If you’ve been following this series, you know that we recently took a closer look at eating fish heads. For many North Americans, an animal’s or fish’s head is the most intimidating part to eat, followed closely by organs.
However, thanks to authors like Steven Rinella and Josh Niland, more and more meateaters are cooking the tongues, livers, and hearts from their kills. In fact, such recipes have become so popular it’s now common practise to pack out game organs with the rest of the meat. I believe we should apply this same open-mindedness to the fish we catch. My reasoning extends beyond responsibility and respect for the animal. Fish tend to have the cleanest of animal organs, and they’re packed with nutrients. They also happen to taste delicious!
The assumption that fish entrails will taste overwhelmingly “fishy” plays a major role in the common reluctance to eat the whole fish. This misconception is easily put into perspective when compared to other animals—elk livers don’t taste like elk, chicken hearts don’t taste like chicken, and fish offal doesn’t taste like fish. Organs will, however, take on a “fishy” smell if they aren’t fresh, or if they’ve come into contact with water after removal. In Part One of this series, I addressed the importance of dry handling fish offal, and I recommend reading it as a refresher before proceeding with any of the recipes below.
A fish’s liver makes up a large part of its body weight—some even weigh as much as the filets themselves! Sydney chef Josh Niland believes fish livers are a great starting place for people who are looking to try fish offal.
“Even though we’ve normalised meat liver into general consumption, there’s still this fear of fish liver. I mean, there’s still fear around fish fillets—so it’s a huge hurdle for most people to wrap their head around,” Niland said.
Niland and his team use liver in a number of recipes, but he is exceptionally partial to using it in pâté, foie gras, and terrine. But don’t let the fancy French words hang you up; many of these are as simple as blending a few fish livers with butter and some spice—then spreading the delicious mixture on crackers or toast.
Like livers, fish hearts are a great starting-point organ for curious chefs. Personally, I ate my first fish heart raw out of a fresh Chinook while hanging out on the dock of a fishing lodge on B.C.’s Haida Gwaii Island. I’m going to go on record and say that fish hearts should be cooked first—just as the rest of the MeatEater crew would say about their deer or elk hearts.
Niland emphasized that hearts are best cooked as fresh as possible. His restaurant threads them onto a skewer and then grills them over charcoal. He avoids using direct heat on any oxygenated, lean organs like hearts because “they go really tough—kind of like an overcooked chicken heart.” Make sure to keep them well away from the coals.
The skewer method results in a smoky, medium rare, tender chunk of meat that Niland describes as “buttery.” He and his team also salt, smoke, and grate the hearts as a smoky seasoning for vegetables, meats, and sauces.
I first ate cow intestine when I was in Argentina. A delicacy there, the Argentines fought for it around the table—while I fought back a dry-heave as a wad of grass brushed against my tongue. Thankfully, Niland has a delicious recipe for thoroughly cleaned fish intestines. When I asked him which intestine recipe first came to mind, he immediately answered, “Carbonara.”
Josh purges and rids the intestines of any contents and acids by washing then brining in a salt solution for seven days. At the end of the week, he then steams the intestines in olive oil until they’re tender, and then cuts them up to resemble penne or macaroni. He tops the “pasta” with swordfish bacon, butter, and egg yolk. If you don’t have swordfish bacon on hand, any ol’ pasta topping will do just fine.
“It’s pure texture and mildly fish tasting,” he described.
Josh said that the “pasta” method works on both fresh and saltwater fish, but that fish upwards of a kilo (two pounds or so) are ideal. He’s also adamant that fish intestines must be in excellent condition if they’re going to be used for consumption.
Niland cooks the stomach using a process similar to the intestines. He cuts the stomach out near the gills, and then purges it of any impurities by brining for a week. He washes it to remove the salt, then vacuum packs it in a bag with olive oil and steams it for to 35 minutes in an oven set to 85 degrees. From here, he chills and slices the stomach for use in a variety of recipes.
“Once you’ve got the stomach cooked and it’s tender and delicious and texturally wonderful, it’s literally like Pandora’s Box,” Niland said. “Tripe and onion, tripe and bacon, tripe and chorizo, there are endless possibilities once you know what you’re doing. I even made stomach rings [onion ring style] out of them the other day.”
It’s important to note that the stomach can contain worms and parasites, so it’s absolutely critical that the stomach is brined and examined before human consumption.
Eating air bladders is not a new concept. Historically, cod bladders were salted, boiled, and added to stews. They’re not overly strong in flavour and are slightly gelatinous in texture. In some cultures, the bladder is the most prized of the organs, with some species under threat because of illegal trading.
Josh and his team make a bladder chip by blanching in water or stock until the bladders soften and turn translucent. Then they lay the bladders out on parchment paper to dry.
“Once it’s completely dry, it should be like glass. It should be see-through,” Niland said. “From here, snap a piece of it off, drop it into really hot oil, and then fry it until it’s four times its original size and looks like a bubble.”
I have yet to gut a fish with obvious visceral fat engulfing its organs. Niland put it in perspective for me when he explained that visceral fat is more common in farmed fish, but does occur in some well-fed wild fish. He uses the fat (known as caul fat in mammals) in place of butter. He renders and strains it through filter paper, then whisks it over ice. The result is a white fluffy butter that is perfect in desserts, sauces, and countless other recipes.
When I mentioned venison meatballs wrapped in caul fat, he excitedly told me of a dish they were currently serving in his restaurant: “We’ve aged a yellowfin tuna loin in a light cure and then wrapped it in bass grouper fat. We’ve trussed it and hung it up in our charcuterie cabinet.”
By the time I hung up the phone with Niland, my mouth was watering and my mind reeling. I instantly regretted every carcass and string of innards that I’d mindlessly tossed to seagulls over the years. I hope this installment of “Nostril to Caudal” might save you from feeling that same regret. If nothing else, I hope it’s inspired you to think a little differently about how you process your next fish.
Be sure to tune in next week when I cover Niland’s liver recipe!