Old Town Social chef Jared Van Camp challenged Cary Taylor, chef at the Southern and the new Southern Mac & Cheese Truck, to come up with a recipe using fish eyes for this installment of our weekly feature.
Fish eyeballs are considered a delicacy in much of southeast Asia, where the guest of honor is usually served the eyes from a whole steamed fish or fish-head stew. They're not popular in the U.S., unsurprisingly, so Cary Taylor did some research to see how they're used—and regarded—in other countries. "It's like at the southern table, the lucky guy gets the last chicken thigh, or gets the chicken oyster at the French table. Maybe at the Vietnamese table when they serve a whole roasted fish, dad gets to suck the eyeballs out."
Taylor also remembered that he'd once read an article that said in Spain, cooks thickened sauces with fish eyeballs because they contain a gelling agent. He'd never tried it, and couldn't find the original article or anything else to tell him how it was done, but ended up using the technique anyway in a southern-style oyster stew.
He was hoping to find fish eyes that had already been removed from the heads, but when he asked Supreme Lobster fishmonger Carl Galvan, "he said there was no way he was going to have his guys in the back cutting out fish eyeballs or they would riot," he explained. "So he sent me heads, which ended up being great, because it changed what we were going to do when I realized we had these gorgeous fish heads."
Taylor decided to cut out the groupers' cheeks and use them in the soup. "The cheeks are a very meaty, pretty prized piece of the fish that a lot of people don't know about," he said. They taste similar to the fillet, but with a "nice, light texture, a little firmer than the fillet itself."
To make the stew, Taylor sauteed finely chopped celery, onion, and red pepper, added a little flour to make a roux, and seasoned it with a touch of cayenne and curry powder. After adding coconut cream and milk, he briefly simmered the grouper cheeks and Blue Point oysters in the liquid, adding a little of the oyster liquor as well. Instead of using the fish eyeballs whole, Taylor squeezed them until they burst, shooting liquid into the stew. He recommends using plastic gloves for the process.
The fish eyes added more texture than flavor, according to Taylor. "It didn't seem to be a superdistinctive taste to me," though the stew overall had a "fresh fish, fresh seafood taste, helped by the grouper cheeks."
Taylor's now thinking about serving whole roasted fish, giving a free shot of whiskey to "whoever can suck out both eyeballs," he said. Or, he joked, he could have a fish eyeball-eating contest as a "Tuesday night gimmick—pints of Bombshell Blonde and salty eyeballs."
Mindy Segal of Hot Chocolate, cooking with sorghum syrup, which is similar to molasses. It's "something that you see all over Kentucky," Taylor says. "You would eat it on pancakes and stuff like that. You didn't really look at it in terms of gastronomy, it was just on the table."
Watch Cary Taylor carve the eyes out of a grouper head and squeeze them into soup--with sound effects! (Spoiler alert: Taylor does *not* go into anaphylactic shock due to an oyster allergy.)
Video by Michael Gebert/Sky Full of Bacon
Low Country Oyster Stew
12-16 east coast oysters, shucked (reserve the liquor)
1 grouper head, cheeks removed and skin cut off, eyballs plucked out and reserved
2 T red bell pepper, minced
2 T onion, minced
2 T celery, peeled and minced
1/4 cup coconut cream
1 cup whole milk
1 T flour
1 T butter
1 t curry powder
1/4 t cayenne
salt and pepper to taste
baguette, cut and toasted, for dipping
In a small saucepan melt butter and cook red pepper, onion and celery over medium heat until translucent and fragrant, about two minutes. Add flour and cook for another two minutes on low heat, stirring frequently. Add spices and toast in the pot. Squeeze fish eyeballs into the mix until the liquid inside comes out and stir, making sure not to get the hard part around the eyes in the soup. Add coconut cream and milk and bring to a simmer. Add grouper cheeks and poach in milk mixture until just cooked through, about three minutes. Add oysters and half of their liquid and poach for one minute to warm through. Pour into a bowl and serve hot with chopped fresh herbs and warm bread. Serves two to three.