Ask Peter: Cooking fish heads
I saw on your Instagram postings a photo of fish heads in Croatia which you said you’d bake separately. Do share. Dianne
Until I flew into Split, a port town on the Dalmatian Coast in Croatia, I hadn’t clocked that the country has over 1000 islands. I have friends who mentioned they’d sailed along the coast but looking out of the plane window I was really surprised there were so many.
My partner Al and I were joining friends in the Adriatic on an island that we’ve all said we won't name as it’s just too gorgeous and relatively unvisited currently and we’d like it to remain so. The crystal clear "many shades of blue" waters along the coast remind me of Greece and Turkey, and olive trees and grapes grow — so in many ways there is a real similarity in the food and environment.
Late one morning we had just finished swimming around an island (I had to brag about that — I’ve not swum around an island before) with our friend Alice which took just over an hour in beautifully clear and balmy waters, before heading, by boat, to another much larger island.
This is where they used to process the pine resin used for sealing wooden boats. These islands are dotted along the coast and are known as Pakleni.
The last inhabitant of this particular island died about 20 years ago, but people still occasionally stay in the deserted village. We pulled into a bay — which we named Torpedo Bay as Jadran, the captain of the boat, spotted an unexploded bomb on the sea bed. It turns out it was likely a bomb dropped by German planes right at the end of the World War II — we were just grateful we hadn’t dropped the anchor on it.
Sheltering in the shade of the rocky cliff, 150m away from us, were two small fishing boats. What followed was an hilarious barter of goods. Alice and Natalia swam across to the boats with a bottle of prosecco and chatted to the fishermen. I was then called, so swam over and chose the fish.
The skipper of one of the boats said he’d been to New Zealand when he worked on freight ships and that Auckland has four women for every man, and they are all beautiful. I can’t imagine which part of town he’d been in (!) but being a New Zealander was definitely helpful.
Alice swam back and got a few kuna (the local currency) which she tucked between the arms of her sunglasses and then we had fresh fish for dinner. That night I asked Jadran how he would cook it and he shared a recipe which he attributed to all the mothers of Croatia, saying that fish are always cooked with their heads on.
That would have been fine, but we had four john dory (one of which was huge) and one scorpion fish. They simply couldn’t be cooked whole, side by side on the same tray, but I wanted to try his recipe. I controversially had to cut the heads off and cook separately— which I was told was actually a really smart idea!
For 2 small, legal-sized fish, enough to feed 4-6
Gut and scale the fish, trim off excess tail, fins and spikes, then season the stomach of the fish. Peel and boil around 1 kg potatoes, and slice a little thicker than 1cm. Cover the potatoes with cold water, bring to the boil with a little salt, and cook 7 minutes, then carefully drain in a colander.
This next step is mine — not sure it’s the done thing in Croatia. Caramelise 2 onions (either red or white) in olive oil with 6 cloves peeled garlic and a few teaspoons chopped fresh thyme, rosemary and oregano. Mix this with the potatoes. Brush a roasting dish with olive oil then tip the potato mixture in and flatten it out evenly – no need to press it completely flat though.
Lay the fish on top and brush with olive oil and sprinkle with flaky sea salt. Bake at 180C until the fish is almost cooked on the upper side (pull it apart using a small sharp knife in the thickest part). Carefully flip the fish over — using two tongs is helpful as it will be quite fragile.
Return the dish to the upper part of the oven, turn the grill function on full, and cook until the second side of the fish is almost cooked. In total a small snapper will take around 15-20 minutes.
Lift the fish from the potatoes (it’ll be fragile) and place on a large plate. Return the potatoes to the oven and cook under the grill until golden. Meanwhile, remove the flesh from the fish bones, although you could serve them whole for guests to break apart.
Take the potatoes from the oven, tip them and their juices on to a platter and lay the fish on top. If your fish have heads that are too large, then simply cut them off and bake in advance of the gratin, lightly oiled and sprinkled with sea salt. Cook the heads for about 10-15 minutes in total at 190C, turning over halfway through.