It’s amazing the amount of pure flavor you can render from a fish head. That’s why Asians have prized them for eons, using them in curries as well as soups, where the concentrated flavor of the fish head requires no additional stock. Of course, South Americans also love their fish heads, and that’s why a hearty soup like Sancocho has many regional variations throughout the continent.
In Colombia, they have versions with chicken and oxtail as well as one in which the fish head is king. Called simply, Sancocho de Cabeza de Pescado, I was introduced to this recipe from Patricia McCausland Gallo’s fine book, The Food & Cooking of Colombia & Venezuela. It’s a pretty simply concoction, so once you get the format down, feel free to improvise. Try adding shrimp, mussels, crab or any other seafood that you prefer when you add the fish chunks. I also serve this one topped with fresh avocado slices and cilantro with a bowl of rice on the side.
From The Food And Cooking of Colombia & Venezuela by Patricia McCausland-Gallo
2 small fish heads
2lb. (900 g) white fish fillets (such as hake or haddock)
juice of 2 limes
2 garlic cloves, crushed
4-5 tomatoes, peeled and seeded
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 onion, thinly sliced
1 small red bell pepper, coarsely grated
4 Tbsp. tomato paste
½ tsp. Old Bay Seasoning
¼ tsp. achiote or turmeric
¼ cup red wine
1 lb. cockles or clams
1 tsp. sugar
2 Tbsp. parsley, chopped
2 tsp. cilantro, chopped
1 habanero pepper (optional)
salt & black pepper to taste
3 limes, quartered, to serve
1.) Rub the fish heads and fillets with lime juice and crushed garlic. Set aside for 10 minutes. Chop tomatoes, retaining their juice
2.) Heat oil in a large pan over medium-high heat. Add the onion and red pepper and cook covered, for 5 minutes. Add the tomato paste, Old Bay, achiote or turmeric and salt and pepper. Saute for 2 minutes.
3.) Pour in the wine and deglaze the pan, then add fish heads, cockles or clams, tomatoes and their juice, sugar and 10 cups of water. Bring to a boil then reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes.
4.) Cut the fillets into strips or 1-inch chunks and add to soup. Cover and cook 5-7 minutes more, until the fish is just cooked.
5.) Stir in half the chopped parsley and cilantro and cook a further 2 minutes. Serve immediately, topped with remaining herbs and wedges of lime.