Weird Crap I Cook: Salmon Heads (Grilled Salmon Wings)

A couple weeks ago, with weekend temperatures forecasted to be unseasonably warm, we decided to have a tailgating party for Sunday football.  Basically, instead of sitting indoors watching football we’d all wear jerseys and hang outside grilling food, drinking beers, and listening to games on the radio.  I will take credit for the awesome idea, mainly because the actual people who thought of it don’t have blogs to refute the claim.

With plans to grill, I decided to make a dish that I had been thinking about ever since I saw salmon heads in the seafood case for a buck a pound: salmon wings.

Big old sack of fish heads in exchange for 6 of my (recently) hard earned dollars

My idea for salmon wings was removing and cooking the collar of the salmon, kind of similar to the Hamachi Kama (yellowfin collar) I made this summer.  Unlike the yellowfin collar, the salmon collars are too small to eat with chopsticks so you would have to bend them and pull the meat out with your teeth like a chicken wing.  Hence, salmon wings.

I know salmon heads sound gross, but look at all of that nice looking meat around the collar!

After quickly rinsing the heads in the sink and moving Janet’s jumparoo out of splatter range, I got to work butchering the heads.

Now, here’s where things get a little weird (weirder); the entire time I was cutting the heads I was singing to myself “fish heads, fish heads, roly poly fish heads, fish heads fish heads, eat them up yum”.  I have no idea where I have heard this song, why the lyrics were stuck in my head, and generally what the following video starring Bill Paxton is all about. But I know I am nervous about my sanity.

Not sure how we move on from here, but let’s go with pretending the previous paragraph never happened, OK?

The prep was actually a lot easier than I expected; the bone and cartilage connecting the collar to the head was a lot thinner than the tuna head and easier to cut through.  The gills, which were the easiest part of the tuna head, were the toughest part to remove due to the size of the heads.

This was the first one I butchered, and it got easier/cleaner as I went along. Don't think that means I wasn't in danger of losing my fingers at least 20 times in the half hour it took to fully butcher and trim the pile of heads

Instead of disposing of the rest of the head, I saw the potential in the meat remaining along the top and decided to cut out the gills and reserve the heads for later use.

All clean, even washed behind the ears. Again, this is still round one of 5. After this shot I didn't take another picture 'till everything was done, primarily due to the bloody messiness

Eventually I ended up with a cutting board of decently(-ish) butchered salmon collars.

Unlike the tuna head, I left the fins on this one. They seemed like they would be tough to remove without destroying some meat and figured the fin would make them easier to hold once cooked

The bowl of heads went back in the fridge for later use and, after a final rinse, the collars went into a marinade of sesame oil, soy sauce, siracha, brown sugar, garlic, ginger, and a little five spice.

Anybody still a little creeped out by Bill Paxton? What a career: start with that bizarre video, shift to memorably funny roles in Weird Science and Aliens, and mostly finish his career potential as a polygamist on a show I never understood the appeal of

After a couple hours in the marinade, the salmon wings went onto the upper rack of the grill skin down to allow some of the fat to render over lower heat for ten minutes.  From there they headed onto the main rack of the grill for five minutes on each side, leaving me with this.

The sugar burned a bit but it added some good flavor. Also, the ends of those fins had the texture of potato chips and were kinda tasty

After a few minutes to let them cool off, they were ready to sample.  I found the easiest way to eat them was to pull apart from the fin and one end then dive into the meat that was exposed.

I was nervous the skin would get in the way but it peeled off easily when the wings were pulled apart

The first bite, right by the fin joint, had a lot of meat on it.  The meat hadn’t taken on much of the marinade but was very rich and the texture was tender and moist.  Aside from that area, there was bone on both sides that had a thin layer of meat on it that was heavily flavored by the marinade and grill.

Sad that there's nothing left on there. The graininess of the last two images is because they were accidentally done as video and I needed to pull stills from that. Watching a video of myself eating made me wonder why I still have friends. If you want a quick weight loss tip, eat your meals with me while I am eating mine and I guarantee you will lose your appetite

A bunch of people tried these and the reviews were all positive.  Great flavor, unique, and fun to eat.  I’d definitely make salmon wings again.

When I got home from the tailgating a few hours later, I remembered that I had a giant bowl of fish heads waiting for me in the fridge.

As I said before, there was a fair amount of meat left on those heads despite already taking off the best part

Given the amount of soup I make on a weekly basis, I figured these would be put to best use by making some fish stock with them.  So, they headed under the broiler with onions, carrots, celery and garlic to get a little char on them.

That pizza stone has been supposed to come out of the oven for weeks, but I continually start preheating the oven before noticing it and then leave it in during cooking to keep the heat steady. Vicious cycle dudes

After everything had a little color, it all went into a stock pot covered completely with water to boil for a few hours.

I scrubbed the kitchen after the initial head butchering to get the fishy smell out, then came back home to make a stock that would permeate every fiber of clothing not safely stored with fish smells

Once the liquid had reduced and the flavors appeared to be right (read: I was exhausted and wanted to go to bed) I pulled all of the solids out using a slotted spoon to prepare the broth for straining.

The amount of gelatin in the broth was reduced by a few trips through some cheese cloth but, regardless, I was stunned by it. This looked scarier than the head cheese boil

Overall I ended up with about 4 quarts of fish broth which I will be sure to use in a future post or two.  All in all, a very successful day of cooking.

Soups and bolognese will be included in one of my next posts, not sure in what order.

Weird Crap I Cook: Yellowfin Tuna Collar (Hamachi Kama)

Generally I enjoy all types of seafood and have loved sushi since I was first introduced to it when I was ten years old.  Tuna, in all varieties, has always been my favorite raw fish and I would guess I consumed 10 pounds of freshly caught raw Yellowfin tuna at the Four Seasons in Bora Bora (our honeymoon, but I am name dropping) in a 5 day period.  That trip got me addicted to raw tuna.

Oddly, I am not a fan of cooked tuna and won’t order it at most restaurants unless I am sure it will come out rare.  The only exception is tuna collar which I was introduced to by a Bizarre Foods episode a few years ago.  I first tried it at Jaes Grill in Brookline (now defunct) and found it to be very tasty and moist despite being completely cooked through.  Ever since I have ordered it whenever I see it on a menu.

RIP Jae's. Your awful signage didn't give proper credit to your enjoyable pan-Asian cuisine and surprisingly decent sushi

To continue this extremely long lead-in, for years I have been jealous of my buddy John and his tuna fishing trips with his brother in-law Frank.  Last year Liz (John’s wife) sent me a picture of the 130+ lb Bigeye tuna they caught and had me drooling at the huge slabs of meat they were pulling off.  I also noted that the fish head was being disposed of which is what 99% of fishermen would do (and what the Ryans did on our fishing trip).  Since I knew the collar was on there somewhere, and that I needed blog material, I asked him to save me the head of the next big tuna they got.

Lots of background.  Anyhoo, I nearly pooped my pants when I saw this text from John a week ago, “Got you a tuna head dawg.  From a 45lb Yellowfin.”  Well then.

Best picture message I have ever received. Big thanks to Frank Coulson, Mike Kirwan, Johnny, and Colman Currie (not pictured) for sharing their catch

When they butchered the Yellowfin, the head was wrapped in a few trash bags and placed in the freezer awaiting a visit from the Ryans.

Liz, Griff, Janet, Kristi. Griff is about 8 months older than Janet but I am pretty sure he was hitting on her

After hanging out at Liz’s (John’s wife) family house on Tuesday and Wednesday, including some sampling of the fresh Yellowfin, the frozen head came back to the Ryan LBI house.  Where it sat in the fridge ominously for a few days.

From my hogs head experience, I knew this would take around 3 days to fully thaw. Which explains the surrounding clams and leftover chowder from the weekend clamming festivities

I ended up waiting until Sunday to make an attempt at this.  My main problem was the complete lack of online support on how to butcher a tuna head and remove the collar.  Nothing.  As I sat on the couch exhausted from my friend Lenny’s bachelor party, I started trying to rationalize throwing out the head, but decided to give it a shot based on the few pictures of butchered collar I had seen online.

This move to the sink might not look like it, but it was a significant step

After cleaning up some tuna head leakage in the fridge, getting my knives ready, and setting up the counter with some cardboard for coverage, I removed the bags (4 of them to be exact).

No real way to give size perspective here. My guess is it was heavier than Janet and less heavy than the hogs head. I didn't enjoy that framing at all and will avoid dragging Janet's name into comparisons like that in the future

The collar is the area between the gill slit and the back edge of the skull (where the head was cut from the main body of the fish).  I think.  I don’t have any action shots in this post since I was supposed to be making pasta with clam sauce for Mommy Ryan and Kristi Ryan.  I advised them both to not enter the kitchen since I was, “doing some other stuff too”.

As I probed around the head, I saw that what I thought was the collar needed to be carefully cut away from the gills and hacked away from the top of the skull and the bottom as well.  I also observed that most of a Yellowfin tuna’s organs are located inside the skull.  After some careful trimming, dulling of my knives cutting through bones, and near finger losses, I came away with this:

Was able to remove both collars in one piece. I don't think that was an accomplishment, just the easiest way to do it

Leaving just the tip of the head in the sink.

Had two angles on this shot, but this one is nicer to look at. I considered trying to find a way to eat the eyes but realized I didn't truly enjoy eating eyes last time and there was other gross stuff to enjoy

First step was making a cut through the bone on the bottom side of the collar to separate it into two pieces.

The cardboard was essential. I should have tarped the walls as well since the kitchen was starting to look like a crime scene by this point

Removing the fins was very difficult and I did a job that would make any sushi chef cry in agony.  The first collar was removed mostly by pulling which tore some of the meat away; the second side was a lot of big swings with a heavily dulled knife at that point.  Then there was a ton of careful trimming of any bloody spots, areas close to the gills, and a rinse to remove what looked like small scales.  Eventually, I ended up with a couple poorly butchered Yellowfin tuna collars.

I wish I could produce something that looks well butchered just once in my life, but since I cook everything adventurous exactly once, I am never proficient enough to make it look nice

As I mentioned previously, there were indeed a few interesting organs hiding inside the head and neck.  I threw away the gullet and some stomach fat, but rinsed and kept the two organs that were easiest to recognize: the liver and heart.

The liver was easily recognizable, but I fell back on recollection of Bizarre Foods to recognize the heart

At this point I stepped away and reassessed.  I honestly didn’t think I would end up with anything edible, so I had to decide on the fly how I would cook everything.  The grill seemed like a logical choice, and after starting it I searched the cabinets and fridge.  I ended up mixing together a marinade/basting liquid of soy sauce, sesame oil, minced garlic, and a lot of brown sugar.

The brown sugar was a prominent part of a recipe for whole roasted Bluefin tuna head and sounded like an excellent idea. I took note of that whole concept for a future post

After the grill had heated up for ten minutes or so, the collars and organs went on.

The organs look pretty innocuous, but for some reason the collar looks disgusting in the early grill pictures

I left the gas grill on high and shut the lid for 5 minutes before flipping the liver and heart while the collars remained skin down with the lid open.

I brushed the leftover marinade on the collars a couple times during the cooking

After a few more minutes I pulled the organs off and flipped the collars.

These were dark to begin with, but charred sugars and soy sauce gave a dark on darker coloring contrast

About the crispiness and char I was hoping for. I wasn't planning to eat the skin or anything. That would be, you know, gross

While the collars cooked some more, I headed inside to sample the heart and liver.  At which point I discovered that my camera is now permanently in a Janet picture taking-friendly mode that does not take food detail shots well.

Here's the liver. It resembled every other cooked liver I have seen

Annnnnd the heart. This is about as rare as I wanted it and looked a lot like beef

The liver tasted like liver.  Liver with a mild fish flavor.  Not quite as strong as chicken/beef/pork liver but you could definitely tell what it was.  I was good with that after one bite.  The heart on the other hand was awesome.  Tasted like a great piece of rare tuna with the texture/density of a beef steak and a little bit of mineral flavor.  I would definitely eat that again, possibly raw if the tuna hadn’t been frozen.  Back to the collars.

The marinade gave the meat a great color. Wish the grill marks were a bit more pronounced, though

From my few experiences, there is no nice way to serve tuna collar which is likely a contributing factor to why it isn’t on more menus.  Anyone interested in eating it needs to pick pieces of meat off the bone using chopsticks, and there is no easy way to break it up into individual servings.

Although it looks like the first bite, it was actually the second. Had to clarify that since my hands have never looked this nice and Kristi was surprisingly game to try the collar

The collars were incredible.  This has less to do with my skills than the freshness and quality of the catch, but it was seriously delicious.  I generally think fully cooked tuna is fishier than the rare variety, but that wasn’t the case with the collar meat.  It’s very tender like the meat near the salmon skin, but not as fishy tasting and distinctly tuna.  My best impartial witness for claims like this is Kristi since she is not overly adventurous and hates fishy tasting/smelling seafood.  After one bite, she dove in, as did my mother, and it quickly became an appetizer feeding frenzy.

Last action shot I could pause for. It was actually an enjoyable part of the experience to pick around and look for a nice pocket of meat

The sweet and charred flavors from the marinade added heavily to the enjoyment and I would definitely use a similar marinade if I ever made this again.  After a few more bites, I left the dish for a short time to finish my pasta with clam sauce and returned to find this:

There were a few pieces of meat we missed, but I'll give this clean plate club status. Call it in Ma Dowley!

Final note to the post is that I really appreciated the tuna head from Hard Four crew and hope that they will think of me after future catches.  I will happily take any future tuna heads and do this again.  Same goes to any other readers who go tuna fishing, just give me a little notice and I will be there.  It’s a really, really good piece of meat.

No ideas for next week, will try to think of something.