Paul Greenberg was standing in his Manhattan kitchen, cleaver in hand. He had already fluidly removed two fillets from a gleaming red snapper, shipped overnight from the Gulf of Mexico. Now it was time to take off the head, which he would use to make a spicy Korean soup. "This," he said with a laugh, "is where it gets gnarly." Then with a swift chop he severed the fish's head from its body.
It would have been easier to buy a few fillets or, for this dish, to ask a fishmonger for the head. But Greenberg, best-selling author of Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food, wanted to make use of a whole snapper in service of a larger point: Americans need to eat more American seafood. It's a point he makes compellingly clear in his new book, American Catch: The Fight for our Local Seafood.
The United States controls more ocean than any other country on Earth. Yet 91 percent of the seafood Americans eat is imported.
It gets fishier, Greenberg says. Much of what we import is farmed; shrimp and tilapia top the list. Meanwhile, one-third of what we catch is sent overseas. "We're sending the good wild American stuff that makes you heart-healthy and smart to Asia and importing all this farmed stuff from Asia that doesn't really do too much for you from a health perspective," he said.
There are many reasons why Americans don't cook more seafood. One of the biggest is that we are scared of fish. That's why so much of the fish America imports, such as tilapia, is odorless and all but tasteless: a "fried-dough delivery system," Greenberg calls it. It's also a lot cheaper. Wild boneless red snapper fillets, for example, cost $20 to $30 a pound. Imported tilapia, by comparison, maxes out at $10 a pound.
And so Greenberg, 46, set out to show me that cooking fish need not be scary. He started with a whole fish, which cut the cost considerably; a whole wild snapper at Whole Foods sells for $11.99 a pound. By using almost everything, Greenberg would make three meals for four from a single 5-pound fish, bringing the cost of the snapper to less than $5 a serving.
Which brings us back to the fish head.
In America, we usually throw it away. But there is plenty of good meat in and around the head. Using a paring knife and his fingers, Greenberg removed chunks of flesh from what's known as the collar, or throat, and, after a few minutes in simmering water, the snapper's cheeks as well. He also strummed his fingers along the bones (also called a rack) to remove any shreds of meat left behind after the fillets were removed.
All told, he was able to salvage 6 ounces of meat, plenty for his Korean fish head soup.
"I think of it as an honor to the fish," Greenberg says. "If you are going to kill it, you should eat it all."
The whole thing — once I got past the yuck factor — was a cinch. Working with a whole fish made culinary and economic sense. But, I asked him, couldn't I just buy a whole fish and ask the fishmonger to fillet it and give me the head, even the rack? You could, he admitted.
But it was clear Greenberg thought that would ruin some of the fun.
"As one fisherman told me recently, 'Americans aren't hip to fish,' '' he said. "We should be."
Hanoi-Style Fried Fish With Turmeric and Dill (Cha Ca Thang Long)
FOR THE FISH
11/2 pounds firm, skinned white-fleshed fish fillets, such as monkfish, red snapper or striped bass
11/2 teaspoons sea salt or kosher salt
3 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon peeled, minced fresh ginger root
2 scallions, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon ground turmeric
11/2 cups rice flour
Peanut oil, for frying
3 to 4 ounces dried rice vermicelli noodles
1/3 cup fresh dill, chopped
1/4 cup low-sodium soy sauce (optional)
1/3 cup nuoc cham (see note)
1 lime, cut into quarters
Pickled carrots (see note)
12 large lettuce leaves
1 small bunch mint leaves
1 small bunch cilantro
1/2 cup unsalted, dry-roasted peanuts
Cut the fish fillets into 2-inch chunks. Sprinkle the pieces all over with the salt; let them sit at room temperature for 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, whisk together the fish sauce, ginger, scallions, sugar and pepper in a small bowl until the sugar has dissolved.
Rub the mixture over the fish pieces so they are thoroughly coated, then place them on a plate. Sprinkle them with the turmeric, cover and refrigerate for 20 minutes.
Line a baking sheet with several layers of paper towels, then seat an oven-safe wire rack on top; place on the middle oven rack and preheat to 200 degrees.
Place the rice flour in a shallow bowl. Lightly coat each piece of marinated fish in the flour, shaking off any excess.
Pour enough oil into a wok to create a depth of at least an inch (1 to 2 cups; the oil will be shallower if you use a large skillet instead). Heat over medium-high heat until the oil is almost smoking.
Working in batches as needed (do not overcrowd the pan), add the fish and cook for 4 to 8 minutes (depending on the thickness of the pieces), using tongs to move and turn the fish as needed so that it becomes evenly cooked and golden brown. Use tongs to transfer the cooked fish to the wire rack in the oven.
Boil a kettle of water. Place the vermicelli in a heatproof bowl. Pour the just-boiled water over the noodles; let them sit according to the package directions. Drain, then toss with the chopped dill.
When ready to serve, arrange the dilled vermicelli on a platter along with the pieces of warm fried fish; soy sauce, if using, and/or nuoc cham for dipping; lime wedges; pickled carrots; lettuce; mint; and cilantro. Garnish with the peanuts.
Serve the fried fish atop the dilled vermicelli or wrapped in lettuce leaves, along with pickled carrots and a dipping sauce called nuoc cham (find the recipes at washingtonpost.com/recipes).
Note: Once salted, the fish needs to sit for 15 minutes. The marinated fish needs to be refrigerated for 20 minutes.
Source: Adapted from The Little Saigon Cookbook: Vietnamese Cuisine and Culture in Southern California's Little Saigon, by Ann Le (Globe Pequot, 2011).
Korean Spicy Fish Stew (Mae Un Tang)
1 large fish head (about 11/2 pounds)
1 fish rack (optional; see notes)
8 cups water
1/2 block (7 ounces) firm tofu
8 ounces daikon radish, peeled and cut into
1-inch pieces that are 1/8-inch thick
1/2 zucchini, halved lengthwise, then cut into 1/4-inch slices
1 small red chili pepper, seeded if desired, then cut thinly on the bias
1 small green chili pepper, seeded if desired, then cut thinly on the bias
1 sweet onion, cut into strips
2 scallions, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 cloves garlic, crushed and chopped
1 tablespoon regular or low-sodium soy sauce
1 tablespoon gochugaru (Korean crushed red chili pepper powder)
3 tablespoons gochujang (Korean chili pepper paste)
4 ounces edible chrysanthemum leaves (optional)
Kosher or sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro, for garnish
Rinse the fish head and pat it dry.
Use your fingers and/or a small paring knife to extract any flesh from fish head and the collar. If you are also using a fish rack, you can extract a significant amount of flesh from it by holding one end and strumming your fingers along the bones. Reserve all of the flesh in a bowl.
Place the picked-over fish head and rack in a stockpot, then add the water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat; cook for 10 minutes, turning the head over once during that time. (If you like, you can use a spoon to remove the fish cheeks about halfway through cooking. Add them to the flesh reserved from the head and collar.)
Meanwhile, wrap the tofu in paper towels and use a heavy plate to weight it (to help extract any liquid).
Strain the cooking liquid through a fine-mesh strainer into a separate pot; discard the bones. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then add the radish, zucchini, chili peppers, sweet onion, scallions, garlic, soy sauce, gochukaru and gojuchang; reduce the heat to medium and cook for 6 or 7 minutes, until the vegetables are tender.
Reduce the heat to medium-low. Stir in the reserved fish flesh; cook for about 2 minutes or until it is tender and opaque.
Unweight/unwrap the tofu and cut it into large cubes. Add them and the edible chrysanthemum, if using, to the pot; cook for 2 to 3 minutes without stirring.
Season lightly with salt and pepper. Divide among individual bowls. Garnish each portion with the cilantro. Serve hot.
Notes: This is Korean comfort food: a hearty yet delicate fish soup. If you are buying a fish head rather than using one from a whole fish, ask your fishmonger for the "rack" or fish skeleton as well.
The daikon radish, zucchini and chili peppers are a must. But you can add whatever other vegetables you like, including soybean sprouts, pumpkin, mushrooms and watercress, as well as other shellfish, such as oysters and clams. The soup is best served the same day it's made.
Source: Adapted by Paul Greenberg from a recipe by About.com Korean food expert Naomi Imatome-Yun.