In medieval times, merchants along European trade routes often dressed in ragged clothes so they wouldn’t be recognized and robbed by bandits. This might have worked had the merchants not exhibited a culinary habit the bandits quickly learned to recognize.
When a fish was placed before them at a communal meal in an inn, the rich merchants went straight for the fish’s cheeks, plucking them out and popping them into their mouths. Hungry peasants, on the other hand, grabbed randomly at the meatier sides of the fish. The next day, the bandits knew which pockets to rob.
Cheeks? Fish have cheeks? Indeed, they do. And these succulent morsels, considered by many to be the best part of the fish, have been prized for their sweet flavor for centuries. In China, for example, it has long been traditional to pry the cheek meat from a cooked fish with chopsticks and offer it to the guest of honor or a favored relative.
I first learned about fish cheeks when I was a teenager. An uncle and I were cleaning a mess of bass we had caught, and my uncle asked, “Do you save the cheeks?”
This seemed a strange question because I had no idea fish had cheeks. I also had no idea what you might save them for. My uncle explained.
“Right behind each eye you can feel a soft spot,” he said, pressing on the fish’s gill plate. “There’s a little hollow there that has a nugget of really good meat in it. It’s not very big, but if you save the cheeks of every fish you clean, pretty soon you’ll have enough to make a meal. And that’s a meal you’ll remember for a long time.”
He then showed me how to get at these succulent morsels. He felt for the soft patch with a fingertip, then inserted the end of a sharp pocketknife at one edge and made a circular cut, using the adjacent bones as a guide. After lifting out the marble-sized piece of cheek meat, he then turned it skin side down and filleted the meat off. He did the same on the other side of the fish, ending up with two bite-sized pieces of fish.
From that day forward, I saved the cheeks from every bass I kept. I still do. I place them in a container in the freezer until I have enough, then cook them at the same time I’m cooking fillets and offer them as an hors d’oeuvere to dinner guests. The reaction is always the same. First, “What are those?” Then, “Yuuummmm!”
I’ve also learned that bass aren’t the only fish with delicious cheeks. If you check, you’ll find these round tidbits behind the eyes of many fish, including catfish, walleyes, striped bass, white bass, salmon, pickerel, pike, big crappie, lake trout and saltwater species such as groupers, cod and snappers. In fact, all fish have cheeks, but those big enough to be worth the bother are, not surprisingly, on larger fish with larger cheeks.
The best of the best, in my opinion, are those from the halibut, a huge flounder-like fish often caught on the Pacific coast. On a recent trip to Alaska, my friends and I saved the cheeks (some as large as soda can lids) from a dozen ‘buts we kept, marinated them in Italian dressing, wrapped them in bacon and then grilled them on skewers. There wasn’t a morsel left from this unforgettable repast. One of my uncouth friends remarked, “Those were the best ‘but cheeks I’ve ever tasted!”
You really don’t need any recipes for preparing fish cheeks. They’re best when cooked using simple preparation techniques. I usually just batter and fry them like fish fillets. But they’re also excellent when lightly seasoned with herbs and spices and sautéed in butter or olive oil. The key is not to cook them too long, which toughens them. A minute or two is enough for the smaller ones. And even big cheeks like those from halibut will be done before you know it. Their sweet flavor and meaty texture remind me of scallops.
I have, however, tried several recipes that make the most of these mouth-watering morsels, including the two that follow. Save the cheeks from the fish you catch and give them a try. After you do, you won’t be so quick to throw fish heads in the trash.
Fish Cheeky Chowder Recipe
- 1 cup chicken broth
- 2 potatoes, diced
- 1/2 teaspoon tarragon
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- 1/4 cup butter
- 1 cup fish cheeks
- 2 small onions, chopped
- 1 stalk celery, chopped
- 3 slices bacon, chopped
- 2 cups milk
- 1 cup half and half
- Pinch cayenne pepper
In a large pot, heat chicken broth, potatoes, tarragon, paprika, salt and pepper.
Melt the butter in a skillet, and lightly sauté bass cheeks, onion, celery, and bacon. When these are tender-crisp, add to the broth mixture. Simmer, but do not boil, until the potatoes are tender. Slowly add the milk and half and half, stirring constantly. Add cayenne pepper, stir and serve hot. Yield: about 4 servings.
Baked Fish Cheeks Recipe
- 1/2 green pepper, chopped
- 3 green onions, sliced thin
- 2 tomatoes, peeled, seeded and coarsely chopped
- 1/4 pound mushrooms, quartered
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 1 (8-ounce) can tomato sauce
- 1 pound fish cheeks
- 1/2 cup bread crumbs
- 1 tablespoon fresh parsley, finely chopped
Sauté the vegetables in butter until soft. Add the tomato sauce and heat through. Put half of the hot sauce in the bottom of a baking dish. Place the fish cheeks in a single layer over it and pour the remaining sauce on top. Mix the bread crumbs and parsley and sprinkle over the sauce. Bake about 20 minutes in a preheated 425-degree oven. Serves 2 to 3.