Fish head soup is always a good idea

When we think about food waste, we might think about the leftovers on our restaurant plate or the bread we throw out at home. But what about the waste that happens far before it gets to our shopping bags? The chicken carcasses and fish heads; the carrot tops and ‘wonky’ vegetables that, in the name of strict supermarket standards or so-called convenience, have been deemed unworthy of our kitchens. These norms have shaped how we expect food to arrive in our baskets and, in turn, how we cook. But if we had a choice, would it always be this way?

I recently learned that my fishmonger routinely throws away bin-loads of fish bones and heads after he’s filleted the day’s catch, and that it costs him a fortune to incinerate the waste. I asked for a kilo of bones he had leftover that day and he gave them to me for free, along with advice when making stock to wash away any blood (it makes it bitter) and to remember to avoid the bones of oily fish (they turn it rancid). Those fish bones promptly became a flavoursome—and very frugal—fish soup. Scroll down for the recipe.

fish heads

Until recently, few people knew that supermarkets rejected tonnes of perfectly edible fruit and vegetables based purely on their aesthetic. This produce was deemed too small or misshapen to meet consumer demand. When journalists began to uncover the magnitude of all this edible produce ending up in landfill, supermarkets started trialling cheaper, ‘ugly’ vegetables and people, of course, started buying them.

This is another salient example of how disjointed our food supply chains have become—a disconnect between producer and shopper that has allowed for tonnes of food waste that is damaging not only for farmers’ livelihoods, but for the environment too. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. According to the United Nation Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), if global food waste were a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, second only to China and the USA.

If we want to shop in a way that is less wasteful, it’s time we educate ourselves on how we do that at every level of the supply chain, not just at home. Whether it’s consciously buying fish bones, or cooking with wonky vegetables or unloved and often discarded meat cuts, choosing whole fish, or buying vegetables with their green tops attached, it’s in creating demand for otherwise wasted ingredients and supporting the producers who are already supplying them that we reap real change—not to mention save ourselves a quid or two in the process. It’s these cuts and crops that tend to be the most economical.

The beauty of shopping directly from the person who grew, caught, reared, butchered or filleted our food is the ability to take advantage of their expertise—to ask them questions and show them there’s a market for the products they’d otherwise bin. Whether that’s fish heads and offal, chicken carcasses or vegetables of all shapes and sizes. Shopping more directly from our local producers and helping to shorten supply chains is at least a start in reducing the monumental food waste that is a product of our disjointed food system; a way to reconnect the dots between where our food actually comes from, and the people who cook and eat it.

Here is a recipe for a tomato-rich noodle soup. For a heartier and spicier Jamaican fish soup with deliciously dense dumplings, find Nolda’s recipe here.

Fish noodle soup
This recipe will give you the rich, flavoursome base for noodle soup, shellfish broths or risotto, and a bit of fish meat to bulk it out too—I’ll leave you to decide which direction you want to take it in. When making fish stock, avoid using oily fish like salmon or mackerel, as it will make your broth rancid. If you manage to get more fish bones, I recommend doubling this recipe and freezing the surplus for another day.

For the tomato fish stock:
1 onion, peeled and chopped
Butter or oil, for frying
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped
4 anchovies
1 fresh chilli, halved lengthways
A good handful of herbs, such as parsley, thyme, wild fennel
(or 1 tsp fennel seeds), bay leaf, dill
200ml dry white wine
1kg fish bones and heads
1 x 400g tin of tomatoes

For the noodle soup:
150g egg noodles
1 garlic clove, peeled and chopped
150g cherry tomatoes

Add the onion to a large pot with the butter or oil. Sweat until softened. Add the garlic, along with the anchovies, chilli and herbs. If using parsley, wild fennel or dill, add the stalks only (pick the leaves or fronds and set aside for later). Cook for 2 mins, then pour in the wine and let it bubble down for a few mins.

Wash the fish under running water to get rid of the bloodline (otherwise it will make your stock bitter), then add to the pan with the tin of tomatoes. Fill the tin with hot water and add that too. Top up with a little more water so the fish is just covered, but not so much that you dilute the flavour. Season with black pepper, cover and simmer for 20 mins. If you’re not in any hurry, leave the fish bones in the pot overnight to let the flavours intensify. Otherwise, remove the majority of the fish bones and heads and set aside.

Remove as much meat from the fish heads as you can. You might be surprised how much you can get! Set the fish meat aside and compost the rest.

Strain the stock through a sieve into another pan, using the back of a spoon to push through as much as possible, for maximum flavour.

To make the noodle soup, return the stock to the heat, bring to the boil and add the noodles. Cook according to the packet instructions. In another pan, fry the garlic and tomatoes in oil or butter until broken down and smelling good. Add to the broth along with the fish meat and stir to warm through. Serve with plenty of finely chopped herbs and fresh chilli, if you have it.

Originally published on the Borough Market Blog.

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