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Cheek is Chic

Thursday, March 09, 2000

By Marlene Parrish, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In medieval times, gold-laden merchants along the trade routes dressed in cheap, ratty clothes so that bandits wouldn't discover them. Unfortunately for the merchants, the bandits studied the dining etiquette of the travelers as they tucked into communal meals in the inns. When fish was placed on the groaning board, the ignorant peasants reached greedily, grabbing randomly at the sides of the fish; the rich merchants went straight for the cheeks, plucking them out and popping them into their mouths. The next day, the bandits knew which pockets to rob.

Cheeks? Fish have cheeks?

"Cheeks are a delicacy," says Toni Pais. "The cheek of the fish is the best part because it's tender and has a great taste. The cheek is the tiny pocket of meat just below the eye."

Pittsburghers know Pais as the chef-owner of Baum Vivant, generally acknowledged as one of the top restaurants in the Tri-State.

"When I was growing up in Portugal, a whole baked fish was often the centerpiece of our family dinner," Pais says. "Everyone would fight over who would get the head of the fish because that's where the flavor is."

You hear the same story in Jewish households. "When my mother made gefilte fish, she used the head and bones for the stock," recalls Gene Lichter of Benkovitz Seafoods in The Strip. "I was the lucky guy who got to eat the meat in the head. That's how I discovered cheeks. They are still my favorite part. Cod has a nice big cheek, and so does grouper."

Chinese gourmets have always considered the cheeks the best and most tender meat of the fish.

"I've eaten fish cheeks since I was a child in China," says Dr. Freddie Fu, chairman of the department of orthopedic surgery at the University of Pittsburgh. "It's the tastiest and sweetest part of the fish, you know? When my family put the whole steamed fish on the table, everybody wanted the cheeks. In Turkey and in many places in Europe, you can get the whole fish head and collar, which is quite meaty."

The meaty, silver-dollar-sized delicacies from walleye are considered to be the best. Just ask any sport fisherman. They use a sharp knife to scoop them out from behind the fish's eye. Often, they save them up all summer until there are enough for a big meal.

Fishermen are likely to cook them this way: Put flour, salt, pepper and any mild spice in a small paper bag. Melt butter in a large frying pan over medium heat. Place fish cheeks, a few at a time, in the flour bag and shake to coat. Put cheeks into the bubbly butter in the pan and brown until cooked, just a minute or two. Time will vary depending on the size of the pieces. Serve with some of the browned butter poured over and a spritz of lemon.

The simplest way to cook cheeks at home is to sprinkle them with a little salt and pepper, then saute them quickly in a small pan with butter or olive oil.

Getting cheeky

But let's get some perspective here. Cutting cheeks from a fish is labor intensive in the extreme.

"Cheeks are really a by-product in our business," says Ron Cacella, director of fish cutting at Benkovitz Seafood in the Strip.

To prove it, he invited us to follow him into the refrigerated cutting room where he demonstrated the procedure. FYI, verb watchers, meat is butchered but fish is cut.

Slapping a 10-pound yellow pike on a stainless steel cutting table, Cacella slipped a knife tip in along the backbone and deftly removed a filet from the side of the fish. Then he flipped it over and removed the other filet. Lapsed time, oh, about 30 to 40 seconds.

Cacella then moved to the head. Delicately guiding the tip of his knife around the circumference of the cheek pocket, he lifted out the cheek. He turned the other cheek, so to speak, and repeated the motion. Holding the knife at an angle, he slipped the blade between flesh and skin and skinned the cheeks. Lapsed time, well over a minute.

Score: One 10-pound fish, 4 pounds filets, 6 pounds of head, tail, bone and skin "waste." And 2 ounces of cheeks, about 1 ounce apiece.

Cacella continued the demonstration, cutting grouper, cod, snapper and yellow pike. A 14-pound grouper yielded 6 pounds of filets and two cheeks weighing 11/2 ounces each.

Out of 50 to 60 pounds of fish cut for demonstration, the cheeks weighed a total of only 10 ounces. Even a skilled fish cutter with the dexterity of a surgeon can't get at all of the cheek because of the boney structure of the fish head.

"With fish, it's a matter of scale," says Cacella, ignoring his own pun. "You need a big fish head, because there isn't much cheek. We cut from cod, grouper, snapper and walleye pike. We don't see tuna and swordfish heads because they are usually removed right on the fishing boats."

Depending on the fish, cheeks can be anywhere from the size of a nickel up to 2 to 4 inches in diameter.

There is little demand for cheeks at the retail level.

"When customers buy a whole fish, say a salmon, the fish cutter will ask if they want the bones and heads," says Benkovitz's Lichter. Usually, they do not, he says. The cooks at Benkovitz might then use this "waste" to make fish stock, also called court bouillon, for their soups and chowders. They also sell the stock frozen for about $1.50 a quart.

If you want to buy a few cheeks to cook at home for an appetizer, call in advance, preferably early in the week and ask if there will be any available. Or, any time you are buying a whole fish, just ask to keep the head and bones. The fish cutter will cut out the cheeks for you, or you can do it yourself with a small sharp paring knife. Accumulate them in the freezer.

But please. Don't even think about buying fish cheeks at the counter on a Friday or Saturday or you'll know what it means to get "the fish eye."

"I bought my first cheeks at Benkovitz when someone didn't pick up an order," says Ena Harrington, manager of Tessaro's in Bloomfield. "They introduced me to them, and now I'm hooked. I buy them every couple of weeks. My favorites are groupers. I never order them ahead, but when I'm shopping, if the counter people don't seem too busy, I'll ask for four, just enough for two small servings.

Where to sample cheeks

Cheeks are chic. You'll see them on many of the best urban restaurant menus. But you also find fish cheeks on menus where there is a strong ethnic population, and where the chef has worked in seaside or oceanfront restaurants.

At Baum Vivant, Pais gives them special treatment two ways.

* Mediterrean Grouper Cheeks. In a saute pan, he combines enough julienne-cut zucchini, yellow squash, carrots, mushrooms and onion to make about 1 cup. They are quickly cooked in Spanish olive oil, almost like a stir-fry, until barely wilted. In another saute pan, he sears grouper cheeks in olive oil and finishes cooking in the oven. To serve, he mounds the vegetables on a dinner plate, tilts the cheeks towards the center and garnishes the plate with dots of crimson sun-dried red pepper sauce and roasted golden tomato sauce scented with white balsamic vinegar and fresh basil. It sells for $9.25.

* Grouper Cheeks with Honey Roasted Beets. First, he makes a sauce by blanching beets, slipping off their skins, brushing them with honey and roasting the beets in a hot oven. When done to his liking, he cooks the beets in red port wine, then purees them. The sauce is finished with the addition of a little lobster stock and a nut of butter. With the beet sauce heated up and swirled onto the plate, the cheeks are sauteed and placed just so. The plate is garnished with just enough roasted golden tomato sauce and a bit of green herb to make it beautiful. This also sells for $9.25.

"I would love for my customers to order whole fish," continues Pais. "There's nothing better than a whole fish baked in the oven with the head on. It's an incredible dish. Meat cooked on the bone has better flavor. The cheeks would be a bonus. Anytime I have cheeks on the menu, I have to call Dr. Freddie Fu. He's the biggest cheek fan I know. He just loves them."

These chefs also put cheeks on their menus as often as they can. Pricing is difficult because of market conditions and size of the portions.

Michael Barbato, Peppercorns in Castle Shannon: "I like grouper cheeks when I can get them. I pan saute, and serve with a sauce of yellow tomatoes, shallots, a touch of sherry and tarragon. Depending on the size, I will give two or three for a portion.

Kathleen Blake, Steelhead Grill: "We like halibut cheeks when they are available. We might pan-roast them and serve with a julienne of celery root, a few shrimp and red mustard greens. Another time we might glaze them with miso, then pan-roast and serve over a stir-fry of Asian vegetables and shiitake mushrooms.

Alexander Young, Pittsburgh Fish Market: "I did halibut cheeks recently. They are 2 to 3 inches in diameter. I lightly floured them and sauteed them with capers, white wine and herbs then finished with sweet butter. People who know what they're eating love them." If you want to try them, say so when you make your reservation and Young will special-order them for you.

For more choices, hit the road: Toronto, Seattle, Chicago, New York.

In San Francisco, cheek chic is where it's at, as they say. At ThirstyBear, where the Spanish cuisine emphasizes tapas, they serve a memorable dish of Basque-style cod or halibut cheeks sizzling in olive oil, sherry, garlic, chile pepper and lemon. At Moose's, try braised monkfish cheeks with champagne sauce and leeks. At Insalata's, the cheeks are prepared like scallops, dredged in bread crumbs, sauteed and finished with lemon-caper sauce.

Gene Lichter's eyes light up when he talks about cheeks. Smiling, he says, "If you think the cheeks are good, come back sometime and I'll tell you about fish throats and tongues. Tongues are delicious."

We can hardly wait.

Related Recipe:

Fisherman's Fish Cheeks

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