Where I come from, fish heads are bait. Okay, I come from Manhattan, but when my family would go down the Jersey shore during the summer, one of our most beloved activities was renting a boat and puttering around the tidal creeks for crabs. Just stick a fish head at the end of the line, lower it down, and soon enough it'd emerge teeming with hungry blue crabs. At the end of the day I think we just threw the rest of the heads into the water.
It took me a while to get used to the concept that fish heads were food for humans too, though that’s my own fault. Most of us grow up with a limited and arbitrary idea of what parts of an animal we can and cannot eat, which winds up being incredibly wasteful. That’s not a good look on anybody. So now that you know how to find yourself some good, seasonal fish, how do you make sure you use every bit you can?
Chef George Pagonis of Kapnos (and recently of Top Chef), certainly did not have the same upbringing I had. "I come from a Greek household and at our dinner table, we usually fight for the fish heads. And there are many other cultures that share the same taste. There are some more conservative diners that fear looking at the heads, but it's natural." However, once you get over your squeamishness, a lot of good meat can be found on the heads. "The cheeks, eye sockets, jowl, and top of heads provide some of the tastiest and most succulent meat on the fish."
The easiest way to start enjoying the bounty of fish heads and other "icky" parts is to buy whole fish, and cook it that way. Ask your fishmonger to scale and gut the fish, which is a messy endeavor best taken up by someone whose job it is to hang around fish all day. Then roast, fry or grill it head-on. The meat will be especially rewarding if you use a firm, white fish like Grouper, Snapper or Sea Bass. "These fish all have a nice white flaky flesh, less oily than other fish," like salmon or tuna. Heads often have a more concentrated flavor than the rest of the meat, so stronger fish can have heads that wind up a little overpowering.
To eat, just start picking at the head, and you'll be surprised how much meat is on there, from the flaky cheeks to the oddly appetizing eyeball. Yes, I've become one of those people who will fight you over the eyeball. You can eat it plain, or mix the meat in fish cakes or fish salads. The collars, located right below the gills, can be slow roasted until they fall off the bone,” says Pagonis, "The bellies, which is the bottom flap of the side, are great in tartars and crudos." You can use just about any part of the fish you want. Pagonis admits he steers away from the organs and the gills, but many cuisines use them, though that might mean gutting the fish yourself at home. If that's the case, invest in a few aprons.