I was milling about the seafood section of our local grocery store the other day trying to decide what to make for dinner. Nothing in the display case inspired me. I eventually noticed the fish monger behind the counter. He was busy filleting a bunch of red snapper on a small work station.
“Can I help you?” He asked without looking up.
“Maybe in a minute. I’m still trying to figure out what’s on the menu…” was my reply.
The fish monger effortlessly cut fillets from each fish and then neatly arranged them on a metal display pan. The fish heads and bones were piled up in the corner of his work space.
“We have some nice snapper fillets here. Just got them in today” he suggested still focused on his work.
“Never mind the fillets, how much for the heads” I inquired.
He finally lowered his knife and looked up. “What are you going to do with them…Make Stock?”
“Yeah, something like that” I mumbled.
Little did he know I had much bigger plans. Pasta with fish head sauce was now on the menu. It is a tasty dish and it will be an interesting recipe to post on our blog.
I discovered this recipe years ago when I first picked up a copy of Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. Traditionally, fish heads are the only seafood used in this dish. It might not sound appealing but fish heads release the sweetest, most subtle flavors after being simmered in wine and tomato sauce. The cartilage and connective tissue breaks down after a short amount of cooking time. The head can then be passed through a food mill. This process extracts only the flavorful bits of meat from the head while preventing any bones, cartilage or scales from being added to the sauce. The final result does not taste overly fishy at all.
I made this dish plenty of times before I was married but never really considered making it for Janine. She can be a little squeamish at times. I doubt she would keep an open mind about tasting it, especially after seeing a severed fish head staring back at her from inside the pot.
The challenge was getting her to try it just once. I’m sure the flavors would immediately win her over. “Perhaps I should doctor it up a bit…” I plotted. “The mere mention of fish heads will send her running. Maybe I’ll add some shrimp and some chunks of mild fish fillets. I’ll call it seafood marinara. No one will be the wiser. ..”
The caper required me to cook and photograph the dish myself without getting caught. Usually Janine is the photographer in the family. She has taken most of the shots used on our food blog. I couldn’t ask her to take these pictures. It would expose the secret ingredient and foil my plan.
I returned home from the grocery store to find an empty house. “What a lucky break!” my inner dialogue proclaimed. Janine had gone shopping. I darted upstairs to fetch her digital camera then got to work in the kitchen. After splitting the fish head in half lengthwise and rinsing it out, I began to prep the rest of the meal.
Janine returned home just as I was cleaning the shrimp. “Something smelly fishy…” she announced, walking through the front door.
“You have no idea…” I murmured under my breath while quickly covering the fish head with a kitchen towel.
”What are you making?” She asked.
“Seafood marinara…” I said. “It should be ready in about an hour.” Satisfied with my answer, she headed off to the den.
“Whew! That was close!” I thought to myself as I began to sweat the onions and garlic. “Hopefully she will stay busy until the dish is ready to serve.”
I was able to cook, photograph and puree the fish head before Janine returned to the kitchen. The only evidence left were the bones and scales that remained inside the food mill. To divert her attention, I added shrimp and cubed snapper just as she approached the stove.
“Have a taste…” I said while handing her a forkfull.
“Yum! It’s kind of sweet. Maybe next time you could add a little heat. Like fra diavolo….” She said before dipping the fork back into the pot for another bite.
She was hooked. I had pulled off the perfect con, or so I thought.
As dinner concluded, Janine noticed her camera sitting on the kitchen countertop.
“What’s that doing here?” she asked.
“Nothing!” I blurted out, trying to grab it before she did.
My feeble attempt can up short. Janine now held the camera in her hand.
“Maybe it won’t be so bad. She’ll probably just bring it back upstairs” I rationalized.
That glimmer of hope was short-lived. She immediately began to review the pictures stored in the camera’s memory. I prepared for the worst. All of a sudden a blank stare came across her face.
“Please don’t tell me you just made me eat that!” she cried showing me the picture of the fish head on the camera’s monitor.
“But honey, you said you liked it” I reminded her.
She promptly corrected me. “No I didn’t! It was awful! Never cook that again!”
“But you finished your plate and went back for seconds…” I reasoned, knowing all along there was no way I was going to win this one.
It’s hard to plead innocent when photographic evidence proves you guilty of fish head fraud.
Seafood Marinara Sauce –
¼ cup olive oil
One small onion finely diced
2 cloves of garlic minced
1/8 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1/4 cup of chopped parsley, divided
1 small fish head from a white flesh fish (snapper, sea bass, porgy, etc), gills removed, split in half lengthwise and thoroughly rinsed
½ cup dry white wine
One 28-oz can of whole peeled tomatoes, crushed by hand
½ lb of shrimp, shelled, de-veined and cut into bite-size pieces
½ lb of firm white flesh fish (such a swordfish, monkfish, Halibut, etc.), cut into bite-sized cubes
2 tablespoons of butter
1 lb box of penne
Salt and pepper
Bring a large pot of salted water to boil on top of the stove.
Choose a medium-size sauce pan with a tight-fitting lid. Add the olive oil and onions. Heat the oil over a medium low flame until the onions start to sizzle. Sweat the onions until they turn translucent.
Add garlic, red pepper flakes and two tablespoons of parsley. Continue sweating the mixture until the garlic turns a faint golden brown color.
Add the fish head. Turn the head over several times to coat it evenly with oil.
Add wine to the pan. Bring Wine to a boil then lower heat and simmer until wine is reduced to about three tablespoons.
Add the crushed tomatoes and their juice, a big pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper. Bring mixture to a rapid simmer then lower heat and simmer gently for about 15 – 20 minutes of until the fish head begins to easily break apart when prodded with a spoon.
Transfer fish head to a food mill fitted with a fine disc. Puree the fish head over a medium bowl. Discard any bones, scales or cartilage left in the food mill.
Add the fish pulp that collected in the bottom of the bowl back into the saucepan. Stir to combine. Simmer sauce for an additional 30 to 45 minutes until sauce has thickened and the flavor has concentrated.
Cook pasta in boiling water according to the directions on the package.
While the pasta is cooking, add shrimp and the cubed fish fillets to the sauce pan. Gently stir the mixture to coat seafood with sauce. Cover pan and simmer until seafood is just cooked through. Be careful not to over-cook seafood. Stir in butter just before serving
Drain pasta when it is done and toss with sauce.