Let’s get one thing straight. If you’re looking for smut, cheap laughs, double entendre, innuendo, you’ve come to the wrong blog. This is a place for mature, sober examination of sensible food. Please enjoy. In moderation.
In my former life as a swashbuckling jazz musician, I used to undertake financially disastrous tours of Asia, swinging in on a chandelier anywhere I could secure a booking. Musically they weren’t much to write home about, but as foodie adventures, they couldn’t be beat. I inhaled gelatinous pig feet on the street in Beijing, soul saving Tom Yum soup in Bangkok, a whole tiny bird subdued in a bowl of noodles in Hanoi… In 2021, I have to settle for a stroll though 99 Ranch. A Taiwanese-American, California-based supermarket chain, the Ranch opened in my neighbourhood a couple of years ago and changed everything. Aisle after aisle of obscure, esoteric ingredients from all over Asia, each section smelling like a different country. I haven’t the faintest idea what to do with most of it, but it’s a great place to try something new.
I always linger in the fish department, checking out what’s flapping and squirting: live conchs, crates of grasping crabs, turd-like sea cucumbers, and a dizzying array of fish: live, dead, whole and in parts. As I walked by the other day, one of the guys was manfully decapitating a salmon, and I grabbed the fish by the horns.
A salmon head is a solid hunk of fish– mine weighed about 2½ pounds– and you really know you’re dealing with a formerly living, wriggling animal. This is easy to forget with fillets, but with those eyes looking up accusingly, teeth, tongue, and gills frozen mid-gulp, there’s no doubt this was a creature that until recently was as alive as I am. Although unluckier.
The fish man offered to cut it up for me, but I declined, wanting to have a crack myself. Next time I might take him up on it, because this is really the only tricky part. The recipe I’d settled on (perhaps foolishly- it was annoyingly vague) made no mention of removing gills, but fortunately I’d sought the advice of the always-reliable Hank Shaw, who set me straight: gills got to go (they’re not poisonous or anything, they just make your soup bitter.) I waded in with my chef’s knife, hacking away at cartilage and bone, the wet fish head slipping and sliding under my tentative grasp; I’m sure at one point the big guy rolled his eyes in exasperation. Eventually the gills came free, but it’s a miracle I still have the fingers to type this.
*For convenience sake, from here on I’ll refer to my fish head as “Dave.” I wouldn’t normally recommend giving ingredients a name, but a pun like Salmon Dave is impossible for me to resist. Honestly it’s the reason I bought it in the first place– normally I’m more of a Sole man.*
From here on it was plain sailing. I gave Dave a bath in Chinese wine, because that’s what I had. White wine or even beer would do. I know he was fresh, but he had a slight whiff of the fish market about him and a soak in booze will fix that. Besides, I planned to drown myself in wine and why should I have all the fun. Then I sweated some onions in a lot of butter– more is always better in this dish– slid in the fish, potatoes, a whole bunch of dill, bay leaves, salt, water, and let it simmer slowly for 15-20 minutes. Then the fun part.
I lifted the fish head out– gently, he was falling apart by this stage– put it in a bowl, and let it cool until I could handle it. Then separated edible from inedible. This is possibly the most pleasant ten minutes I’ve ever spent in the kitchen (aside from the time that gas leak gave me hallucinations.) So many different textures– solid chunks from the collar, surprising slabs of fat under the skin, bits of meat magically appearing from within ribs of cartilage, those cherished cheeks eagerly slipping out of their pockets– perfect little nubbins, firm but giving. And of course those gelatinous prize eyes. Returned the fish to the pot, in with the cream, checked for seasoning (ie added a handful of salt), more dill, lots of pepper, and we were done.
The resulting soup is deep and satisfying, all that delicious fat and collagen combined with the silky cream, the aromatic dill, earthy potatoes. And the fish– so many textures, intensely flavoured, some firm and meaty, some fatty and collapsing. I’ve got to admit I don’t love the eyes– is it the idea of them, or the obscenely jellyish texture? And you know that little hard bit is in there somewhere– but I eat them anyway (in for a penny etc). And those cheeks- they were worth the price of admission. Drink-wise, white wine will do the trick, but I went with a double stout, which complemented perfectly. Nourishing, warming, steadying– on a cold winter’s night, in a cozy kitchen, safe from the bitter wind and snow, I can’t think of a better way to show someone they’re loved than to give them some head.
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