I'm averse, these days, to getting too behind-the-scenes about how I write. Writing is ... what I do, you know? I have said for years that writers should be like teakettles: work hard and shut the fuck up about it until you're done, at which point you can whistle for someone to come a-runnin'. I don't want to be a part of writers' groups, writers' communities, I don't talk shop, I don't have a social outlet connected to writing. That just isn't how I am. I think about what I do and how I do it and why -- I'm not like people who don't want to look at the sausage factory -- but it's not a community event for me.
Some of that is also true of cooking. I blog, yeah. But that's a broadcast, not a knitting circle. I read other blogs, and sometimes read eGullet, but I don't participate much, because I'm more interested in skimming and listening a bit than I am in getting a conversation going. To tell you the truth, I don't even read cooking magazines or all that many cookbooks, and when I do read cookbooks, I usually have a goal, like "tell me what I don't know about Cuban cooking." But I am much much less averse to getting into details when it comes to cooking, obviously -- I just lack an interest in community, in general.
So the question the Little Cambodia post raises is, what do you do when you have new ingredients in the kitchen? Particularly if they're ... randomly new ingredients, and not things you went questing for, for the sake of some specific recipe or use? Things you just buy, because the appeal suggests itself or for the simple reason that you don't know what it is but you know someone somewhere loves it.
See, I find that an interesting question. I find that an interesting process. That is an angle on cooking, an approach to cooking, markedly different from cooking activities with clear endpoints, like "making Thanksgiving dinner" or "perfecting a grilled cheese sandwich." Not a better or more interesting angle, just a different one. There is maybe more engaged here. There are maybe more neurons pricking up their little neuronic ears and going "do you need me? do you need me?" all eager to do their part and get their name in the box score. Every choice eliminates possibilities. There is a blind date sort of intrigue lurking on a blank page.
Sometimes you know a little. Consider the salmon heads. Obviously I've eaten salmon before. I've cooked salmon before. Usually fillets (I know steaks are popular, but fillets give you the skin, you dig). My seafood prep experience lags far behind my meat and vegetable prep; I haven't dealt with whole fish often, which means I simply don't have fish heads around all that much.
But I know salmon. I have associations with salmon, both first- and second-hand. I know it takes well to smoke, salt, sweetness, dill, richness. Can I smoke a salmon head? Can I make "Indian candy," the sweet chewy smoked salmon? Should I just make stock?
I have some understanding of the use and usefulness of fish heads. I know the combination of meat, bones, connective tissue, skin, and fat is great for making stock. I know that, just as lobsters are large enough to have sufficient claw meat while crawfish generally are not, larger fish like salmon have sufficient cheek meat. I know, further, that fish cheek meat is sometimes prized and sometimes unscrupulously passed off as scallops. I can't remember ever specifically hearing about salmon cheeks, which doesn't mean I haven't.
I know you can eat the eyeballs, one of those divisive areas of food.
I know fish collars are prized for the meat on them, but I'm not sure if my heads include the collars or not.
I know that salmon can be eaten raw, but that I obviously won't be eating this salmon raw, since it wasn't sold for that purpose so I can't be sure of its sufficient safety. (Though I suspect a 24 hour freeze at sufficient temp would make everything A-OK.)
So that's what I know. Out of the gate, game 1, salmon head on the mound, that's what I know.
Then I google, or try to, since Google is crapping out on me tonight. I find salmon head soup. I find praise for the meatiness of the salmon cheeks. Mention of the eyeballs. Mentions of grilling. A couple pages that show up point out the skin on the head, and the delectability of salmon skin, which gives me second thoughts about using them for stock -- if nothing else, maybe I'll cook the heads first, make use of that skin, and then make stock of what's left.
For the moment, that's where I stop, because I have to decide what's going to go in the freezer (probably all of the pork), and what to do with the crabs and the hard chicken, and because of the perishability of culantro and my previous inability to freeze it without it going bad, I have already roasted one package of oxtails until well-browned and am now simmering them in the crockpot. Destination: Chili with oxtail, ground chuck, and culantro.
Furthermore, tomorrow morning I need to work. So I'll think about salmon heads tomorrow, and not longer than that -- fish will not wait for long.
I'll tell you this much, I'm glad I got the salmon heads. I often don't consider too seriously anything at the counter, because my experience has been that it's hard to get anyone's attention without raising my voice to the point of seeming rude -- I think they assume that I'm only browsing, particularly if I happen to be standing in front of salmon heads or pork blood (used in a Filipino stew, for the record). But for seven bucks, at a minimum I'm likely to get good rich fish stock out of this -- and really, the experience itself, the process of raising these questions, is good exercise. A fully foreign ingredient without any conceptual handles doesn't always offer that, but salmon heads are right in that zone where you have some built-in expectations, some existing understanding to work with.