This week I ran into a captain friend of mine in Boca Grande. As we were talking, I told him I would be writing about sheepshead for this column. I asked him how he prefers to prepare sheepshead, and he had just one word: “Chowder.”
I thought it sounded like the right species, since sheepshead like to dine on shellfish. Most of my stocks that are fish based have some kind of shellfish parts or shells in the making of the stock. Sheepshead chowder it is, then.
Sheepshead are a challenging fish to fillet, but if you just gut, gill and scale the fish, then put it in a pot with celery, carrot and onion and simmer it for 20 minutes, you’ll find that you can pick the bones like you would a chicken. This will yield a larger amount of meat versus trying to get the most meat using a fillet knife.
I also like to have another batch of equal parts celery, carrot and onion reserved for the filling of the chowder, along with the fish and a few other regular chowder ingredients like bacon and corn.
While I make a fish stock, I watch to roll of the boil and make sure it doesn’t roll at a rapid pace. Don’t force flavor; draw it into what you are trying to cook. Before you taste a stock of any kind, first skim away any fat that might have collected during the simmer with a ladle and discard it, then fill a tablespoon with the stock.
Bring it up to your nose and smell it before making a final judgment. I’d recommend that you do that on most everything you want to taste correctly. Why not get your olfactory bulb going first? After all, that’s what will happen when it’s eaten. You smell your food long before you taste it. Make sure the aromas are right and seem to blend together.
Once the fish stock is finished, I’ll strain the stock with a fine strainer and discard the bones and vegetables, then strain it one more time and set it aside. Now I have my fish stock, the meat I picked from the fish frame, and my celery, carrots and onions. It’s time to make the chowder.
I always start my chowders with bacon. I use the rendered fat to sauté the vegetables along with some garlic and a few diced potatoes. When the vegetables are almost cooked, I’ll add the fish stock along with some heavy cream.
Simmer the chowder long enough to reduce it until it will coat the back of a spoon. Now I add the garlic, fish and fresh thyme, heat it through and serve it. Gets you warm from the inside out!
Chef Tim Spain is a Florida native and has years of experience cooking professionally, both in restaurants and in private settings. He offers private catering and personal culinary classes. For more info, visit ChefTimSpain.com or call 406-580-1994.