As I walked about the property over the last few weeks, I found myself on the lookout for things that I don’t want to find melting on a snowbank in the spring. I did this in spite of the warm weather, and perhaps because of my steadfast refusal to listen to weather reports.
Anyway, whether it’s hanging tools in the shed, lining up jars of jam, bags of beets, and crocks of cranberries in the root cellar, this is certainly a time of year for tidying. A lot of food both wild and grown has made its way into the freezer as well. Real estate becomes scarce as the weeks go by without any below zero temperatures, which will relieve the pressure a bit when they come.
As I was engaged in the chilly, three-dimensional Tetris that is rearranging a chest freezer, I discovered a motley-looking assortment of Ziploc bags of odd sizes and shapes containing the remains of spring and summer-caught fish. In the spirit of thinking ahead (or putting it off ’til later), a number of spines, some from rather large pike, had been carelessly allowed to freeze in contortions worthy of Cirque du Soleil performers. In addition to taking up more freezer space than necessary, this also made them challenging to fit into all but the largest of stock pots.
However, fit them into a pot I did, on a day that was chill enough to warrant a fire in the woodstove. I left the bones to simmer along with an onion, carrot, celery and fennel stalks (all left in large pieces to facilitate straining) while I continued puttering and tidying. Many cookbooks suggest no more than an hour of simmering for fish stock because the flavours and oils are more delicate than in meat – personally I have enjoyed two or three hour stock as long as it isn’t boiled, and I have read traditional recipes in the Northwest Territories that call for 12 or 18 hours.
When as much of the good stuff as possible had made it into the broth, I fished out the spines (sorry) and picked off the remaining meat, doing my best to remove any tenacious bones. This is especially important for the pike spines, which retain a strip of flesh containing the y-bones (floating bones that run either side of the spine and give pike its reputation for being so darn bony).
I did the same with the heads, amazed as always at the texture of the cheeks — like miniature scallops.
While my dog relished the crunch and whatever flavour remained, I turned back to the broth itself. I strained it through a colander lined with cheesecloth to catch scales and any small bones as well as bits of herb stalk, and added in a fresh diced carrot, thinly sliced turnip, and a couple of cubes of green curry paste, made when cilantro and basil were bountiful in the greenhouse.
When the veggies were soft, I tossed in the retained fish meat, finely chopped my last bunch of fresh parsley and sprinkled it on top – voilà! It doesn’t get much better than this. Plus, I got to check “make space in freezer” off my list. Does the satisfaction ever end?
Fish Stock Tips
Remove gills from heads before freezing; they can make soup taste bitter.
Break or chop spines into pieces before freezing so they take up less space, and fit better into a pot when frozen.
Don’t let it boil – all those smells escaping are no longer contributing to the flavour of your stock, and will hang around your kitchen for a long time.