Barbecue season is here and with it the seasonal deluge of grilling tips and meat recipes. With the exception of salmon and tuna, finned fish tend to get short shrift on grill menus — probably because most fillets have a narrow window of satisfaction between still-raw and sawdust.
Even with salmon and tuna, the person at the grill has to pay close attention and handle the fragile fillets with care to keep them intact. A few minutes too long, or a few too many flips with the spatula, and that very expensive piece of protein starts to look and taste like ultra-premium cat food.
None of this appeals to home barbecue cooks with a relaxing beverage in hand, of course. But there is a better solution to our fish grilling challenges: fish collars.
A fish collar is actually the fish clavicle, located just behind the gills right in front of the fillet proper. The collagen-rich clavicle bone curves like a collar around the fish’s neck, hence the name, and is loaded with rich meat. Abundant fat and connective tissue keep collars succulent and flavorful even when they’re overcooked by a relaxed grill master.
Thanks to the clavicle bone and cartilage structure, the collar also holds together like a champion on the grill — but costs around half the price of fillets.
Inexpensive, indulgently rich, easy to cook, easy to enjoy once you learn the anatomy, and fun to eat with your hands? That sounds like a chicken wing to me. The chicken wing of the sea.
In Japan, this luscious cut is known as kama and very much appreciated as an inexpensive grilling protein; in the United States, most fishermen just throw it away with the fish heads.
I think this might be changing, though, as more Americans discover the joys of hamachi kama (grilled yellowtail collar) in good Japanese restaurants. Hamachi kama tends to deliver the most fish per dollar at sushi restaurants, costing somewhere between $12 and $20 for a serious pile of yellowtail.
I’ll often split one with another person for a satisfying appetizer or order my own as a light entree. Sushi Haku in Napa serves the classic Japanese version, simply grilled with ponzu dipping sauce, and Eiko’s offers one with a little soba noodle salad underneath. Before the pandemic, Acacia House was serving a phenomenal hamachi collar slow-cooked with spicy olive oil, and I hope they bring it back.
Hamachi/yellowtail collars are the easiest type of collar to find. Eiko’s fish counter in the Oxbow Market frequently has fresh individual ones ready to grill, Osprey Market carries frozen bags of them, and most Asian grocery stores stock them in the freezer section, as well, but I’ve noticed salmon collars beginning to make an appearance lately, too. As with other underloved off-cuts, if enough consumers ask to buy them, we will find them more easily.
I like to grill hamachi collars over medium heat with just sea salt, and no added oil. The rich flesh provides plenty of its own, and crisps up beautifully without special treatment.
If you want to marinate the fish before grilling, stay away from anything involving lots of sugar to avoid a charred black mess. I usually extract the hunks of meat from the bone and cartilage as soon as the collar comes off the grill (to get the bones and skin off my plate), and then slather the pieces in spicy wing sauce, but you could also drizzle them with sauce right away and eat them with your hands like a chicken wing.
The fiery gochujang sauce recipe that follows is my current go-to (and pairs surprisingly well with tannic red wines), but use whatever spicy barbecue sauce you like.
Grilled Yellowtail Collar with Spicy Gochujang Sauce
Gochujang is a spicy, salty, and slightly sweet Korean chili paste made from glutinous rice, fermented soybeans, and chili powder (gochugaru). It adds a great kick and depth of flavor to barbecue sauces, salad dressings, and marinades — among many other things — and makes a wicked “wing sauce” for grilled fish collars.
4 fresh yellowtail (hamachi) collars, about 8-10 oz. each
Spicy Gochujang Sauce
¼ cup gochujang
3 tablespoon honey
3 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
1 tablespoon (untoasted) sesame oil
1 heaping teaspoon minced or grated garlic
1 heaping teaspoon grated fresh ginger
Preheat a grill to medium, and clean and oil the grates. Rinse the fish collars and dry them well. Season them lightly with sea salt all over, and grill them about 6 minutes per side with the grill cover closed until the skin is crisped and charred in spots, and the fish is cooked through. While the fish is grilling, whisk together all the sauce ingredients in a small mixing bowl. Adjust seasoning to taste; if too spicy, add more honey and oil. Serve the grilled fish as soon as it’s cooked, with spicy sauce on the side.