Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Salmon Head Soup

"When the buffalo are gone, we will eat mice, for we are hunters and must have our freedom." - Chief Sitting Bull

Wouldn't you know the day I forget my camera is the day my boy catches his first salmon off the beach—on a Snoopy rod no less. (The photo at left is his second salmon off the beach, taken the next day. He's looking a little more blasé about the whole thing.)

Riley let out a whoop when the fish hit his lure, and I'm sure I probably thought it was a false alarm, some weeds or a bottom snag. But then I saw the Snoopy rod doubled over. Next came the yelling and screaming and carrying on. Other anglers on the beach interrupted their casts to take notice of the commotion. I ran over and set up a station behind the boy, making sure the fish didn't rip the rod right out of his grip. He reeled and kept the tip up like a pro. Pretty soon the fish was in the surf and I figured for sure it would break the line. But Riley held on and pulled that salmon right up onto the beach. The kid knows what to do.

We ate the fillets in two sittings. The heads I saved for something special.

My kids are big soup eaters. Because we live near Seattle's International District, at a tender age they discovered noodle houses and the "subtle yet profound" pleasures of an Asian noodle soup, as one blogger has jokingly put it, parroting cooking shows like "Iron Chef." These soups are so tasty and cheap that I never really considered trying to make my own before, but after reading Hank Shaw's post on the "nasty bits" of fish, I just had to give it a shot. Besides, we're fishermen here at FOTL. When the salmon are gone I suppose we'll fish sculpin; in the meantime we can do honor to our catch by eating every last morsel.

I haven't cooked many fish head soups. None in fact. Luckily we have the Interwebs from which to draw on a nearly bottomless well of inspiration. Two recipes in particular, in addition to Hank's, informed my final improvisation: [eating club] vancouver's Mama's Fish Head Soup is home cooking at its best, and gave me the courage to use canned Szechuan prepared vegetables; a column by Steve Barnes from Albany, N.Y.'s Times Union convinced me that the double-strain was the way to go, and that aromatics such as green onions and cilantro would give the broth extra depth when applied after the first straining.

The advice was good. I have to say, if you'll allow me, this soup was every bit as good as soups I've had in the I-District. Those of little faith might get spooked during the proceedings, especially when the salmon heads are rolling around in there with the leeks and other stuff, going to pieces and spraying their bones about willy-nilly. But that's what the strainer is for. Ever glanced into the kitchen of a back alley noodle house? Not a good idea. But all the crazy stuff going into that bubbling cauldron will eventually get strained out, leaving—yes—a subtle yet profound broth in its place.

Hank's Salmon Head Soup is in the Japanese tradition. We like that—but my kids are most enthusiastic about the many varieties of Chinese noodle soup, so I went down to Uwajimaya to see what ingredients I could dig up. Sure enough, they had the sketchy can of Szechuan prepared vegetables (some sort of radish, I think). I also got some udon noodles, our nod to the Japanese style. Here are the ingredients in full:

2-3 salmon heads, cut in half
2 tbsp peanut or vegetable oil
1 tsp sesame oil (optional)
1 3-inch thumb of ginger, peeled and sliced
2 leeks, tops discarded, chopped
4 green onions, chopped
4-5 cloves garlic, chopped
2 Thai red peppers, thinly sliced
Chinese cooking wine
2 tbsp fish sauce (optional)
rice vinegar (optional)
aji-mirin (optional)
1 can Szechuan prepared vegetable (optional)
1 can bamboo shoots
1/2 head Napa cabbage, shredded
1 handful cilantro for garnish, stemmed, with stems reserved
1 package Asian noodles (e.g., udon, soba, ramen)

Despite the long list and the double strain, this is actually a fairly easy soup to make without the sort of pitfalls that can bedevil other soup recipes.

1. Over medium-high heat, brown fish heads and ginger in oil for a few minutes, turning at least once. De-glaze pot with a splash of wine and add chopped leeks, garlic, and half the green onions and red peppers. Saute together for several minutes.

2. De-glaze pot again with another splash of wine, then add 8 cups of water and optional fish sauce. Bring to a light boil, reduce heat, and simmer for 30 minutes.

3. Strain contents, picking and reserving as much salmon meat as possible. Return soup to simmer. Adjust for salt. Add half the remaining green onion and the cilantro stems. (Optional seasoning: Add a tablespoon of each: Chinese wine, rice vinegar, aji-mirin; add a few heaping tablespoons of Szechuan prepared vegetables.) Simmer another 15-30 minutes.

4. Strain soup a second time and return to low heat to keep warm. Dole out reserved salmon meat into bowls, along with noodles, a handful of shredded cabbage, and spoonfuls of both Szechuan prepared vegetables (optional) and bamboo shoots. Ladle soup. Garnish with green onion, cilantro, and Thai red pepper. Serves 4.

Prepared Szechuan vegetables will be hard to find unless you have access to an Asian market. If you can find 'em, I highly recommend. I also recommend the optional seasoning, though you'll be tempering the fish flavor in the process. A second strain with green onions and cilantro stems (or similar aromatics) is de rigeur; this is where the umami effect really kicks into high gear. If you've eaten in a quality noodle house, you know what I'm talking about. How do they do it? I once wondered, savoring every last drop of broth in my bowl.

Now I know.


audrey said...

This soup looks terrific. Nice use of the "throwaway" fish parts. I wonder if all the spent ingredients you are straining out can go straight into the compost -- cooked fish heads sound perfect for that.

Julia said...

Great stories -- your son's first fish! And learning how to make fish soup! Looks great -- honestly, I would have never considered making it until now.

Jon Roth said...

A first for your boy and dad, gotta love it! I think for the next steelhead trip maybe we'll try something like this. Looks great.

Alisa@Foodista said...

Lovely post!I can almost imagine him yelling over his first catch. I knew I was :) The soup looks delicious!

Hunter Angler Gardener Cook said...

Thanks for the shout-out! Soup looks terrific. Those are pinks you're catching, right? How many pounds do they run; they look like they're only about 2-3.

Never had them fresh. How do they compare with kings, silvers or sockeyes? They have something of a reputation, as you know...

Allison Arevalo said...

Wow, congrats to your son! Such a feat to catch a salmon. Growing up in New York, the only fish I caught were fluke and flounder. Not really much of a fight, but exciting nonetheless. My recent trip to Oregon was my first experience with super fresh salmon - there's nothing like it.

Langdon Cook said...

Audrey - Fish=good soil, right? I'd compost it.

Julia - I've got some video I might post soon of the boy catching his second salmon. Unfortunately, it doesn't contain the same decibel levels. The first was one of those "had to be there" moments, and I'm glad I was.

Jon - Steelhead heads would be just as good. And of course the time on the water with your kid is priceless.

Alisa - You know the feeling! Soup was way better than I hoped for. Will post it to Foodista.

Hank - If you look closely at the heads in the bowl you can see that one is a silver and the other is a pink. The silver's flesh is more bright red, with orangish tones. So it was mutt soup. As for pinks, they're mostly used by the canneries, but they run in huge numbers and they're good biters, esp. on the fly. Most of the pinks we catch in the Sound are 3-5 lbs, although 6-7 isn't uncommon and the record is something like 14. I smoke most of mine.

Allison - Being a native East Coaster myself (CT), I had the same conversion moment when I tasted wild king salmon at a BBQ soon after moving to Seattle; realized, sadly, what impostors those farmed Atlantic salmon had been all through my childhood.

Valerie Harrison (bellini) said...

Living in BC this soup would be a welcome change from the everyday.

drfugawe said...

Hey Lang,
Thanks for this motivation - been meaning to do fish stock for some time now - what's the skinny on pulling the gills before cooking? Not a big deal? Or, Yes?

Bob Triggs said...

I have had Salmon Head soup in some remote river camps in Alaska and on Kamchatka Russia. In all cases it was made very simply, with few spices or special ingredients other than what was locally available; a mix of garden greens, onion, potato, salt and pepper etc. It was served with the lightly cooked salmon head, somewhat intact, lying in a bowl full of the rich broth and staring right back up at me. One eats that with a combination of spoon and fingers- sucking the flesh from the soft cartilaginous salmon head "bones" and it is so succulently good it is hard to believe. I am looking forward to trying your recipies. Heard you on KUOW this morning and I am so glad you spoke up about our last Wild Steelhead in decline. By the way, I hear that Sculpin tastes just like kidding. Regards,
Bob Triggs
Little Stone Flyfisher
Port Townsend, WA

TS of eatingclub vancouver said...

Oh, thanks for the mention! We're glad your fish head soup was a great success. =)

Melissa said...

I made this soup over the weekend- it was fantastic! By the way, what is Chinese Wine? I'll be making this again soon!

Anonymous said...

just got back from seattle with a salmon and at the fish counter the fishmonger asked me if i wanted to keep the "throwaway" parts. i was almost insulted when i realized that most people probably say no...
you're right. it's a dishonor to waste a single delicious morsel!

i found this post by looking for a recipe to inspire some salmon head soup. starting it right now! really enjoyed this post.

Khebedin said...

What a good idea this was. Thank you for sharing it with us.

I decided to biol it for longer time, then removed the skin and bones, but some of the smaller bones cooked and became part of the soup. I am not sure if this is OK, tasted very nice though.

TheBig Red 67 said...

Wow! Not as fishy as the name implies. I used my homemade kim chi because I found no radish and added mushrooms because I dig fungus! I also did leftover basil stems in the second boil. Fantastic!

Anonymous said...

I used to regularily get salmon heads and other leftover bits in the supermarket as they are cheap: my favourite is creamy pasta sauce.
Boil or rather, steam the head until done, pick out the meat - there is usually a large amount in the neck, cheeks some but not so much - mix with slightly fried, finely chopped onions, cream and seasoning of choice, fresh dill, chives and/or parsley for example, garlic, black pepper, lastly add lemon juice to avoid the cream separating. Stuff your face with this and pasta. Om nom. Am cookinga head at the moment, not sure what will come of it.