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."