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Fish Stock, even for the faint of heart

Alexander Andriaenssen, still life

Alexander Andriaenssen, still life

Snout to tail—the act of cooking and eating every part of an animal—has grown in popularity, a natural step in ethical and holistic food movements. Restaurants have grown aware that choosing only the cuts of meat that fit recipes leaves the farmer with the rest of an animal to sell. A small farm likely can’t keep up with the demand for all the meat of a restaurant if they are providing solely chicken breast or bacon.

There is a complementing movement to reduce food waste. Depending on who is calculating, somewhere around half of all food in the world is wasted, which means we can be faced with fear of food shortages. Food waste also releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas, when it breaks down in landfills. Using as much of an animal as possible, and eliminating waste, is one tasty solution to the problem.

Broth and stock are simple throwback methods of putting odd cuts of meat and especially bones to good use. Classically trained chefs and commercial food producers typically refer to stock as deriving from bones cooked for a long time and broth as lighter in color and flavor derived from simmering meat over a shorter period of time. I will refer to stock but don’t get too caught up on these terms because they are being used interchangeably today.

Homemade stock is soothing to the soul and has health benefits not found in can or box broth. The bones release gelatin and collagen from the animal. You will know these compounds are present if your stock becomes gelatinous when cooled. Including animal parts with plenty of joints in your stock creation helps ensure it. Minerals and amino acids are also present in a good home-made broth.

Screenshot, LA Times

Screenshot, LA Times

The technique is simple, but the flavors produced are complex and the options for variation are infinite. Unfortunately, the time to make a stock can feel infinite as well. The guys at Rocky Mountain Ramen off 287 and Arapahoe use beef femurs and go 24 hours to make the base for their soups.

The first step in making fish stock is the ingredients. You can stride up to your fishmonger and ask them for bones or heads and they would likely head back to the walk-in freezer and find you something. They may also chop the head off a snapper like Traci did for me at Alfalfa’s fish counter. I especially like fish heads. Some of you may be squeamish about looking your dinner in the eye, but if you can get past this you pay a lot less for some of the best meat on the fish. After you have secured your bones it is time to collect veggies. What you want to include can vary with what you have handy and your whims, but onions, garlic, carrots, and celery are standard. You can adjust the cultural influences by adding ginger, turmeric, hot or sweet peppers, or seaweed.

Now it is time to get to cooking, find a pot that will fit all your ingredients and still leave plenty of room for water. Put everything into the pot, fill it with water until the bones and veggies are almost covered. A tablespoon of lemon juice or apple cider vinegar may be added to help break down the bones and tissues and to balance the fat. The pot goes on the stove on high until it begins to boil, then turned down to a simmer.

I hate to just cook the meat and throw it away, so I have devised a strategy that involves simmering the heads until the meat is fully cooked. Then they are pulled out with tongs or a spider (this is the tool that looks like a small wire basket with a long handle).  After cooling enough to be safe, I pull off the meat from around the collar area of the fish. Put that aside and then throw the boney parts back into the pot to simmer for another hour.  After the bones have finished, strain.

This stock can be turned into a soup or stew right away by adding cut up potatoes and greens and cooking until tender. Return the fish meat right before serving, garnish with parsley or chives.

If you choose to save the stock it is important to cool it quickly before moving it to a sealable container and into the refrigerator. The sink can be filled part way with cool water and then the bowl of stock can be carefully set into this cool water. Stir the broth until the temp lowers to at least room temp. Store the stock in the refrigerator for up to a week or freeze and store for at least a year… or until you annoy those you live with. Happy eating, my fishy friends. 

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