Wouldn’t you know the day I forget my camera is the day my boy catches his first salmon off the beach—on a Snoopy rod no less. (The photo at left is his second salmon off the beach, taken the next day. He’s looking a little more blasé about the whole thing.)
Riley let out a whoop when the fish hit his lure, and I’m sure I probably thought it was a false alarm, some weeds or a bottom snag. But then I saw the Snoopy rod doubled over. Next came the yelling and screaming and carrying on. Other anglers on the beach interrupted their casts to take notice of the commotion. I ran over and set up a station behind the boy, making sure the fish didn’t rip the rod right out of his grip. He reeled and kept the tip up like a pro. Pretty soon the fish was in the surf and I figured for sure it would break the line. But Riley held on and pulled that salmon right up onto the beach. The kid knows what to do.
My kids are big soup eaters. Because we live near Seattle’s International District, at a tender age they discovered noodle houses and the “subtle yet profound” pleasures of an Asian noodle soup, as one blogger has jokingly put it, parroting cooking shows like “Iron Chef.” These soups are so tasty and cheap that I never really considered trying to make my own before, but after reading Hank Shaw’s post on the “nasty bits” of fish, I just had to give it a shot. Besides, we’re fishermen here at FOTL. When the salmon are gone I suppose we’ll fish sculpin; in the meantime we can do honor to our catch by eating every last morsel.
I haven’t cooked many fish head soups. None in fact. Luckily we have the Interwebs from which to draw on a nearly bottomless well of inspiration. Two recipes in particular, in addition to Hank’s, informed my final improvisation: [eating club] vancouver’s Mama’s Fish Head Soup is home cooking at its best, and gave me the courage to use canned Szechuan prepared vegetables; a column by Steve Barnes from Albany, N.Y.’s Times Union convinced me that the double-strain was the way to go, and that aromatics such as green onions and cilantro would give the broth extra depth when applied after the first straining.
The advice was good. I have to say, if you’ll allow me, this soup was every bit as good as soups I’ve had in the I-District. Those of little faith might get spooked during the proceedings, especially when the salmon heads are rolling around in there with the leeks and other stuff, going to pieces and spraying their bones about willy-nilly. But that’s what the strainer is for. Ever glanced into the kitchen of a back alley noodle house? Not a good idea. But all the crazy stuff going into that bubbling cauldron will eventually get strained out, leaving—yes—a subtle yet profound broth in its place.
Hank’s Salmon Head Soup is in the Japanese tradition. We like that—but my kids are most enthusiastic about the many varieties of Chinese noodle soup, so I went down to Uwajimaya to see what ingredients I could dig up. Sure enough, they had the sketchy can of Szechuan prepared vegetables (some sort of radish, I think). I also got some udon noodles, our nod to the Japanese style. Here are the ingredients in full:
2-3 salmon heads, cut in half
2 tbsp peanut or vegetable oil
1 tsp sesame oil (optional)
1 3-inch thumb of ginger, peeled and sliced
2 leeks, tops discarded, chopped
4 green onions, chopped
4-5 cloves garlic, chopped
2 Thai red peppers, thinly sliced
Chinese cooking wine
2 tbsp fish sauce (optional)
rice vinegar (optional)
1 can Szechuan prepared vegetable (optional)
1 can bamboo shoots
1/2 head Napa cabbage, shredded
1 handful cilantro for garnish, stemmed, with stems reserved
1 package Asian noodles (e.g., udon, soba, ramen)
Despite the long list and the double strain, this is actually a fairly easy soup to make without the sort of pitfalls that can bedevil other soup recipes.
1. Over medium-high heat, brown fish heads and ginger in oil for a few minutes, turning at least once. De-glaze pot with a splash of wine and add chopped leeks, garlic, and half the green onions and red peppers. Saute together for several minutes.
2. De-glaze pot again with another splash of wine, then add 8 cups of water and optional fish sauce. Bring to a light boil, reduce heat, and simmer for 30 minutes.
3. Strain contents, picking and reserving as much salmon meat as possible. Return soup to simmer. Adjust for salt. Add half the remaining green onion and the cilantro stems. (Optional seasoning: Add a tablespoon of each: Chinese wine, rice vinegar, aji-mirin; add a few heaping tablespoons of Szechuan prepared vegetables.) Simmer another 15-30 minutes.
4. Strain soup a second time and return to low heat to keep warm. Dole out reserved salmon meat into bowls, along with noodles, a handful of shredded cabbage, and spoonfuls of both Szechuan prepared vegetables (optional) and bamboo shoots. Ladle soup. Garnish with green onion, cilantro, and Thai red pepper. Serves 4.
Prepared Szechuan vegetables will be hard to find unless you have access to an Asian market. If you can find ’em, I highly recommend. I also recommend the optional seasoning, though you’ll be tempering the fish flavor in the process. A second strain with green onions and cilantro stems (or similar aromatics) is de rigeur; this is where the umami effect really kicks into high gear. If you’ve eaten in a quality noodle house, you know what I’m talking about. How do they do it? I once wondered, savoring every last drop of broth in my bowl.
Now I know.