Marianna Massey

Drum Throats with black lemon honey and sassafras chimichurri from Sac-a-Lait in New Orleans.

From Skin to Fin: How to Use Every Part of the Fish

Hold the Blue cheese: We’re not talking Buffalo chicken wings here. These and other fishy spare parts are more likely paired with Asian dipping sauces—and the sky’s the limit with underappreciated and invasive species.

Typically, a chef will send out oysters or caviar, or maybe extra desserts, to a special table. But recently at The Dawson in Chicago a more unusual treat arrived at our table—a spectacular tuna collar on a platter. It was imposing, even a little dark and sinister. But my table mates lost no time devouring it and declaring it delicious. It was a “Special.” Not something regularly on the menu but it fit the ethos of using all the parts of a fish. The following week one of my colleagues was at GW Fins in New Orleans and suddenly found herself confronted with sheepshead wings. Sheepshead is a local Louisiana fish, and so is red snapper, which also lends its fins to the cause.

GW Fins executive chef Michael Nelson, who’s devoted to utilizing every part of the fish, explains: “Collars were always a hard sell, but by making fin wings so easy and fun to eat they have become very popular.” He debones the collars except for the fin and the small bone attached to it. He tempura fries them, dips them in Korean glaze, and serves them over a crispy noodle salad. “They’re easy to eat. You hold the fin and eat just as you would a chicken wing,” he says.

“I’m also serving cheeks, skin, and even scales,” Chef Nelson says. “I use fish skin to create taco shells and fill the taco with meat from the same fish. I take fish scales and clean them, then soak them in vinegar, then clean them again. Then the scales are boiled for several hours and strained. What is left is a perfectly clear, tasteless gelatin. I use it to make flavored gelée to garnish crudo, and I have used it to make gummy fish.”

Chefs in Louisiana do love their fish and all the parts. Sac-a-Lait restaurant takes its name from a beloved local fish. There, chef/owners Samantha and Cody Carroll serve cheeks, throats, fins, and scales. “Growing up in Louisiana, we are taught to use all parts, not allowing anything to go to waste,” Samantha says. The restaurant broils drum throats and accompanies them with black lemon honey and sassafras chimichurri. How does honey get black? “The honey is a combination of squid ink, fresh lemon juice, and local Acadiana honey,” Chef Samantha explains. “The sweet and salty profile combined with the herbaceous chimichurri elevates this dish to the next level.” 

Chef Cody admits “clients can be a little wary of the throats, but an amazing set of flavors with a beautiful presentation makes this a crowd pleaser.” Even more startling is his scale-on whole snapper served “head on, tail on, eye balls in.” 

“We learned how to cook scale-on fish from an old Cajun fisherman. He told us that he would drop a whole mullet into a cast iron skillet and it would catch on fire. Out of curiosity, we tried it with red snapper and he was right. The key was, the fish had to be ice cold for the scales to puff up like popcorn. We knew this technique from similar procedures on how to cook cracklin.” 

The snapper is finished in a 500-degree oven. Trying to convince a diner to try the scales can prove to be a little difficult, he admits. “However, once they try them they’re always a fan.”

And then there are the catfish fins. “The inspiration behind doing fin-on fried fish is because everyone fights over the fins,” Cody says. “After a successful fishing trip, everyone comes home to clean their catch, and then the fish fry party starts. Once the fish are battered in corn meal and fried, you better fix your plate quickly. My mom and nephew are infamous for stealing all of the crispy fins off of the fish for themselves! Think of fried fish fins like chips, but so much more delicious.”

Sac-a-Lait doesn’t stop there. The chefs prepare grouper cheeks sous vide and serve it with an herbed sauce piquant. They make a ravioli with smoked gar and accompany it with pickled peaches and foie gras. And they batter alligator tail meat with honey powder (dehydrated honey mixed with the house seasoned flour) and pan-fry it. “It’s sweet and crunchy,” Samantha says. 

Alligator counts as seafood—at least in Louisiana where Catholics are permitted to eat it on Fridays during Lent. And nobody is more partial to gators than Nathan Richard, the executive chef at Kingfish restaurant in New Orleans. He even hunts the wild ones during the September season. So on his menu you’ll find alligator wings. “No, they don’t fly, but they can chase you down,” he says. He rubs the legs with barbecue spice and pops them in the smoker for six hours. Then he flash-fries them and tosses them in a café au lait barbecue sauce. “You eat them off the bone just like chicken wings. Your hands are all messy and people tend to lick their fingers.”

Chris Cosentino’s yellowfin tuna collar was lauded by San Francisco Chronicle critic Michael Bauer as part of the chef’s all out efforts at head-to-tail cooking. Diners reserving at Cosentino’s restaurant Cockscomb and who are familiar with the chef’s devotion to offal, would hardly be surprised by collars or fins.

At Southerleigh in San Antonio, chef Jeff Balfour serves fried Gulf red snapper collars with sweet pepper aioli. “Our only problem is we can’t keep ’em,” Chef Balfour says, praising their popularity. “We are a brewery so it was one of the first things that came to my mind that goes well with beer.” 

In Los Angeles, Michael Cimarusti, chef/owner of Providence, is also a proponent of using every part of every kind of fish. “We take all the collars and cheeks and bellies and then brine them and smoke them,” he says. In his Cape Seafood and Provisions retail shop, he sells them “as they are.” In the restaurant, he most often grills them. “We don’t serve the collars whole, the way they do in a Japanese restaurant where you pick at it. We take the meat out of the collar and serve it in different ways,” he says. “I use bones to make broth and skin to make chips, which I serve as a textural element on dishes.” For example, he’ll grill a salmon medium rare, save the skin, bake it until it’s really crispy, and then garnish the salmon with a crisp skin chip.

“I feel like there are certain parts of fish that Americans are averse to eating, such as eyeballs,” Cimarusti says. “But with bones, skin, cheeks, and collars there’s no customer resistance to those parts if people trust you. We taste everything we make. If it’s not delicious, we wouldn’t serve it.”

Cimarusti is also a proponent of underutilized species like California rock fish, vermilion rock cod, lingcod, longnose skate, and thorny heads. “We want to have fish you would expect, like salmon, but also things you don’t see often in markets—fish that are highly sustainable, delicious, and affordable. Some of our customers come looking for value, and these fish definitely represent good value. They are harvested locally, so it’s a win-win for everybody.”

Cimarusti notes, “Some of our most famous fish dishes, like bouillabaisse, are based on fish that are not the most beautiful but [are] cheaper varieties like scorpion fish and sea robin—all varieties that fishermen couldn’t sell. They brought them home and made a stew with them.”

In Charleston, South Carolina, triggerfish “bologna” has become a bestseller at The Macintosh. Chef Jeremiah Bacon simply uses the fish instead of pork to make his bologna, which he throws on the grill to get the marks customers love. The bologna is part of his popular seafood charcuterie, which might also feature rillettes, brandade, grouper headcheese, or smoked fish pâté—all made from trim. “It’s served like a charcuterie plate for the table to share with grilled bread and mustard,” Bacon adds. “It’s unique so people want to check it out.”

Triggerfish was considered a “trash” fish, but as more popular fish like grouper became scarce, chefs like Bacon started making use of it. He also notes that porgy, once known as poor man’s fish, is also becoming more popular. “Sometimes people call it pink snapper or Charleston snapper, flashy names for the menu,” Bacon says.

A porgy by any other name sells better. So it’s dubbed Montauk sea bream on the menu of Kerry Heffernan, executive chef at Grand Banks, a floating restaurant in New York City, and Seaworthy in the Ace Hotel in New Orleans. He serves it as a ceviche and likes to take credit for its growing popularity. “It’s delicious,” he says. “I’ve served it to Francois Payard and Daniel.”

An avid fisherman, Chef Heffernan is also a big fan of collars, especially of bluefish, tuna, and salmon. “I serve them at the restaurant for special occasions. It takes a particular person at this point to order. Most Americans don’t like working around unfamiliar bits of bone.” he says, adding “the cheeks are best off halibut, bluefish, and cod. It’s not only about saving waste. It’s exposing people to a kind of protein source they’ve probably never had.” 

Meanwhile in Washington, D.C., chefs are on a mission to rid their waters of invasive blue catfish by persuading people to eat them. No one is pushing them harder than their supplier, Tim Sughrue of Congressional Seafood, who says, “Blue catfish are the greatest environmental threat the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem has ever faced.” He paints a picture of the blue cat as a super predator threatening the entire Chesapeake Bay and beyond. “They eat everything and nothing eats them. They eat blue crabs by the millions. They live for 20 years and grow to be 100 pounds.” So far he has about 200 restaurant clients for the blue cats. He estimates that the restaurants in the area went through about 200,000 pounds of fillets last year, but his goal for the restaurants is 1 million pounds. “We are always pushing our clientele to put it on the menu,” he says. “It’s delicious—not even close to farm-raised catfish, which is a different species.”

So what’s the biggest challenge? “People say they don’t like catfish,” he explains, “but they have never had blue cat.”

D.C. chefs like Jeffrey Buben, chef/owner of Vidalia, Bistro Bis, and Woodward Table, are making sure their customers have a chance to taste the blue cats. Buben says, “Blue catfish is toothsome and it has a regional influence to make it part of the Southern table. We have always used farmed catfish. People think wild is muddy, but this catfish doesn’t have a muddy quality because it’s so fresh.”

He had great success with a traditional catfish sandwich. He also likes the texture for an escabeche and found it can stand up to being sautéed or seared like snapper, grouper, or other white fish.

At Zaytinya, Chef José Andrés gives Blue Catfish Skordalia a Greek twist with an ouzo batter and an accompaniment of traditional potato garlic spread.

Bart Farrell, food and beverage director of Clyde’s Restaurant Group, says its 14 restaurants regularly serve the blue catfish and are dedicated to the goal of reducing the numbers of this invasive species. “It’s a bonus that it’s delicious,” he says. “At first a lot of our chefs were hemming and hawing, but then they were blown away with how clean and how tasty they are. We were thinking the only way was to fry them, but then we sautéed them and used them for a bánh mì. A year ago we did 15,000 to 16,000 orders in one month. Normally each restaurant can sell 40 to 60 six-ounce portions a day.”

The question remains whether this will really solve the problem. “Right now the annual harvest of blue cats is only 3 million pounds,” Sughrue says. “We need to harvest in excess of 40 million pounds.” A big challenge, but he’s confident it’s possible. When you remember that Chef Paul Prudhomme almost single handedly endangered the redfish population with his famous blackened preparation, why couldn’t something similar happen to blue catfish? Sughrue’s motto: “We eat ’em to beat ’em.”

Beverly Stephen, the former executive editor of Food Arts magazine, is a New York–based freelance journalist and conference producer.