Cod Optimization, From Head to Tail

A cod’s brain, lips and eyes go into a pasta sauce.

FROM 2006 to 2009 my family food budget was governed by the convergence of two troubling and important phenomena:

1. The global decline of oceanic fisheries; and

2. The rapid and imprudent spending of my book advance.

During those years, I was writing a book about the global decline of oceanic fisheries. I spent tens of thousands of dollars on researching the book, but was sent back to the drawing board by my editors no fewer than four times, rewriting, re-reporting, re-spending more and more money that I didn’t have.

Which is why I ended up contributing directly to the global decline of oceanic fisheries.

On a bone-chilling February morning, I stepped aboard the Montauk party fishing boat Sea Otter to try to catch some cod. Cod used to be one of the most astoundingly bountiful sources of wild protein in the world. Those stories you’ve heard of fantastical catches of fish enriching the early American colonies? Cod. But like me, humanity blew its advance. If we’d just had a little restraint and caught the majority of the cod every year instead of building some of the biggest boats ever made and then catching almost all the cod, we and the codfish would be in much better shape.

Humans, as usual, couldn’t restrain themselves. In the cod heartlands, like the Canadian Grand Banks, humans caught billions of cod — and now the remainders are runts. Scientists have even proposed that we’ve selected a whole new race of mini-cod by catching and eating all the big ones. As a result of all this bad behavior, a pound of cod that once went for a few bucks regularly retails for $14 a pound — way out of the ballpark for my food budget.

But humanity may have started to learn its lesson. In United States waters, a few cod breeding grounds have been closed for two decades. And slowly cod are trickling back, down past Massachusetts and Rhode Island and finally within range of Long Island. By the winter of 2008 when my finances reached their nadir I’d heard that cod were abundant enough to be targeted by the Montauk party boats. A cod-fishing trip on the Sea Otter cost $140 at the time. I reasoned that if cod really had returned, I might just put fish back on my table without taking out another credit card advance.

Word gets out quickly in the fishing community when fish stage even a tentative comeback. No one knew that this was to be the beginning of what has become a magnificent early spring Montauk run that continues to this day. But on that morning in 2008 the Sea Otter “railed” — it was so full that the rails would be packed shoulder to shoulder when we finally got fishing. I squeezed in on the narrow prisoner’s bench on the boat’s port side and eventually nodded off on the shoulder of a large plumber from Lindenhurst, N.Y. Two hours later, the engines slowed and the plumber sprung up, leaving my head to slam onto the bench. I put on my rubber coveralls and Glacier Gloves and stumbled out to the rail in the predawn gloom.

Credit...James Prosek

When I finally got my gob of clams to the bottom, within seconds my rod was bent double. I reeled three cranks and — snap! — my line broke when the big cod below made a lunge bottomward. I quickly retied and sent my hook down again. Wham! Another big cod on. This one made it to the surface and into my milk crate.

Meanwhile, the Lindenhurst plumber to my left had already caught four codfish. He seemed to have some kind of trick, flipping out his line at a 45-degree angle from the stern, letting it drift around and then, watching the tip of his pole twitch, muttering profane encouragements to the codfish, and then rearing back on his heels and setting the hook. His pole would bend deeply, and he’d exclaim with the full capacity of his lungs, “Have a nice day!”

The “bite” continued all morning, although, thanks to bad technique and faulty equipment, I lost a lot of fish. The Lindenhurst plumber, meanwhile, accrued codfish after codfish. “Have a nice day!” he screamed again and again, setting the hook on more and more cod — savagely, terribly, with a rising chaos of blood thirst in his voice. I was using a modest-size crate to keep my fish, but the plumber had a giant garbage can, and it was brimming with the tails of dying fish. “Have a nice day!” Fish after fish. A second garbage can. The beginning of a third.

In the course of my 12 hours at sea, I caught about a dozen five-to-seven-pound cod, giving me a total “round weight” of about 70 pounds. I paid $140 for the fishing trip, which meant that all my delicious fresh cod cost only $2 a pound. A tremendous savings. The problem is that cod have a low “fillet yield” — a lot of their body weight comes from their huge heads and not from the pearly boneless fillet that extends from pectoral to caudal fin. So, really, I had only 35 pounds of fillets. That meant a $4-a-pound yield. To bring the price back down again, I’d have to resort to more drastic measures.

First, though, I dealt with the fillets. Thirty-five pounds of cod lasts my family 10 weeks. So almost all that meat had to be frozen. I was happy to see that, as I packed them away, layer after layer, they exactly fit my freezer’s lower berth. It felt like depositing checks. Even better. For unlike freelance writing income, which is forever subject to deductions from Social Security tax, college savings plans and other nuisances, I had full title to my cod. I don’t generally align myself with libertarians, but just let the government try to take my fish away, and see what happens.

With my fillets stowed, I turned attention to my new idea of stretching my cod-fishing dollar. This came to me while standing amid a pile of guts at the back of the boat with the Lindenhurst plumber while the mate cleaned our catches. “Hey, you know,” the plumber said surveying the carnage, “there’s a lot of good meat on those heads.” Though the plumber’s remark was more apostrophe than prescription,
I shoved 20 fish heads into my cooler.

I found that there are two ways of getting at all that “good meat” on a head. The less efficient is to take a paring knife and work out the flesh just behind the brain casement as well as the circular scallop-shaped piece of muscle above the gill plate. This I did with about half of the heads until my wrists ached. In all I was able to dig out a gallon-size plastic bag full. This meat I froze for later use as cod cakes, cod chowder and cod ice pops for my son (just kidding on that last one).

It was, however, the second use of the head that turned out to the pièce de résistance of codfish penny pinching: cod-head spaghetti sauce.

Flipping through “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking,” by Marcella Hazan, I found a recipe for fish-head sauce, and set about following it. I fried some onions and garlic in the widest pan I had. When everything goldened up nicely, I lay in the heads. I sautéed them on one side, flipped them and sautéed them on the other. I then scooped them out and let them cool. The big pieces, that “good meat” that’s readily noticeable on the shoulders and gill plates, slid right out when the heads were cooked. Per Marcella’s advice, I put those big chunks aside for later so they wouldn’t overcook in the main body of the sauce.

The horror show (and the savings) is what happened with the rest. After being sautéed, the cod heads became gelatinous, and everything of integrity in them came apart. The lips, the tongue, the brain, even the eyes.

This gloppy heap is the ambrosia of cod-head spaghetti sauce. To make use of said ambrosia, remove the bigger bones by hand, and then put the remaining mess through a hand-cranked food mill. Out of the other side comes a purple-ish mass that no one who eats this sauce needs to know about.

Combined with already simmered tomatoes, parsley and white wine, the sauce became savory-red and delicious. After I mixed in the big chunks of cheek and shoulder meat, it was downright hearty.

The fishing, the head-meat-paring, the head frying, the cleanup — it all left me limp. Indeed, if I were accustomed to being paid by the hour, it would be hard to say that there was any real savings in this cod trip. Exhausted, I laid out my spaghetti and fish-head sauce on a massive platter in front of my family. Joining us that night was a sophisticated and well-traveled food writer who had been downsized during her old newspaper’s recent cutbacks. She was considering becoming a freelance writer. My 2-year-old son knew nothing of the cheek meat and brain pulp that had gone into the meal, and he tucked in to his bowl of pasta with relish. So as not to disturb his forward progress, I whispered the fish head spaghetti sauce recipe to the food writer when she asked for it.

“Oh!” she exclaimed, “that’s la cucina povera!” The cuisine of the poor.

Maybe so. Or maybe you could just call it “fruit of the freelancer.”

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