This is the third installment in a three-part series asking readers to take a fresh look at carp despite their lowly reputation. Part One covered the history of carp in North America. Part Two explained how to find and catch carp using a variety of methods. This installment describes several ways to prepare them for the table.
When I lived in Iowa, I frequently fished for carp in a large reservoir. One day while wading the shoreline, my feet tangled in a large net. When I pulled it in to free myself, I was surprised to find dozens of carp pulsing in the woven strands. Assuming it was the work of poachers, I called the DNR. To my surprise, I learned it was perfectly legal. In fact, the game warden told me a commercial fishing operation was netting hundreds of thousands of pounds of carp each year and shipping them to New York City and Los Angeles for sale in fish markets.
The discovery rekindled a childhood memory. My grandparents used to take me to a restaurant in Nebraska called Joe Tess Place where we would order a bucket of fried carp at the drive-through and pig out on the way home. I hold a distinct memory of licking the sticky coating left behind by the carp’s gelatinous tissue off my fingers.
I’d spent several years fishing for carp but had never tried cooking one. After finding the net, I wanted to find out if carp was actually as good as I remembered. After a bit of research, I gave my next carp the royal treatment. I scaled it, filleted it and removed the blood line, then I threw the fillets on the grill with some salt, pepper and a pat of butter. When they were cooked, my wife and I hesitantly tucked in. After the first bite we both agreed it was delicious, albeit bony. Since then I have found several tasty ways to prepare carp that avoid the bones.
Consider the Carp
This isn’t an article about making carp tolerable. Carp aren’t an acquired taste. The concept of eating them is an acquired idea. Cultural prejudice against carp runs deep, but for those who overcome the bias, (and the judgement of neighbors, friends and family) carp are just another fish fit for a stringer.
Every good cook knows the most important part of making a dish delicious is starting with good, simple ingredients. Be selective about which fish you decide to cook, and take care of them in preparation for the table.
Carp contain fewer toxins than similarly sized fish because of their omnivorous diet of mollusks, insects and vegetation. The term “bottom feeder” has negative connotations, but carp from clean water are actually safer to eat than most gamefish.
When I lived in Ontario, fish consumption guidelines were stricter for salmon and lake trout than they were for carp of the same size. The same is true in water bodies across the U.S. I avoid large specimens of any species—big fish contain more toxins—and won’t keep a carp over 15 pounds.
Select fish from a clean body of water. Carp from turbid or polluted waterways will take on characteristics of their environment—polluted and smelly—just as walleye or bass would in the same water.
Take proper care of your fish. Kill carp immediately with a quick blow to the head and slit the gills to bleed the meat. If you can’t ice the fish immediately, keep it in a live well or on a stringer, but keep in mind, the longer the fish is stressed, the more the meat will degrade.
Frying, Pickling, Poaching
While carp figure prominently into the history of haute cuisine, they don’t require complicated recipes to make them appetizing, quite the opposite. Simple preparations that highlight the quality of the fish are best. While there are hundreds of carp recipes, I’m going to focus on three that are particularly suited to carp: frying, pickling and poaching.
If you’ve never eaten carp, start with frying. There is a reason I loved them so much as a kid; the crispy white fillets are a perfect compliment to coleslaw, watermelon and other fish fry staples. Back when we got them from Joe Tess Place, I always wondered why the pieces resembled the bellows of an accordion, and therein lies the secret. Scoring the carp in ¼-inch intervals allows hot oil to penetrate the flesh and cook out the Y-bones.
I learned how to clean and score carp from fellow Nebraskan, Stan Krause. A self-described “meat-eating son of a gun,” Krause grew up eating whatever he could hunt, trap or catch. With his unique method, you can make quick work of several carp and end up with enough fish to feed a crowd. Keep in mind the rib bones will still be present, but it’s easy to work around them.
Pickling solves the dreaded Y-bone problem. To pickle carp, fillet them like any other fish, cut a small V down the center of each fillet to remove the blood line (it contains most of the oil and blood in the fillet), and cut the meat into one-inch cubes. Throw the cubed carp into the freezer for 48 hours to kill any potential parasites in the meat (as you would with any other fish before pickling). After the fish has been in the freezer for a couple days, follow the pickling recipe of your choice.
The pickling process dissolves the Y-bones, and you’re left with briny pieces of firm, white fish that are excellent on a toasted piece of rye bread with butter, red onion, fresh dill and a cold beer. Keep in mind this method only works on smaller fish. Again, be selective with what you decide to keep.
Poaching, the culinary term for cooking something by simmering it in liquid, is a good way to deal with any bony fish. The liquid can be anything from broth, to milk, to beer, to wine, to plain water. Just like when you slow-cook a roast, poaching fish causes the flesh to flake away from the bones.
I simmer carp in a mixture of milk and white wine until it is barely cooked and then separate the meat from the bones. The flesh should flake when gently pressed. This requires a bit of work, but the results are worth it. When done right, the fish is tender and almost melts on your tongue. Take note, you can achieve similar results by smoking carp. When finished, you’ll have a pile of delicious, flaked meat ready for fish cakes, quenelles, fish tacos or anything else you can dream up.
An All-American Fish
As previously mentioned, carp have a long culinary history throughout the world. Monks cultivated them for food in the Middle Ages. Izaak Walton, one of fishing’s forefathers, included a recipe for carp in his “Compleat Angler” more than 350 years ago. Carp fell from fashion in America and may be poised for a revival. The University of Illinois recently started serving thousands of pounds of carp in its student dining halls and the fish has caught on with students. Not so long ago, lobsters were considered a sea insect fit only for prisoners. As American anglers catch on to this local source of protein, maybe carp will experience a similar turnaround.
I hope this series helps you see carp in a new light. As Americans, we’re partial to underdogs. What’s more American than an immigrant rising to prominence? Carp have made their home in American waters and they are here to stay. It’s high time we welcome them as nationalized citizens. Give me your wretched, your maligned, your demonized, the refuse of your teeming shore—and I will eat them.