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Eating ‘Throw-Away’ Fish Parts: Eyes, Cheeks, Collars and More

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What are you to do with all of the extra fish parts left over from cleaning your fish? Why, cook and eat them of course! Fish eye soup anyone?

As a cook who is enamored with all things wild and using the entire animal whenever possible, I love the idea of using those “throw-away” bits of a critter in the kitchen. That goes for fish parts as well.

I’ve prepared and eaten fish cheeks, fins, collars, certain innards, entire heads, and the skeletal structure. They’re all good. In fact, some are downright delicious.

Fish cheeks

Fish cheeks are not that unusual to eat. In fact, some anglers make a point to remove the cheeks of walleyes, salmon and trout. On bigger fish, the cheeks are substantial pieces of meat. It depends how small you want to go to take the extra effort to cut around and dig out the cheek muscle. If the fish is so small – like panfish – then it’s hardly worth it. In that case, you can cook the entire head or use the heads to make a fish broth.

But on larger fish, the cheeks are a delicacy. Firm, quarter or silver dollar-sized fish nuggets. You can of course simply do an egg and flour dusting before frying along with the rest of your catch. That’s perfect.

cheeks

Here, however, I had amassed a number of salmon and steelhead cheeks and decided to saute them in butter with a little pesto, and simply add them to a some angel hair pasta drenched in basil pesto. Simple and tasty.

cheeks in pasta

Fish collars

I live on Lake Michigan and we do a lot of salmon and trout fishing here. I believe salmon have the most delicious collars of all the freshwater fish, because they are a fatty fish and there is more fat on their collars. Simply dusting them with salt, pepper and dried herbs, brushing with olive oil, and grilling is an awesome way to get the most from these often discarded fish parts. Serve with cold beer and lemon wedges, and you’re in heaven.

Hank Shaw is a master at using various “throw-away” bits, and he’s got a couple of recipes for fish collars on his Hunter Angler Gardener Cook website. Here’s one of his recipes for marinated striped bass collars grilled over hardwood. Try it – you’ll never throw away another fish collar.

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Hunter Angler Gardener Cook

Fish eyes

The clarity of a fish’s eyes, along with the brightness of its gills (if they’re still intact in the fish), can give you an idea of how fresh it is.

But fish eyes are really more of an oddity than anything else. I mean, there’s not much there, really. I’ve lightly sauted them and even tried pickling them. They do add a little something unusual to certain soups, but I find that simply leaving them in the head and using the entire head is generally more productive. But they do offer that odd and alluring bit of bragging power: “I ate fish eyes!” That, I suppose, is enough to recommend them as a culinary treat.

Here’s a fun little cajun oyster stew using fish eyes.

Fish fins

When I was a kid, we spent a lot of time at my grandparent’s house fishing in the creek that ran through their property. A few times each summer we would spend an evening catching the very large bullheads that would swim upstream from the lake. We would build a fire and wait for our heavily weighted rods to start twitching as those giant bullheads would take the garden worms we used for bait. We’d fill up a big trash can with hundreds of the spiny fish.

Then we’d spend all night cleaning them and in the morning, my grandma would fry up a mess of breaded bullheads. It was a definite treat.

When we cleaned them, however, we always left the tail fins on, and when my grandma would fry those up they were crunchy like potato chips. That was my favorite part of the meal, eating those crunchy bullhead fins.

Now I leave the tail fins on most all of my fish. The dorsal fins are a bit too bony on most fish but the tails and pectoral fins make for some good eating.

Fish heads

The most common way to eat fish heads, outside of soup, is to roast or grill them. Generally, the larger heads of salmon and the bigger trout make the best eating. Pop an onion or half of a lemon in their mouths, slather them with butter or olive oil, dust with seasoning, and grill them like you do fish collars. Or roast them in a pan in the oven. They’re great finger food to pick at while watching football.

Of course there is also the famous fish head soup to consider. “You could use the whole fish, or a meaty fillet, but then you couldn’t enjoy the diversity of textures and tastes to be gotten in one head,” says Chichi Wang. “The fun would be in excavating the fish yourself and using your chopsticks to pluck out succulent morsels.”

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Serious Eats

Fish skeleton

You can use the fish skeletal structure, with fins and head attached to make fish broth or stock. Add carrots, celery, onion, parsnip, and herbs to the pot of water that you’ve got your fish carcasses simmering in. This will make a fine broth all on its own, or a stock to which you can add noodles and fresh vegetables for fish soup.

Fish entrails

I always save any fish roe I find when cleaning fish. Bluegills, perch, bass and the like all have delicious roe. It can be breaded and fried along with the fillets (although you may experience some popping of the eggs if the pan is too hot).

You can also pickle them. Here’s a recipe for pickled sucker roe I made a few years ago.

sucker+roe++fillets
creative sustenance

As for the rest of the entrails, I confess I have not gotten that far into it yet. But here is someone who has. Her account of eating fish entrails is quite interesting.

So, the next time you’re tempted to throw away those extra fish parts, think twice about it. You might just be throwing away something delicious.

Like what you see here? You can read more great articles by David Smith at his facebook page, Stumpjack Outdoors.

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Eating ‘Throw-Away’ Fish Parts: Eyes, Cheeks, Collars and More