I am going to say it. I do not like cooking fish. I barely like eating cooked fish, but I really, truly, honestly dislike cooking fish. Unlike most things that I don’t like to do, I do not feel like fish cookery is something that I need to get past. I am perfectly happy honoring the mighty fish by fire by leaving it to the experts. However, one project by the amazing “Ideas in Food” crew that caught my attention despite it involving me cooking fish was making fish head cheese.
The name alone is completely off-putting, but the idea appeals to me as much in its thrift as its use of my favorite parts of the fish – the collar and cheeks. After a great experience making coppa di testa and a not-so-great experience making a terrine of mutton’s head, I was batting .500 in my animal head terrine making, so this way no sure thing, but it is something that I had not seen before and wanted to give it a shot.
Living both far away from the sea and away from my favorite fisherman, my father, left me headless, but as I sped through the market this weekend on my weekly trip, I asked the fish guy if he had any heads in the back. He brought out two red snapper head/carcass combos. I would have preferred an oiler fish, such as salmon, tilefish or mackerel, but when you are begging for fish heads in Chicago, you can not really act like you are looking for something in particular.
Besides the breed of fish, the other downfall was that the entire kit and caboodle was frozen. I understand that fresh doesn’t always mean fresh and that frozen doesn’t alway mean worse than fresh, but I knew that the fish was caught, likely frozen immediately, thawed for butchery, and then refrozen. Not ideal, but at a remarkably low (no) price, I had a good point at which to start.
After thawing the snapper, I brined it for an hour in 5% solution. This time in the brine gave me time to consider flavors. Snapper, to me, reminds me of summer nights eating whole roasted fish with Mexican flavors or better yet, ceviche with copious citrus and chili. I had some young garlic, fresno chilis, and limes on hand. I minced the garlic (both green and white parts) and the chili and zested and juiced the lime. This was the genesis for queso de pescado.
After cooking the snapper in a low temperature water bath until the visible areas of meat were just cooked through, I removed the fish from the bag and pulled the flesh from the bone being careful to remove any bones and skin. Once adding the flesh to the garnishes/flavorings, I tasted the mixture and re-seasoned with lime and salt. The fish was packed into cling wrap lined ramekins, weighed down, and chilled in the fridge overnight.
Once I pulled the ramekins from the fridge, the achy feeling that the terrines did not set came over me. There are good times to be right and there are better times to be wrong. I am glad to be wrong in this instance as the terrines sliced nicely and the pattern of different textures of the snapper’s head was familiar, oddly, when compared to the pig’s and lamb’s head.
Since the snapper is so light when compared to pork or lamb, instead of a sharp mustard or pickle, I stuck with the Mexican theme and made a thin salsa from lime, fresh tomatillo, onion, and cilantro and used in in the same way as mustard would be used with accompanying a richer head cheese.
The texture on the queso de pescado is very cool. Like a mammalian head cheese, you get firm, soft, and everything in between, but with the little flecks of sharp chili and garlic, you have a little different punch. The brightness from the lime brings an almost ceviche like flavor despite the texture being far more varied than the similarly cold fish dish.
This project was a hoot. It was fun and delicious, but it was kind of like giving your dog his medicine by burying it in a hot dog. I love making terrines and working with odd bits, so this fit the bill, but it did not even edge me towards loving, or even liking, to cook fish. That may be a challenge to my reader(s). Make it fun.