One of my favorite things to do is to walk away with an armload of “garbage” and turn it into gold. Fish stock is a great luxury and a classic lesson in “waste not, want not,” especially when our local fishmonger is generous with his trimmings. I can walk into his tiny store just about any afternoon and walk out with a bag of fish heads and frames to use as a base for soup and chowder. Like shopping for anything seasonal and regional, you need to be flexible. An ideal fish for a versatile stock will be a white-fleshed fish like haddock or cod. However, one day I received salmon and another, bluefish. The resulting chowders were highly specific to the characteristics and flavors of those fish.
Last weekend, I scored big on white fish. There was a sparkle in the eye of the store’s fishmonger-of-the-day when I asked for fish trimmings and he was in the midst of carving a sizeable cod hand-caught somewhere between the Bay of Maine and Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Even the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the be-all-end-all of fish watchdogs, would approve. A wink and a nod later, I walked out of the store past a line of customers with their jaws dropped over the enormity (and maybe appearance) of what I was carrying in a clear plastic bag. I think the fishmongers like to dish out daunting tasks, but know that I am intrepid. The great thing about this catch is that there’s usually enough flesh on the bones to make a fulfilling soup or chowder. However, given the generosity of the store and its place in our community, I always purchase some of the fish whose bones I got for free. It’s just fair.
That afternoon, I spent an hour or so cleaning the fish and preparing a strong fish stock. Cleaning is important, since you want to rid your fish of all traces of blood, and if you have a fish head, you need to remove the gills. In addition, for this fish, I also used a thin flexible-bladed boning knife to extract meat for my chowder.
I make fish stock two ways. The first is analogous to making chicken stock: place the fish bones in water (preferably with a little white wine), and bring to a boil, skimming off the foam. Reduce the heat to simmer the liquid and add aromatics, such as onions, celery, carrots and parsley, plus whole peppercorns and a little salt. This cooks to perfection in 20 minutes.
The other method produces what Jasper White calls “Strong Fish Stock.” Jasper White, if you don’t know him, is a seafood genius from New England. Having spent a good part of my life in Massachusetts, I appreciate what he has to say in books like 50 Chowders. I think I’ve cooked about 25 so far, most of which are variations on a method. So-called strong fish stock is made in several gentle stages: sweat (slowly cook) onions, celery, carrots, herbs in a large pot for 8 minutes; add white wine, stack the fish heads and frames on top and sweat them until the bones turn white, 10-15 minutes; cover with water and simmer for 10 minutes; turn off the heat and let the mixture sit for 10 minutes; carefully decant. That’s it. Other than cleaning any residual meat from the bones.
My big cod yielded not only enough raw meat for chowder but also enough cooked meat for fish cakes. Two full four-person meals from the trash, and 3 quarts of fish stock for the freezer. Not to mention that fish bones can be pretty good for composting, but don’t get me started.
This particular chowder is a variation on classic New England chowder, made with abundant celery and celery leaves, and generally follows Jasper White’s method.
Strong Fish Stock, adapted from Jasper White, 50 Chowders
1 tbsp unsalted butter
2 medium onions, very thinly sliced
4 stalks celery, very thinly sliced
2 medium carrots, very thinly sliced
2 bay leaves
¼ c roughly chopped parsley stems and leaves
6 large sprigs thyme
2 tbsp black peppercorns
1 large (6”) or 2 small fish heads (cod or haddock), cleaned of blood and gills removed
2-3 lbs fish frames (bones), cut into 4-inch pieces and cleaned of blood
½ c white wine
About 2 qts very hot or boiling water
Melt the butter in a large saucepan or stockpot over medium heat. Add the onions, celery, carrots, bay leaves, parsley and thyme and cook slowly, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is soft, about 8 minutes.
Place the fish head and then the bones on top of the vegetables. Add the wine to the pot, cover it and let the fish bones sweat until they turn white, about 10-15 minutes.
Meanwhile, bring water to a boil in a quantity sufficient to cover the fish mixture. Add enough barely to cover the bones and bring the mixture to a simmer. Cook for about 10 minutes, skimming off any foam that rises to the surface. (Hint: push a shallow ladle or skimmer in a circular motion to the edges of the pot.)
Remove the pot from the heat, cover it, and let the mixture steep for 10 minutes.
Gently remove the fish and vegetables from the liquid and strain it. Cool thoroughly before refrigerating or freezing. This lasts for about 3 days in the refrigerator and a couple of months in the freezer.
New England-Style Fish Chowder with Celery inspired by Jasper White
2 tbsp chopped meaty salt pork
Vegetable oil or butter
1 medium onion, cut into ½-inch pieces
1-2 stalks celery, cut into ¼-inch slices, leaves reserved
1½ tsp fresh thyme leaves (or use summer savory)
1 lb Yukon gold or other white potatoes, peeled and cut in ½-inch dice
2-3 c fish stock
¾-1 lb white fish such as cod or haddock
½- ¾c half and half (or use heavy cream)
Salt and pepper
2-3 tbsp chopped celery leaves
1 tbsp chopped parsley leaves (optional)
In a large pot over low heat, sauté the salt pork until it renders its fat. Increase the heat slightly and cook the salt pork until brown. Remove the salt pork to a towel to crisp, leaving the fat in the pot. (Pour off excess.)
Add the oil or butter to the pot and stir in the onions, celery and thyme or savory, cooking over medium heat until the vegetables are soft.
Add the potatoes and enough stock to cover them completely. You can add water if you do not have enough stock. Bring the liquid to a boil, lower the heat to medium-high and cover the pot. Cook the potatoes vigorously until just tender, about 8-10 minutes. Smash a few potatoes against the side of the pot to release the starches and slightly thicken the chowder (this cuts down on the temptation to add a lot of cream!).
Add the fish, salt and pepper, and most of the celery leaves and cook over low heat for 5 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat and stir in the half-and-half or cream. Let it sit, covered, for 10 minutes, covered. (The fish will continue to cook.)
When ready to serve, heat the chowder over low heat, stir in the reserved salt pork, additional celery leaves, and parsley if using.