Maximising your catch: Eating the whole fish
THIS article is intended to create awareness about the impact that each one of us has on our local fisheries. Harvesting fish is a right that we all share but harvesting fish in an ethical manner is a responsibility that is often overlooked by many of us.
Sustainability is a word that is often misunderstood and misused throughout fishing and food industries. There is nothing sustainable about harvesting fish, but what we can do, is manage the number of fish we take, limiting the impact on our fisheries.
Both commercial and recreational fisheries are quick to point the finger at each other and take the stance that they are not the ones jeopardising the future of fishing. However, by reflecting on the impact that each of us has on our local fisheries, we can help to create more practical approaches to fishing including ethical management systems which will help to build a more sustainable future.
The most direct way to achieve this is to limit the number of fish killed. Many people may object to this approach on the basis that they have a family to feed or freezer to fill. The reality is many of these same people are throwing heads, frames and collars to the pelicans or in the water at the filleting tables on the understanding that they are giving back to the ecosystem in a positive manner. However, this could not be further from reality. By thinking twice about reducing the wastage from individual fishing, hopefully we will be able to limit the amount of fish we feel the need to take for the table.
This article we will look at a more holistic approach to utilising kingfish. It is a great species to focus on because it is prized for its table quality and therefore heavily pressured, but it is often misused or wasted with no malice.
Kingfish have a defined anatomy that is similar to other pelagic species like tuna, samson fish, mackerel and cobia. Unfortunately, many of these pelagic species are also under extreme fishing pressure. Therefore, the techniques and methods that I will outline below can be easily adapted to whatever species you are chasing and will hopefully allow you to utilise your catch more effectively.
Before we get to the preparation of fish, there are few key handling points that will improve table quality and storage.
Firstly, always kill and bleed your fish immediately after capture. This is particularly important with pelagic species because of their hard-working nature. Undue stress on the fish will lead to lactic acid quickly flooding the muscle tissue reducing flavour quality. Bleeding fish is also important for storing fish, as residual blood oxidizes quicker than flesh, reducing flavour quality and appearance.
Secondly, storage and transport are also often overlooked. Keeping your cut fish dry is important as fresh water will decrease the flavour and texture. This rule also applies to preparation times as rinsing fish in fresh water when gutting and scaling is not ideal. Instead, use salt water when possible and try to avoid exposing fillets to water at all cost. For this reason, I always like to keep absorbent paper towels available to dry fish cavities and skin, as well as to wrap fillets or prepare fish for storage and transport.
A third consideration when transporting fish is temperature. Immediately submerging killed fish into an ice slurry is the best way to control this. Following fish preparation, store your paper wrapped fish in zip lock bags submerged back into the ice slurry. This ice slurry helps to keep the flesh firm and helps to reduce bruising and discolouration of the flesh and blood line. This firm flesh also makes preparation a breeze, especially when filleting.
In terms of tools, consider buying a good quality filleting knife. This does not necessarily refer to the flexibility of the blade, as a stiffer blade for filleting increases cutting accuracy and allows you to better feel what you are doing. A bread knife is also super handy as it allows you to effectively split heads, as well as saw through large bones for cutlets and collars.
The other tool that I would recommend is a quality pair of scissors. These are good for cutting fins and the smaller bones and will help retain the sharpness of the blade of your filleting knife.
The final consideration is to have a decent chopping board that you can put on a filleting table to create a level and secure surface. Putting wet paper towel under your board will help secure it, as there is nothing more difficult than trying to effectively and precisely prepare fish while it is sliding around on an uneven and slippery surface like your local filleting table.
TECHNIQUES FOR HANDLING FISH
In terms of the many ways to break down fish, I will start with the most obvious methods (including steps that I regularly see are overlooked by anglers at the filleting tables), though I am sure you may have your own. Consideration of these steps will create a platform for your own fish preparation and hopefully inspire you to use a more holistic approach when preparing your own fish in the future.
Firstly, when I cut whole fish I really concentrate on efficiency, which is something that I always refer to when teaching new cooks and chefs. I believe that every time you touch or move the fish that you are preparing, it is deteriorating in quality. This philosophy can be seen in the cuts that I demonstrate in this article. These are by no means the only ways that you can utilise the fish, but I feel like I often see a lot of other preparation techniques that lead to the over-handling of fish.
I start by removing scales from any area that I want the skin left on. I achieve this with either a knife or a scalar. There is no right or wrong way to do this - it really depends on what you prefer. I generally leave the guts in at this point if I intend to fillet the fish, as if you have sufficiently bled the fish, it should not get too messy. Following the removal of scales, I always give my work area and the fish a good wipe over with paper cloth to remove stray scales as well as moisture from the fish and work surface.
In the image above you can see I have made two cross cuts, one at the tail and one behind the head/collar. This is done to completely remove the tail as well as the head/collar of the fish. Use your serrated knife when cutting directly through the back bone. The reason for removing these parts from the fillet is that the fish will remain nice and flat throughout the entire filleting process making your cuts a lot easier to achieve. It also exposes the spinal bone that creates a visual to work along while removing the fillets.
The next image shows the second cut that I usually make. I use my knife to mark the belly down the rib bones, then my scissors to cut the bones. Using scissors allows me to more accurately cut through the bones without penetrating the gut cavity and creating unwanted mess. Once I have made these belly cuts, I remove the belly flap with the entirety of the guts. I always check the gut content to see what the fish has been feeding on as it is interesting to see how this changes seasonally for future bait presentations.
The next step is to split and clean the head by laying the head flat on one side. Using paper towel between the work surface and the head will help to secure the head so it does not slide away. Using the serrated knife, cut the fish at the point between the pectoral fins and continue sawing horizontally through to the top of the head. I support the head with a flat palm firmly pushing down so that the head does not slide away from you. For safety, never put your support hand in front of your working blade. Once the head is cut in half, split it open and remove the blood that congealed around the point that the spine connects to the crown.
The final step is to completely remove the gills by cutting with scissors at the point that where the neural spine bones are with the tip of my knife. The second is to completely expose the fillet down to the vertebrae. You can remove the second (bottom half) of the fillet by repeating these steps from the bottom of the fish or by working over the vertebrae and slicing outwards from the centre. You will also notice the inclusion of scissors in this image. These are great for cutting epipleural (rib bones) at the junction of the vertebra to save your knife's edge and increase safety. Now that you have removed the first fillet, flip the remaining fillet skin side up and repeat the process to remove the second fillet.
In this final image you can see some of the basic cuts that can be utilised in a variety of recipes. The loins of the kingfish are great for pan frying and to achieve a nice crisp skin ensure that the skin is completely dry before carefully putting them into a pan with about 1cm of cooking oil. Preheat the cooking oil to a high temperature and then reduce the heat to medium and cook no further than medium rare.
Alternatively, if you skin the fillets, they are great served raw as sashimi or diced and simmered in curries. The head and tail are also two of my preferred cooking cuts. By cooking them on the bone, the flesh will retrain its moisture whilst the natural collagen and connective tissue of these working muscles will also contain plenty of flavour. For this reason, I always cook these cuts at a medium heat until they are falling away from the bone. They are also great to bake, BBQ, steam or fry. My personal favourite is to roast them on wood fire by brushing them with Japanese bbq sauce and serving with lime wedges, a side of tomato and sweet corn salsa.
The belly is a personal favourite of mine. Like the collar, once cooked enough it will fall away from the skin providing you with flakey tender flesh. Before cooking the [Which part of the poor fish are you referring to?] remove the membrane that lines the inside of the gut cavity with a sharp knife. Season with salt and pepper and grill skin side down preferably over charcoal as the fat takes on the smokey aroma really well. Finish with salsa verde and fresh cos lettuce. Chips are also always a great addition.
I always lie larger fillets skin side down and cut lengthways on either side of the pin bones as this removes the bones and also removes the bloodline at the same time. By splitting the fillets in this fashion it creates loins that are much easier to skin if you intend on serving them as raw slices. Alternatively, leave the skin on and pan fry to medium rare. Both are great accompanied with a chilli soy dressing and fresh cucumbers. Always keep the fish frames and scraps (skin and pin bones) as these are really versatile. I always submerge the scraps in oil and put them on the stove to cook on a medium heat until the flesh is golden. What you will create is a fish oil which is great for dressing pasta and roasting potatoes or other root vegetables.
Another use for the fish frames is to bake them until golden brown as they are an essential ingredient for flavouring any fish stock or soup bases. I hope this encourages you to try some new things. It's far more inspiring when anglers creatively utilise their harvest as opposed to self glorifying by posting mass kill shots on social media with fish that are destined to deteriorate in a freezer. By using the delicious secondary cuts you will immediately decrease the number of fish you need to kill in order to feed yourself and your family.
Nathan Brindle currently runs the kitchen at Ester restaurant in Sydney. As a keen fisho, growing up on the NSW South Coast allowed him to have an oceanic lifestyle that he still maintains. Follow Nathan on Instagram @brindles_ beard.