Fillets are what most New Englanders want. No bones, no tail, and above all, no head. It's a cultural thing, and my friend Neilly says it's too bad. He's from Jamaica, and Jamaicans use the whole fish—not just because it's wasteful not to—but also because the bones and the heads are where the flavor's at.
The recipe he makes most often here is brown stew fish. The flavors are similar to brown stew chicken—there's ketchup and Scotch Bonnets—but instead of poultry, the meat in the dish is fish heads. They're cut in half and the blood is cleaned out, and what you're left with is the meaty cheeks and the jaw and the bones and the eyeballs. He says it's edible, every bit.
I tasted a batch he made the other day with bluefish. He also makes it with striper and redfish, and I was excited about the idea of a stew that uses the parts of the fish most people toss in the compost. I wasn't disappointed. It's delicious. The bluefish heads give the stew a richness that you don't get from fillets, and the cheek meat melts in your mouth.
We made the stew last night at home. My parents were here, and they were very curious as to what I was doing with a bag full of fish heads. We fried them up and stewed them down with peppers and onions and a sweet, tangy sauce, then served it all over rice. I haven't worked up the courage yet to try an eyeball, but I'll keep you posted.
Neilly didn't have a written recipe, so I asked him about quantities ingredient by ingredient. This is very close to the original. If they cut their own fish, most fishmongers will give you bluefish trimmings for free.
3 bluefish heads, cut in half lengthwise and cleaned
1/2 cup flour
salt and pepper
1 sweet pepper (red or yellow), thinly sliced
1 Scotch Bonnet pepper, minced
1 onion, thinly sliced
3 scallions, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons red or white vinegar
3-4 sprigs thyme
3/4 cup ketchup
3/4 cup coconut milk
4 cups water
Dredge the bluefish heads in flour seasoned with salt and pepper. Fry the heads in a skillet greased with olive oil over medium heat, flipping after about 3 minutes. Set the cooked heads aside.
Warm up another glug of olive oil in a large soup pot over medium heat. Add the peppers, onion, and scallion and sauté for about 10 minutes, or until they start to get soft. Add the soy sauce, vinegar, thyme, ketchup, and coconut milk and stir well.
Add the fish heads and the water. The water should just cover the heads, so you may need more or less depending on the size of your fish. Simmer the stew for at least 15 minutes before serving, and up to several hours. It's excellent over rice.