A quest to revive the lost art of homemade fish stock
One of the real prizes of living on the coast is having access to the freshest fish around. And maybe the most oft-overlooked secret to buying and cooking with fresh fish is knowing how to use the whole animal — not just the fillets — which can stretch your catch from only a few servings to several meals. The key? Homemade stock, or broth.
Stock is one of the most versatile ingredients in the kitchen. It’s an infinitely more flavorful cooking liquid to substitute for water in rice, beans, grains, pasta, sauces, soups and stews. Chances are you’ve grown accustomed to the cans or cardboard containers of pre-made chicken, veggie or beef stock on the grocery store shelf — we all have. But the lost art of making homemade stock can save you money and squeeze way more value out of odds and ends that probably just end up in your trash can.
I learned this nifty little kitchen trick from my mom one summer while I was living in a fishing village in Mexico. I frequented the fishermen’s cooperative where everyone piled in each afternoon to dump out their catch and pick out their dinner. Sometimes I picked a fish from the ice and watched as José gently peeled perfect fillets back from the bones. Sometimes I saved a little money with yesterday’s fillets, frozen in bags. But I never gave a second thought to the bodies.
Most people don’t. We’ve been trained to focus on what we assume to be the only worthwhile part of the fish — the big pieces of meat. But as my mom explained to me that summer, we pay by the pound for the whole fish, so if you’re not using the bodies, you’re throwing money away.
Just look behind the counter at Galveston’s Harborside seafood markets, Katie’s and Sampson & Sons. See those buckets of bones and heads next to the fillet stations? Those are all the paid-for bodies that got thrown out for fillets, and while it may not be pretty, there are pounds of meat and gallons of rich, sultry stock sitting in those buckets. Not to mention the cheeks, which can sometimes be the most tender and tasty part of the fish.
So rather than picking your fish and walking away with just the fillets, ask your fishmonger to save the bodies for you. They’ll bag them up separately and you’ll be on your way to a big pot of homemade stock.
At Katie’s, you can buy the discarded fish bones for $1 a pound, or else they’ll get passed on to the pelicans waiting patiently on the dock for dinner. After I scored a beautiful golden tile for $5 a pound (compared with snapper at $8.50, another big perk of buying fresh and local), I picked up an extra 5 pounds of bodies, which is enough to make at least two big pots of fish stew with just a few other ingredients. You do the math.
Simple Fish Stock
Fish bones, heads, bodies
Salt to taste
Place fish bones in a large stock pot. You also can add shrimp shells, oyster liquid, and the cutoff ends, stems and peels from fresh herbs, onions, garlic, celery, peppers, carrots, potatoes or any other vegetable you’re working with. The idea is to use the parts you’d otherwise throw away. It’s OK if they’re a little bruised or dirty. But don’t use anything rotten.
Fill the pot with filtered water. For a richer stock, use just enough water to cover. For a larger yield and milder stock, fill the pot more, leaving a few inches head space.
Cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce to a simmer, add salt to taste — you’ll need at least a tablespoon and probably a few — and any other desired spices, and let steep at the lowest heat for at least an hour and up to 6 hours.
Strain stock, reserving fish bones. Once cool enough to handle, use your hands to gently pry soft tufts of meat away from the bones and head. You’ll know the difference between meat and mucilage by touch. If it’s squishy, discard. If it’s firm, reserve for another recipe. You can get up to a pound of extra meat from your fish bones, depending on the size and species. And don’t forget the cheeks.
Use stock immediately in any recipe that calls for broth or water, or save for later by freezing or pressure canning. The stock will keep for at least a year with either method.