Chicken wings are a classic appetizer—sticky, meaty, and easy to share with the table while you wait for more food. What you might not know is that there’s also a “chicken wing of the sea,” the fish collar, and it's just as flavorful and tender.
Chef Tom Rummel from Salt Traders Coastal Cooking, in Round Rock, Texas, gave us a primer on the underrated cut, which is the section of the fish that sits right behind the gills and is typically discarded in the filleting process. At Salt Traders, the kitchen team tries to use the whole fish in an effort to reduce waste, so Rummel fries the collars and serves them with dipping sauce, similarly to wings.
After all, fish collars are also comprised of meat on the bone—in this case, the bone that defines the jawline of the fish—and the pectoral fin is still attached to the collar, crisping up when cooked. The eating process, too, is similar to chicken wings in that it’s very messy and hands-on as you gnaw the meat off the bone.
While collars aren't as easy to find as chicken wings, if you get your hands on them, they're actually pretty easy to cook. So we got Rummel’s key tips for finding, preparing, and serving fish collars—read on for his recommendations.
First thing’s first—what’s the meat like?
Rummel says fish collar meat isn’t necessarily similar in texture to a chicken wing; however, it’s some of the best you’ll find on the fish.
“The bottom part of the collar goes into the belly portion of the fish, which is also the heaviest part of the fish,” he says. “So you get this really rich, buttery meat. It’s extremely tender and on the bone, the most flavorful part of the fish.”
Make friends with your local fishmonger
The trickiest part of making fish collars at home is going to be finding them in the first place, Rummel says. But if you make friends with your local fishmonger (or the person manning the seafood counter at your local grocery store), you’ll have a better shot.
“If the fishmonger is breaking down whole fish on a regular basis, they’re going to end up having collars and heads that you can use as well,” he explains. “You can call ahead and ask them to save collars for you.”
Pick what’s available at the market—but if you see these fish, they work particularly well
“I love doing the tuna,” Rummel says. “Swordfish is also another larger one that might be harder to come by, but it has incredible flavors off the grill. One of the most popular collars is hamachi or yellowtail, that one’s really rich and buttery and fatty and flavorful. We use a snapper collar at the restaurant, which is nice, light, flaky and delicate.”
Remember: the size of the collar depends on the fish
Larger fish that are 10 to 15 pounds will give you a collar that can feed three or four people as an appetizer, Rummel says. Salmon and trout, on the other hand, have smaller collars, so you’d want to serve a couple of those per person.
“We get whole tuna regularly at the restaurant,” he says. “And those collars are about two and a half pounds a piece. So that will feed three to four people snacking easily. Those larger ones are really fun and awesome to put in the middle of a table and just let people dive in.”
There’s no heavy-duty butchering or knife skills needed
Each fish has two collars—one on the left side, and one on the right, which are connected. If you get them from a good fishmonger, Rummel says they’ll be able to split it in half for you.
But if you end up with the whole piece, don’t panic. All you’'ll need is a good chef’s knife to separate it.
Grill or fry
Rummel says the wonderful thing about fish collars is that you can prepare them at home multiple different ways. Collars from fattier fish, such as salmon or trout, do especially well on the grill—you can dress them simply with salt, pepper, and olive oil, he says. Make sure to keep the grill on a low temperature so you cook the meat all the way through, as opposed to charring it. A broiler also works really nicely. But if you’re feeling bold? Fry it.
“You can fire up a cast-iron skillet on the stove with half an inch of oil in, then bread [the fish collars], and then fry them like fried chicken,” Rummel says. “Still on the bone, it gets the skin nice and crispy. That’s an excellent way to serve it. We serve ours fried at the restaurant.”
For dipping sauces, Rummel says you could go as simple as a tartar sauce or spice up some mayo with Sriracha.
Watch out for scales
Overall, Rummel says that fish collars are very forgiving—the meat is fatty and rich, so you don’t have to worry about it drying out like you would with a fillet. However, the one thing you do need to be mindful of is scales.
“The skin gets really crispy. And you don’t want to be eating that nice crisp skin and get a really thick fish scale in a bite with it,” he says.
Serve it at parties (with napkins)
Overall, Rummel emphasized that fish collars are great party-sharing appetizers, since they get everyone involved in the eating process and can be a fun conversation starter.
“Your fingers are going to get dirty, your cheeks are going to get dirty,” he says. “You’re going to need napkins, you’re going to need wet wipes to clean up afterwards. But it’s definitely the most flavorful part of the fish.”