lots of advice pages out there on how to catch them, but as you can gather from the above, I’m not qualified to add to them. What I can tell you is what we do once we’ve caught them, which is clean them IMMEDIATELY! Otherwise they tend to get too-firm and fishy-tasting as the gills and guts make for quicker rotting. A brick bash to the head over the eye is the quickest and therefore kindest way to kill the fish, so have one handy. When that’s done, quickly scale the fish with a butter knife, cleaning it all over, then make an incision on the bottom of the fish just behind the jaw and draw all the way back to the tail. This will open up a body cavity into which you can reach with a couple of fingers and tear out the whole package of guts, pulling it out by grasping the little connecting organ from inside the head. After that’s done we rinse the fish, then fillet them with a sharp knife, by holding them down at the tail, and cutting in and upward towards the head (here’s a great youtube video to show you how – and note how sharp his knife is, a sort-of sharp knife is really dangerous, sharp enough to cut you but dull enough that you have to put a lot of force on it, and it can slip and cut you with all that force). We’ve made the fillets in two ways so far. One is covered with a sort of walnut pesto, with fresh basil, parmesan, garlic, olive oil, lemon and walnuts chopped in a food processor and spread thickly on the fish, which, since they were smallish bass fillets we cooked in the oven at 450 for about thirteen minutes until the pesto on top browned and the fish was no-longer translucent. Another way we cooked the fillets was to spread them with a mixture of onions, garlic, dijon mustard, olive oil, lemon, lots of black pepper and a little white wine and/or sliced green peppers if you’ve got it. I packed these fillets in tinfoil and either baked them in the oven for fifteen minutes or so (they were a bit bigger) or put them on the barbecue in their tinfoil packets for about the same amount of time. Make sure there’s plenty of oil so that they don’t stick too much to the foil.

The even more exciting part, for the waste-obsessed hunter-gatherer, is fish broth. For this I started with a recipe from serious eats. Basically I simplified it a bit, just throwing the bones and heads into the oil and frying them on each side for a minute or two with giant chunks of ginger or whole lightly crushed garlic cloves and as soon as they’re fried a little, I add a whole bunch of water and salt and a little light-flavored vinegar (as per the recipe) like rice or white wine, bring it to a boil, then turn the heat down and simmer it for hours until the broth has reduced by at least half, or anyway become broth, and the fish parts have fallen to bits. I strain it into a container and keep it in the fridge, where it becomes a gel over the next day, or I freeze it. We’ve made tons of good stuff with the broth so far, including black beans, a sort-of-minestrone, curry, and risotto. My original contribution to the fishbroth recipe book, wherever it may be, is barley risotto, recipe below.

Barlotto (or whatever):


1 cup of rinsed pearl barley

2.5 cups fish broth

Cook as directed on the barley package (bring to a boil, put on low heat and cover for about 45 minutes)


one whole zucchini, diced into little cubes.

a half a large or a whole small can of plum tomatoes

an enormous handful of dill

black pepper

juice of a lemon or half a lemon, depending on the tanginess of the broth and tomatoes

turn the heat back up to medium and cook this, stirring, until the zucchini are tender and the flavors have combined. Add a bit of white wine and a handful of parmesan cheese before serving. It’s fishy, it’s dilly, it’s great.

Your reward for reading to the end.


One Response to “Fish Heads, Fish Heads!”

  1. liz May 18, 2011 at 4:43 pm #

    I’m so sorry, my dear nina friend,

    but I simply cannot get Gollum out of my head as I read your post. (wriggling and raw) Which is terrifying because I honestly believe he is the most deeply frightening character in Lord of the Rings.

    On the other hand, I certainly hope to participate in this endeavor in a short week.


    your always, and always up for one of your adventures,

    PS – Neverthelesshoweversoonandsoforth, the prize at the end made up for it. Did you notice Bill PAXTON directed and co-stared?

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