Maybe it's the result of several adolescent years spent keeping fish in a tank, but I always find it slightly mind-boggling that some fish can grow so enormous. Until a few years ago I was under the impression that tuna were tiny, and that you needed several of them, minced up, to fill a can. I'm not sure why; I suppose I identified them with the diminutive goldfish that I'd watch floating placidly around my aquarium every night. It wasn't until I read an article in the paper about a bluefin fish going on sale for some crazy price in Japan, complete with photo of the monstrous aquatic specimen, larger than the man who was attempting to fillet it, that I realised my mistake. The same goes for salmon - often presented in fillet or smoked form, you're rarely faced with a whole specimen and are lulled into a vague sense of thinking that a whole salmon is roughly the size of one of its fillets, as would be the case for something like sea bass. I once got a whole salmon from the fishmonger for a Boxing Day dinner; it had to go in the oven diagonally and even then barely fit on a baking sheet.
So it is with cod. You often buy or are served cod in a thick steak, but it's hard to gauge from this just how big the fish it came from was. When I first saw cod cheeks on a menu, I raised an eyebrow. Surely there's not enough meat on a cod head to get anything worth cooking? How very wrong I was, as I found out last week when I bought a bag of cod cheeks from the fishmonger at the market. I can never resist an unusual ingredient, and after my success with pigs' cheeks I am eager to experiment with the facial flesh of mammals and fish, morbid as it may sound. Not only is there enough meat, but in some cases cod cheeks are pretty sizeable, about as big as a decent scallop. They look a little bit like scallops, too - thick, white medallions of flesh, ideal for sizzling in a very hot pan until caramelised on the outside yet sweet and juicy in the centre. The beauty of them is that they have no bones, so can be used in things like fishcakes without having to faff around picking the meat.
I didn't want to mask their flavour and texture by putting them in a fishcake, though. Instead I thought I'd serve them like scallops, with some sort of accompaniment to bulk them up a bit and provide complementary flavours. I toyed with the idea of braising some peas, lentils and bacon and serving the cod cheeks on top, and I intend to try that another time. However, my mind initially jumped to paella, with the flavours of saffron, tomatoes, paprika, peas and herbs. I'm not sure why; probably because white fish with tomatoes and paprika (often in the form of chorizo) is a great combination. I thought the flavoursome rice would be perfect with the cod cheeks; good enough to eat on its own, but even better when coupled with the sweet fish. I made a sort-of paella (I wouldn't go so far as to call it an actual paella, but it has similar flavours) with a base of sautéed carrot, celery, onion, garlic and chopped baby plum tomatoes, to which I added paella rice, some home-made fish stock from the freezer, paprika, saffron, peas, and a scattering of chopped dill and lemon thyme.
I fried the cod cheeks in a little olive oil as I would scallops, then served them atop the rice. I was surprised by their sheer deliciousness; they have that sweet juiciness that you only seem to get from cod, and although their flesh is a little more chewy, it means much more flavour than you'd get from a fillet. I could probably eat a plateful on their own - apparently a good way to serve them is to dip them in batter and deep fry them, a bit like scampi, which sounds sublime. The rice here is a good background to the fish, flavoursome but not too overpowering, and gives the dish a bit more substance. Some prawns or squid stirred into the rice would be nice, too. I am glad I've discovered this unusual ingredient, and can't believe it's not more popular - the low price of cod cheeks is indicative that they haven't gone trendy yet, for which I am very thankful.
I am a little unsure, despite their goodness, of the ethical issues regarding cod cheeks - cod has a lot of sustainability problems. I am wondering if it's good to eat the cheeks because they're a by-product of the cod process, and would be going in the bin if we didn't eat them (there is still a demand for cod, like it or not, and I suppose we may as well make the most of the whole fish if we're going to be catching it)...or if I should stop buying them and decrease demand for this endangered fish. Any ideas?
Spanish rice with cod cheeks (serves 2):
- Olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- Half an onion, finely chopped
- A carrot, finely chopped
- A stick of celery, finely chopped
- Two handfuls of baby plum tomatoes, finely chopped
- A generous pinch of saffron
- 1/2 tsp paprika
- 150g paella rice
- About 500ml hot fish stock
- A generous handful of frozen or fresh peas
- Herbs, to finish (I used dill and lemon thyme, but parsley would be good too)
- 300g cod cheeks
- Salt and pepper
- Lemon wedges, to serve
Heat a little oil in a non-stick saucepan and saute the garlic, onion, carrot, tomatoes and celery until softened. Add the saffron, paprika and paella rice and cook for another couple of minutes, stirring.
Pour in the fish stock, bring to the boil, then turn down and simmer for 15-20 minutes, until the liquid has been mostly absorbed (add a little more boiling water if you think it looks too dry near the end) - don't stir like a risotto, just leave it to bubble. Towards the end, add the peas and cook for 5 minutes or so, then stir in the herbs once the rice is fully cooked. Taste to check the seasoning - you might want more paprika or salt.
Heat a little more oil in a frying pan until hot. Season the cod cheeks with salt and pepper, then fry for a couple of minutes on each side - they should be nicely caramelised and soft in the middle.
Serve the cod cheeks on top of the rice, with lemon to squeeze over.