Fresh fish heads test frugal cook’s resolve

According to the old adage “waste not, want not,” taking extra time and expending a bit more effort in my kitchen have become almost second nature.

Yet I still had to plumb the depths of my brain — foggy at 7 a.m. — to decide if I really wanted to make stock out of salmon heads.

Arriving directly from the Rogue River a few miles away, a friend had just landed two gorgeous spring chinook, one promised to my husband. Quickly cleaning and filleting the incomparably fresh fish, Will apparently appraised the heads and bones through my appreciative eye. He knows that hardly a bone goes into our kitchen trash before its essence has been extracted in the stockpot.

It was the salmon’s essence that concerned me, that stench peculiar to fish skin, fins, gills and innards that is so difficult to wipe from one’s hands after wrangling a fish into a boat and dispatching it. Never mind purposely boiling up the offending bits. Even the Great Depression, which previous generations of my mom’s family weathered by fishing and birding in Coos Bay, hadn’t yielded stories of salmon soup.

But priding myself on fearlessness in the kitchen and confidence that I could make almost anything palatable, I gamely told Will to load the heads and bones into our largest stockpot and fill it with water; I would deal with it in a couple of hours.

A toothed maw and glassy eye confronted me when I lifted the pot lid at a more civilized hour. Shuddering for just a second, I got to work rounding up carrots, onion, fennel stalks and spices for the brew. I set it to simmer after briefly lamenting that the pot wasn’t larger. Attempting to submerge the heads with tongs tested my resolve a bit.

A couple of hours later, the smell of roasted salmon infused the upper floor of my house while the kitchen, itself, smelled more like the inside of a fishing vessel’s icebox. The heads, predictably, eluded my attempts to grasp them with tongs and disintegrated into the oil-flecked liquid, splashing the stovetop and counter.

I eventually got the stock strained, portioned and stored in the freezer, the remains consigned to the trash can outside. But my kitchen sink retained the evidence of salmon-sullied utensils for days afterward and numerous applications of baking soda and lemons.

Needing some time and space from the episode, I spent several weeks racking my brain for a suitable use for the stock. The answer arrived in the form of Salmon Bisque, a recipe recently published by the Los Angeles Times. As salmon stock is almost unheard of in commercial form, the original recipe — posted below — calls for bottled clam juice, along with chunks of fresh salmon.

My stock, of course, stood in for the clam juice. And because I didn’t have leeks on hand, I used a combination of fennel and celery and cremini mushrooms for the button mushrooms. Because the stock, itself, is so rich, I swapped half-and-half for the cream, also reducing the quantity of dairy. Lacking fresh dill, as well, I garnished the finished soup with fresh chives.

Raving over the results last night, Will no doubt thought his suggestion to salvage salmon heads was more than justified. I just hope fishing season runs its course before we again feel the need to be so frugal.

MCT photo

Salmon Bisque

1⁄4 cup salted butter

1 cup sliced leeks

1 cup sliced white mushrooms

1 tablespoon minced garlic

2 3⁄4 cups (22 ounces) clam juice

2 cups crushed tomatoes

1⁄4 cup chopped fresh parsley

1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill, plus fresh sprigs for garnish

1⁄2 teaspoon salt

1⁄4 teaspoon pepper

2 cups cubed fresh salmon (boned and cut into 1⁄2-inch cubes), about 1 1⁄2 pounds

2 tablespoons flour

2 cups heavy cream

Heat a heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat until hot. Add the butter, and, when it is melted, stir in the leeks, mushrooms and garlic. Cook, stirring frequently, until leeks are translucent and soft.

Stir in the clam juice, crushed tomatoes, chopped parsley and dill; season with the salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer, then stir in the salmon. Continue to simmer until salmon is fully cooked, for 3 to 5 minutes.

While soup is cooking, whisk the flour into the heavy cream in a small bowl. Slowly add cream to soup when salmon is cooked. Continue to simmer until thickened, about 5 minutes.

Ladle soup into bowls and serve garnished with the dill sprigs. Makes 4 to 8 servings.

— Recipe adapted by the Los Angeles Times from Robin’s Restaurant in Cambria, Calif.

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    Sarah Lemon

    Sarah Lemon covers the Rogue Valley’s food scene with an enthusiasm that rivals her love of cooking. Her blog mixes culinary musings and milestones with tips and recipes you won’t find in the Mail Tribune’s weekly A la Carte section. When ... Read Full
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