In the Toqué! restaurant cookbook, the fish heads look all pretty. It’s one of the restaurant’s most popular (and simplest) dishes, but it turns out that when you take a bowl full of parsley, cilantro, scallion and chive purée and a squeeze bottle of hot sauce and try to spread both artistically over the head of a fish (already a kind of ugly thing), you really shouldn’t mix them together.
I ended up with big blobs of green and “Heinz glass bottle of ketchup”-style unexpected blobs of red (remember those commercials?).
No, I’m not that old.
Actually, after hunting for the video, it turns out I was thinking of this one, which is for French fries, and has a convenient squeeze bottle. The lesson is that I should have asked this guy to decorate my fish head because he’s surely by now a squeeze bottle pro.
So what was I to do but try to fix it, which inevitably resulted in a puke brown concoction.
The pretty fish head below? Yeah, I didn’t do that one.
This one was my friend showing me up.
All my catering experience plating desserts with swirls of blackberry purée and strawberry gels and balsamic reductions did me no good. My friend properly bested me and deserves congratulations for properly decorating a fish head. I’m sure if he quit his job at Moment Factory, Toqué! would hire him. Two years and he could be chef de cuisine. Five years and he’d open his own award-winning restaurant. I’d go and order the fish heads.
I’d like to say it’s the cookbook’s fault that my fish head was ugly, but the recipe actually worked great. And its picture in the book was pretty, of course. Maybe it just needed better instructions for decorating. Maybe there’s a Toqué! fish head decorating for dummies book…
Still, the fish tasted good. It’s a salt and sugar dry brine, then a bake and then either a quick broil or a kitchen torch to sear. The sear didn’t work so great because of the brine ended making it all soggy (there was no instruction to pat the fish dry after the brine, I don’t think).
But if you kitchen torch anything enough, it’ll eventually get crispy, if not blackened. Here’s a photo of a post-torched fish head on the left and pre-torched fish head on the right:
Both were delicious.
Seriously, this is a very forgiving (and economical) recipe. Fish heads are dirt cheap and there’s a ton of meat in there (the cheeks, but also more around the throat and gills), especially if the head comes from a big fish. The easiest and cheapest are often Atlantic salmon, which are horribly unsustainable and come from generally pesticide-laden open waters. So I’d splurge on BC salmon heads if you can get them (good luck on the east coast) or buy a bunch of smaller fish heads from the largest sustainable species you can find. If you want the salmon flavour, you can also buy trout or Arctic char fillets instead of heads. I’ve never seen particularly large ones of those – certainly not big enough for the impressive presentation created with a giant salmon head.
There’s more than one reason to buy this cookbook, but this might just be the most accessible recipe. Others call for foams and powders and tomato skins, and honestly life’s too short for that. I completely support the restaurant and cookbook, and loved reading all about the producers, the farms, the chefs, the recipes and the other ways in which Toqué! is magical, but this will probably be a coffee table book for me, minus a couple handy recipe excerpts like the brine for this fish, which could work with any fish, meat or even vegetable by varying the brining time. And the next time I need heaps and heaps of crazy flavourful mayo, I know where to find a handful of recipes.
In general, I’d rather go to the restaurant and have the genius chefs cook all their crazy creations for me instead. Nary a dollop of mayo will probably go to waste in that kitchen.