LIVING IN SEATTLE enables my obsession with seafood sustainability. Our fishmongers limit the species they offer and strive for transparency in their sourcing. Menus credit specific fishing vessels and catch methods, while a stand at my neighborhood farmers market sells Columbia River salmon from a tribal fishery. For all this thoughtfulness, the standard remains to eat the fillets and steaks while casually tossing the rest.
“Tossing the rest” adds up to shocking numbers: In the United States, individual consumers waste more than 1 billion pounds of seafood each year. Once the unsellable bycatch and commercial trimming are accounted for, what we toss is nearly equal to what we eat, and it’s damaging both our fisheries and our wallets.
All of this is to say what a relief and delight it was to open Naomi Tomky’s book “The Pacific Northwest Seafood Cookbook” and spot recipes that celebrate the scraps — whole fish, salmon heads, clam feet, fish skin and crab fat all make an appearance. Plenty of recipes do feature fillets, but cooking the odds ’n’ ends was a natural evolution as she developed recipes while feeding a family of four.
Quality seafood is expensive, and she’s pragmatic, understanding that affordability is part of the sustainability picture.
Looking for ways to make seafood more accessible to more families, she downsized portion size to 4 ounces per person from the restaurant standard of 6, saying, “When people think of seafood, they think of giant fillets of salmon, and they’re looking at these enormous prices, and nobody wants to spend that much money on something they’re not confident with. Environmentalism is a part of it, too — we can eat good fish for that much longer if we’re not eating so much of it at once.”
Pacific halibut is a highly sustainable fish, but it’s always tweaked my conscience to remove the skin before cooking. Now, with a little prep and an uncomplicated fry that doesn’t use a ton of cooking oil, I have a deeply Seattle version of chicharrones that makes my halibut dinner a happy zero-waste event. The skin from one fillet equals a crispy snack for one or two people, but scale up to use however much you have.
Halibut skin (as much as you have)
Vegetable oil, as needed
Kosher salt, as needed
1. Dip the skin into boiling water for about 30 seconds. If the skin comes off the fish easily and with very little meat stuck to it, you can skip this step.
2. Using the backside (dull edge) of a knife, gently scrape off any lingering bits of meat — you want to make sure that only the skin remains. Don’t worry if the skin rips a bit: It will look fine once it’s fried. Frying will be easiest if you cut the skin into manageable sections — about 4 inches square or smaller — but if you are a seasoned fryer and have big ambitions, they’ll cook fine at any size.
3. If you have a dehydrator, you can use that to dehydrate the skin. If not, heat an oven to 170 degrees F, or whatever its minimum temperature is. Lightly oil as much of a sheet pan as you’ll need to lay the skin flat, then spread the skin out, meat-side-down. Bake the skin until dried out and lightly crisp. It should pop off the pan with a little nudge. Depending on skin size and oven temperature, this could take from 30 minutes to 2 hours. Check on it every 20 minutes or so after the first 30.
4. Heat a half-inch of oil in a pan to 375 degrees F. Set up a rack or paper towel to drain the pieces on. Fry skin pieces one at a time, as they’ll anger the oil, and it will bubble and sizzle, then die down again in about 20 seconds. If you want to shape them, use tongs to do so as you remove them from the oil. Transfer the skin pieces to the rack or paper towel, and sprinkle with salt immediately.
From “The Pacific Northwest Seafood Cookbook” by Naomi Tomky