Fall Fish Stock
Fish stock is one of those things many cooks don’t pay much attention to until they see it on a recipe’s ingredient list. There are certainly commercial stocks available in the soup aisle at the grocery store, but they are typically very salty and can taste like the can they come in. But fish stock is one of those ingredients that is truly a breeze to make, freeze, and have on hand for the aforementioned recipes. Doing so opens your cool weather fish cookery options well beyond basic frying, baking, and grilling. Think richly flavored chowders, savory seafood stews, slowly stirred risottos, and succulently-sauced, slow-poached fish steaks.
In theory, every time you have the chance to buy fresh seafood, you also have the opportunity to pick up the ingredients you need for fish stock, namely, fish heads and fish frames, sometimes called racks. Using oily fish like mackerel or salmon makes a really fishy stock, which is okay if that’s what you’re going for. But for a more neutral stock, it’s best to run with the heads and racks from local flaky white fish such as haddock, pollock, Acadian redfish, or black sea bass.
Obviously those bits come with every whole fish you buy and break down yourself, but even if you’re only in the market for fillets, ask the fishmonger for heads and racks, as they come pretty cheap as a by-product of the fish filleting process. Both fishy elements freeze well so you don’t have to make stock on the day you visit the fish shop. You can bag them up and freeze them until you do have the time to pull it off.
Not that it takes all that much time.
Fish stock requires much less time in the pot than a meat stock does. Because of the fishs’ delicate bones and the structure of the flesh still left on them, a stock maker can extract all of the flavor and goodness from them in a matter of minutes. Thirty minutes of very gently simmering does the trick. Over-cooking a fish stock—either in terms of time or terms of boiling it too hard—doesn’t equal more flavor. Rather, what comes to the surface is a chalky flavor due to the calcium that starts to dissolve into the stock, followed by an unpleasant ammonia flavor despite how fresh the fish heads and racks were when they went into the pot.
To make about six cups of stock, you’ll need about four to five pounds of fish trimmings. Included in the mix of trimmings should be at least four heads. Rinse the fish trimmings in cold water and put them into a large stockpot with four celery stalks, two whole garlic cloves, two onions that have been peeled and halved, and two chopped carrots. The herbs in the pot should include two bay leaves, a handful each of thyme and parsley stems, and a dozen or so black peppercorns. Pack the ingredients into the pot fairly tightly and add just enough cold water (about an inch) to cover everything.
Bring the pot to a very gentle simmer. Use a metal spoon to skim off any scum that rises to the surface. Cover the pot and simmer ever so gently for 30 minutes. Let the stock cool slightly before straining it into storage containers. The stock will keep for three days in the refrigerator or three months in the freezer.