Written by: Taylor Witkin
“Would you remove the head, please?” I heard this familiar question as I admired the fresh seafood at my local fish stand.
Upon hearing the customer’s request I shuddered. She was about to miss out on one of the tastiest parts of her red snapper. Just below the eyes and in front of the gills rest the cheeks. Considered a delicacy in some cultures and trendy in today’s food scene, these tender morsels of flesh are packed with more flavor than any other part of the animal.
Unfortunately fish cheeks are neglected in many home kitchens. Unlike beef and pork, which are usually sold in manageable portions and come in a variety of cuts, I think there is a common misconception that a fish contains only one cut of meat. While you can almost always find fillets of cod, salmon, and sea bass ready for a skillet, or tuna and swordfish steaks just asking to be thrown on a grill, fish are also sold whole, lending themselves to increased possibility and creativity in kitchens.
But buying whole fish can also lead to a bit more work. Cooking doesn’t just mean frying, searing, or baking; it also includes scaling, cleaning, filleting. That extra effort and potential mess, causes many to avoid tackling the whole fish altogether. But a fish is more than the sum of its fillets. While fish heads are often lumped in with other offal, the cheeks deserve celebration. And if you’ve already put in the effort of breaking down your fish, why waste something edible and delicious?
In general, the bigger the fish, the bigger the cheek, so it’s probably not worth trying extract the cheek of a sardine or anchovy. However, if you see a nice looking, monkfish, tuna, grouper, or skate (the list goes on) get excited; the best qualities of a fish are accentuated in its cheeks. Whether you love the flakiness of grouper and snapper, the sweet, mild tones of monkfish and skate, or the rich, meaty flavor of ahi tuna, the cheek will blow you away.
When it comes to buying cheeks and then eating them, you have two options. The first is to cook the fish whole; this usually works with smaller species, like grouper. Roast a grouper with some mango and onions, peel back the skin just below the eye and you’ll find the flakiest, juiciest part of the fish. It won’t be much, but it will be worth it. With bigger fish, you can actually extract the cheek, which are manageable, scallop-like portions that only require a nice steam with some aromatics or a bath in hot oil.
Perhaps the trickiest part about this undervalued cut is finding them. Your best bet is a fresh fish stand at your local farmer’s market. In Boston, Red’s Best, a community-based fishery operation, works with local day boats to provide fresh, sustainable fish. One aspect of sustainability is leaving nothing to waste; when they are in season you can find delectable monkfish and skate cheeks at most markets. At New Deal Fish Market, in Cambridge MA, you can buy a fish head and then steam it yourself to extract the cheeks and the meat from the collar. New Deal always offers the best and simplest recipes for any fish that you happen to purchase.
The District FishWife at Union Market in Washington, DC has embraced this waste-not attitude as well. In addition to finding whole red snapper and tasty tuna cheeks you can try fish collars, the underused cut just behind the gill, perfect for frying and roasting.
And if you don’t see fish cheeks, ask for them. The best way to create a market for undervalued seafood – whether it’s a locally abundant, under-loved species, or a cut that usually gets discarded – is to start demanding it.