Some Disassembly Required

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This is actually a mackerel. But I've always wanted to use this photo.

I’m not much of a fisherman. In fact, I’m the only person I know of who has managed to break their jaw while fishing (although that had more to do with the whiskey than the fish). Consequently, I don’t have a lot of experience dealing with whole fish. But when the Olympia Seafood Company got in a batch of whole, fresh herring, I knew I had to have some. Why? Because of the first two lines of American Wedding, the first Gogol Bordello song I ever heard: “Have you ever been to American wedding?/ Where is the vodka? Where is marinated herring?”

Please see for yourself the majesty that is Gogol Bordello:

American Wedding – Gogol Bordello

It is not hard to gut a herring, I found out. Scale the herring with the edge of a knife (easy, the scales just fall off), cut off the head of the fish and the fins, open the belly and remove the guts and roe. If you’re lucky, you will get some soft roes (the white ones, not the orange ones). I got two soft roes out of eight fish. Then cut to the backbone, open up the fish and flatten it on the chopping board. The spine will come out taking most of the ribs with it. Presto!

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Hard roes, top left. Soft roes, top right. Herring fillets, bottom.

Ashkenazi-Jewish marinated herring, of Gogol Bordello fame, and pickled herring, of English pub lunch fame, are two similar but different recipes, and I was going to try both. But first – the soft roes! Roes are very simple to prepare: toast an English muffin or similar bready vehicle, and fry the roes in butter on high heat. They will curl up. Dash with salt and pepper. Toss in some chopped parsley so it gets nice and crispy in the butter. Spread on toast. The end result is a little like eating delicious bone marrow, but with a fishy touch.

Marinated Herring for Non-American Wedding

2-3 herrings, filleted

1 onion, sliced

juice of 1 ½ lemons

2 tbsp white wine vinegar

1 ½ tbsp sugar

10-15 peppercorns

10-15 allspice berries

½ tsp mustard seeds

3 bay leaves

salt

Soak the herrings in cold water for 5 minutes, then drain. Soak again for 3 hours, then drain. Soak overnight, and drain. Rinse well.

Cut each fish into bite-sized pieces and combine with all the other ingredients in a glass bowl. Add just enough water to cover. Cover the bowl, and chill for 2 days to allow the flavours to get to know each other.

Serve with black bread and vodka.

Pickled Herring by Fergus Henderson (The Whole Beast)

serves 2-4

8 herring, filleted

¾ coarse sea salt

3 cups sugar

2 cups white wine vinegar

1 ¼ cups water

14 whole allspice

14 peppercorns

2 carrots, peeled and thinly sliced

3 red onions, peeled and thinly sliced

1 ½ inches fresh horseradish, peeled and thinly sliced

3 bay leaves

Mix the salt and 1 ½ cups of the sugar together, and place your fillets in a plastic container, sprinkling the mixture between each later. Chill for 24 hours, which will draw some of the moisture out of the fish. Next day, rinse off the sugar and salt and drain the herring.

In a stainless steel pan, heat up the vinegar, water, and the remaining sugar until the sugar is thoroughly dissolved. Remove from the heat and allow to cool. In the container in which you intend to store the herring (plastic, glass, or china), layer the fillets with your spices, sliced vegetables, and bay leaves equally spread about, then cover with the cooled sugar solution. Leave for a week before eating; it will keep very well in the fridge. Serve with crème fraiche and capers.

8 comments to Some Disassembly Required

  • Jimmy Madden

    I’ll take a pass on the herring. But I love Gogol Bordello!

    Have you seen “Everything is Illuminated?

  • WarPig

    The pickled herring sounds very tasty. Trouble getting it here, though. I might toss in a little wasabi with the regular horseradish, but I am rather fond of wasabi. I can get raw wasabi from the Japanese store about 40 miles away.

    Daniel, have you ever used Mexican boldo leaves or juniper berries in place of bay leaves? In a pinch I have used a mixture of dried, ground thyme and basil as a substitute but it doesn’t work very well. I wonder what boldo would taste like in the pickled herring? I don’t think I’d use juniper berries in fish (but I could be wrong, it could be great) especially such a strongly flavored fish as herring, but I would in meat. It goes great in pork and bison dishes.

    Living in Ohio, we seldom get whole, fresh-frozen seafood such as herring. Must not be a lot of call for it. Pity. I get so tired of salmon, catfish, tuna and tilapia, although I like them all. On the occasion we get in some orange roughy (roughie?) I buy several packages for the home chest freezer.

    Has anyone who reads this ever found a really decent substitute for bay leaf? I never have. Baldo is the closest.

  • JPKalishek

    Tribal Connections was the fiost Gogol Bordello tune I ever heard. I play Start Wearing Purple to earworm folks…it will stick to ones brain.

    So Start Wearing Purple, Wearing Purple!

    lalalala

  • Leah

    That is a very cool photo.

  • @Warpig: I had never, until this moment, heard of boldo leaves. Huh. Is there a reason you don’t use bay? Bay is one of my favourite herbs, but that might be because we had a massive bay tree in the backyard when I was a kid. I do use juniper berries, quite a lot, but I agree they might be a mistake with fish.

    My fishmonger told me they would not get herring in again. Apparently, I was the only person who bought it. I don’t eat roughy because it is a listed species in Australia (my home) but apparently not here. I don’t eat a lot of fish, though I loves me some sashimi. I eat a lot more crab, shrimp, steamer clams, and scallops than fish.

  • WarPig

    I use bay, but for some reason of mental impairment I have a bad habit of forgetting to buy new bay leaves. Hence attempted substitution. I consider bay necessary with wild rabbit or venison and in stews and some soups. Occasionally, however, I get the ingredients together and when it come to “adding one bay leaf” I look and find I have none. On the other hand, I manage to keep baldo leaves in stock and for some reason they sell well enough here in Ohio that the USAF commissary in Dayton has them in their Mexican ethnic aisle.

    Maybe if BAY and the same number of letters as BALDO I could remember to buy it when running low. ;-)

  • Muzhik

    Daniel, I strongly suspect herring is a listed fish in Australia (but you eat ‘roos) for the same reason we Yanks eat herring but ‘roos are treyf. (Maybe not really, but you know what I mean. Kinda like eating Bambi’s mother, which is REALLY easy to do after she and her mates have devastated your corn crop and caused you to total your auto when you hit one of them.)

  • @Muzhik: Actually, I meant orange roughy is a listed species, due to overfishing. And weirdly, I’ve only eaten roo in the USA. Can’t say I recommend it much, either. Give me Bambi anytime.