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Let's talk freshwater fish


abadoozy
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I live on the shore of Lake Superior, and one thing that's constantly bugged me is how badly prepared the local fish is. I can get fresh, locally caught lake trout and whitefish just about any day of the week, cheaply and easily. Occasionally I see walleye as well.

Uniformly, most of this fish is badly prepared. Oh, it's not horrible - plenty of local restaurants do great business on the whitefish. It's almost always simply baked, with the fancier places making a simple sauce.

But it's nothing compared to good ocean fish. It's mushy and very lightly flavored. The trout is similar, though not as ubiquitous, at least in the restaurants (not sure why).

There's only one way I've had it that I can say is truly delicious, and that's deep fried, with a very light crumb coating. It's flaky and light and you can't really get enough of it. But I wouldn't say it really highlights the fish, and deep frying is messy and sort of a special-occasion thing for me to do, at least, if only because I don't like my kitchen smelling of fried fish for days on end.

I'm thinking of making it my mission this summer to try to figure out how to cook this stuff in a way that makes it good. Something that preserves the texture, doesn't overcook it, and is tasty.

Is it possible? Any suggestions? It's amazing how little innovation is done with this stuff locally. Even the better places just throw it under the broiler until it's mushy. Is there any hope?

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"I'm thinking of making it my mission this summer to try to figure out how to cook this stuff in a way that makes it good. Something that preserves the texture, doesn't overcook it, and is tasty.

Is it possible? Any suggestions? It's amazing how little innovation is done with this stuff locally. Even the better places just throw it under the broiler until it's mushy. Is there any hope? "

First, don't assume all the fish that's sold to you or prepared in a restaurant is fresh and palatable. You need to acquire a knowledge of what fresh fish looks like and smells like and be able to ask your purveyor, where did it come from and when was it caught. Most fish sold in restaurants is frozen and purchased in individual portion controlled packets.

As to preparation, not all fish species should be prepared to s standard format.

I do find that whitefish fillets are best prepared with a seasoning of salt and paprika, seared in butter and finished in a hot oven. Lake trout is usually good roasted or even poached whole in a fumet. Trout fillets or small trout also stand up well to a saute in butter or bacon fat.

Walleye is best coated and fried, the firm large texture of the flakes stands up well to that treatment, same for lake perch. What species did i miss that you may encounter in your local store? Bass and panfish fillets are best coated in crumbs, saute in butter. Sturgeon, smoke as well as chubs and whitefish or lake trout or other large trout. -Dick

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Trust me when I say that I know the fish is fresh and palatable - I'm a local, I know what restaurants carry what fish, I know which stores sell it fresh, I've had it caught from the Lake where it was swimming around 10 minutes ago (I watched it being caught). The fish quality is not the issue.

I guess what I'm looking for is a way to make it exemplary. I'm not really looking for advice on the traditional methods to cook it; I've done it most of the common methods (baked, grilled, broiled, fried) and have a pretty good idea of what each result in; in my opinion, with the exception of deep-frying, most of those methods produce fish that is at best OK, and at worst mushy and tasteless.

I might be looking for something that doesn't exist: the piece of whitefish that you put in your mouth and go WOW! I honestly haven't had that. I'm also primarily looking for whitefish preparations, and maybe trout, as those are the most common fish and the ones most associated with the area.

So far my list of stuff to try is:

- sous-vide

- poached (butter-poached, fumet, wine, what else?)

- Girardet method as discussed in Modernist Cuisine 2-24

- Maybe some high-heat pan frying in various oils? I suspect some of the problems I've encountered with pan frying is that the pan is not hot enough or doesn't have enough oil. The fish tends to fall apart or become overcooked.

- What else?

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I've had Great Lakes walleye grilled with butter, which was delicious.

Another method which I use for meh supermarket fish with good result: Cook an onion in some butter until soft. Add juice of 1 lemon to the pan and herb of choice -- I like tarragon. Butter a good sized piece of foil, put half the onion/lemon mixture in, top with fish fillet and top that with rest of onion/lemon. Salt and pepper. Fold foil around fillet and seal. Bake in preheated 350 oven about 10 minutes. You can change seasonings as you will but the basic idea works very nicely. Oven poaching. Fish is tender and not overcooked.

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Why does it have to be so starkly prepared? If it is, in essence, mushy and mild, then why not make fish cakes or fish balls? (Think of crabcakes, only using flaked fish instead of crabmeat). Do you catch bowfin in the Great Lakes? Bowfin (called choupique in Louisiana) is perfect for fish balls. The fish is ground up with chopped bell pepper, onions, garlic, & other seasonings, then rolled into small balls or boulettes and fried. A tasty way of using a mild, mushy fish.

If you catch larger fish with fillets thick enough to cut into chunks, try using it in a Louisiana-style courtbouillion. Here's a John Folse recipe for redfish courtbouillion: http://www.wafb.com/story/626643/chef-john-folses-redfish-courtbouillon?redirected=true For a softer-textured fish, simply add the fish later in the cooking to prevent it falling apart.

Edited by HungryC (log)
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My mother was from the same area and I had an uncle who fished Lake Superior nearly every day of his life. He passed some years back and his ashes were scattered in the lake (sorry about that :wink:).

As a child I had gone out with with him many times, and still have pictures of me as a child holding up a trout in each hand and can still (40 years later) mentally feel the bones behind the gills digging into my thumbs as I held them up for those pictures.

I learned how to scale and clean them and my mother was always given the assignment of cooking them. Now, while my mother taught me some good things about cooking, as a general cook, I now realize that she could struggle with some things. But this she knew. She had grown up up there. She knew how to cook fish.

This is my touchstone whenever I hear a great chef say to respect the ingredient. Get it fresh, and treat it simply. She used nothing but butter, S&P - maybe some flour. It is still the best fish I've ever tasted.

IMHO, you can't make fish good. You just have to avoid screwing up good fish. Get it off the boat and treat it simply.

[Edit]To be clear, Mom did it simply in a pan on the stove.

Edited by IndyRob (log)
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When I lived in the midwest and didn't have access to really fresh seafood, I discovered trout. It was best cooked whole, it always stayed moist and had more flavor.

My technique was the same, only the interior seasoning or filling changed:

- open fish, salt and pepper, light smear of olive oil

- add seasoning/stuffing

- dredge them lightly in flour, cook over high heat in a skillet to brown on both sides, then finish in the oven.

My two favorite preparations, per trout:

- one finely minced clove of garlic, 1-2 fresh sage leaves cut in a fine chiffonade

- a few strips of sauteed pancetta and 1/4-1/3 cup cooked chard, chopped

A friend of mine often smoked trout fillets--fantastic.


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Yes, smoked trout is really a delicacy. isn't it ? Fresh trout is good on the barbecue, and I've mentioned the following method on eG before:

Poach trout fillets in a few tablespoons of water. Transfer to a broiler tray, pour some cream over, and cover with breadcrumbs into which you've mixed salt, pepper, and chopped chives & parsley. Drizzle with melted butter and broil till golden brown. You'll fight over the leftovers :wink:

Edited by Blether (log)

QUIET!  People are trying to pontificate.

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Smoked trout is amazing, but I would be careful with what wood you smoke it with. I have always used apple wood and at a low temp. cure the trout with some curing salt and any additional flavors overnight. Then rinse and air dry with a fan or something and smoke away takes a short amount of time like 8 minutes once in the smoker so be careful.

I recently had smoked trout with proscuito ........ almost ike a sandwish with the bread being trout and proscuito in the middle.

Trout is so good in its natural flavor if its actual wild trout. I want to go fishing now and get me some breakfast haha. :smile:

all you can eat bacon.....

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"with the exception of deep-frying, most of those methods produce fish that is at best OK, and at worst mushy and tasteless."

I have a very hard to impossible time believing that statement.

Those methods and preps are tried and true and have yielded excellent results for both the restaurant chefs and home chefs. I cannot help you at all determine what the problem is but I do know you won't be able to improve on the tried and true methods.

"the piece of whitefish that you put in your mouth and go WOW! I honestly haven't had that."

Maybe you don't like fish? For me the standard prep for whitefish is successful and palatable to everyone who has eaten my prep. For trout as I stated, poaching or roasting for larger whole fish has excellent results. Fillets pan fried have universal acceptance.

I do use Falk copper pots and pans that heat quickly and evenly to high heat and usually canola or sometimes peanut oil or butter for some preps especially whitefish or a combination of oil for heat and butter for flavor.

Have you tried grilling on wood or lump charcoal. You need a fish that will hold together and proper preparation with oil of the rack to avoid sicking so i usually use this technique on whole fish.

Good luck.-Dick

Edited by budrichard (log)
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Other than the salmonids, because fresh water fresh are relatively mild in flavor I favor the simpler preparations. The flavor is there, it's just delicate. Simple roasting with simple enhancements would be one option (though I agree that deep frying is a tasty and traditional method).

Then again, as Hungry C suggests, the idea of fish balls (or quenelles, gefilte fish, etc.) makes a whole lot of sense. Especially when you use those heads to create a sauce, broth or aspic.

You didn't mention smelts. One of the finest fresh water species around. Can you get those? Broiled, pan fried or deep fried, absolute deliciousness.

Bob Libkind aka "rlibkind"

Robert's Market Report

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budrichard, come on up, I can bring you many, many samples of whitefish and trout that are OK at best. You say "For me the standard prep for whitefish is successful and palatable to everyone who has eaten my prep" and I agree - I can make successful and palatable whitefish using a variety of common techniques. But in general, most people I know, given the choice, will choose just about any fish other than whitefish, unless they're people from out-of-the-area who just want to come here for the whitefish. The purpose of this thread is to explore the fish and see if I can figure out a way to make it pop, even for those of us used to eating it pretty much whenever we want.

rlibkind, yes, I can get smelts on occasion, and I agree, they're delicious. I have memories of a smelt fry something like 20 years ago where they were some of the best fish I've ever eaten. But I can't get them consistently so I'm working on whitefish and/or trout as the first go-round.

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I live in Central WI and am from Eastern WI and can empathize with how whitefish and lake trout can lack the pop you are looking for. I love both of them smoked, but you can only eat so much smoked fish before you want something different.

Where I live now, I am not lucky enough to get either as fresh as I like them. The last time I got whitefish they on the small side and I made them the same way I make Lake Herring/Cisco. They need to be gilled, gutted and scaled. I will marinade them in olive oil, a lot of garlic, lemon zest, chili, salt, pepper and whatever fresh herbs I have on hand. You then grill them. I like use twigs of fresh herbs in the belly when I grill them and feel free to baste them with the marinade while grilling. You will get some flames but a little char adds great flavor. They can be a challenge to flip, but you can also use a grill basket to make it easier. Finish them with some lemon juice.

Next time I get some fresh whitefish, I would like to try to make Chinese Steamed Fish http://rasamalaysia.com/steamed-fish-recipe/ with them.

Looking online the Michigan Sea Grant has a website at http://www.greatlakeswhitefish.com all about whitefish and under the recipe link there is a recipe list that also has a couple of different ideas for cooking them..

While I like some freshwater fish prepared very simply, I do get bored with the butter lemon salt pepper…. approach. Push the boundaries of your pantry and your community. Where I live there are a number of Asian grocery stores due to the local Hmong community. They love fish and can give you creative ways on how they prepare it as well. I asked one day for a recipe idea for catfish. A woman at the store suggested cutting the filets in nugget size, seasoning them and dredging them in rice flour and deep frying. She them makes a dipping sauce out of fish sauce, palm sugar, lime juice, and bird chili’s. Adjust sauce to your tastes. Then take the piece of fish, put in a soft lettuce leaf with some herb salad (cilantro, thai basil, mint, etc) and dip. She serves it with sticky rice. But as her 8 year old son then stated, “She serves everything with sticky rice.” lol

Hopefully this may have given you a few ideas :biggrin:

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Can you take a broad view of what a delicious fish based dish might be? I haven't been to your fair region or tasted its fash... but as Anthony Bourdain would say Mexican cooks can improve anything you have locally :biggrin:

I am from Mexico City where Trout is the most important "local" fish (the La Nueva Viga central seafood market sells 4,000,000 pounds of fresh seafood daily most of it imported ocean foods from Baja down to the Chiapas coasts however various nearby mountain villages specialize in lake Trouts and entire weekend tourism business exists on delicious preparations of Trout)... some of the better preparations:

Trout Fritters / Cakes with a Pasilla Sauce

Smoked Trout Quesadillas

Smoked Trout braised with Tomatoes, Onions, Jalapenos & Manzanilla Olives made into tacos

Whole Split Trout dressed with Guajillo Chile Adobo then slow grilled about 2 feet above a wood fire

Whole Trout stuffed with chopped tomatoes or sour cactus, chiles, onions & herbs, wrapped up in Corn Husks then cooked directly on the mesquite coals.

Whole Trout dressed with a puree of cilantro, tequila, butter, (onion & garlic juice)... cooked in pouch.

Trout Ceviche (only if you trust the fish is healthy or you can deep freeze it).... grind up the flesh, add a little white onion, chopped serranos or jalapanos, cilantro leaves, salt & pepper.. give it one last quick grinding... then drench in lime juice for at least an hour... serve over tostadas with a couple of slices of avocado.

Trout a la Diabla... make a Salsa Diabla (Whole Garlic cloves slow cooked in Butter... remove the garlic, add Arbol chiles pureed with some fish or shrimp stock... cook down to a the right texture)... braise the fish

Trout a la Ranchera... coat your trout filets with a little flour, s&p, pan fry... reserve... make a sauce by blanching tomatoes, peeling... puree with salt & dried oregano, lightly sautee some onions & diced jalapenos... add the sauce & simmer it down a bit... return the pan fried filets to cook in the sauce for 5 minutes or so.

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On a hundred and eleventy billion trout fishing trips when I was a kid (fanatic dad, anyone?), my mom's method for cooking the fish was simple and unbeatable. Have a wood fire and a well-seasoned cast iron skillet. Cook some really good bacon in the skillet and leave the fat. Clean the fish and roll it in some good corn meal. Fry in the hot bacon fat. Eat the fish with the bacon on the side and a cup of fresh hot coffee made in an old tin pot. If the weather is chilly and a bit gray, the fish, coffee and bacon will taste even more delicious. If there are some homemade biscuits on the side, even better.

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This is my go-to method for walleye, and I suppose it would work fine for trout or whitefish:

Pan-Fried Walleye with a Bound Breading

Roll fillets in flour; shake off excess.

Beat two eggs well and dip floured fillets in the egg.

Coat completely with seasoned panko.

Now the lost important part--put fillets on a rack and let them rest for 15 minutes. This will allow the panko to "bind' to the fillets (hence the "bound breading") and stay on the fillets while you pan saute in butter.

Saute on both sides until golden and serve with a lemon wedge. No breading stuck to your skillet.

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Popular in Door County in Wisconsin is the fish boil where Whitefish is the usual main ingredient, although Lake Trout can certainly be used, sort of like a crawfish boil without the spice/heat. Simple to make in principle, I suspect much of its popularity derives from the method of cooking and the spectacle of the 'boil' at the end. Dunking your fish in butter to eat, doesn't hurt either.

I didn't mention the 'Boil' because its rather bland and not my favorite prep but it is popular.

Ray Radigan's http://www.foodspot.com/Clients/WI/PleasantPrairie/RayRadigans/default.aspx?fs=3&fsp=1430&accid=15965 in Kenosha Wisconsin has made quite a reputation since 1933 and one of the long lived dishes is Lake Superior Whitefish made as I described, in fact I owe credit to Ray for the prep. It's still the best way I know for Whitefish.

There are many Asian preps ranging from Japanese to Thai but in general the fish that is used is from the sea and usually a little more suited to those preparations.

We usually use Yellowtail for a Teriyaki prep but I can't see why Lake Trout fillets cannot be substituted. Usually for Thai cuisine its Red Snapper because its closer to native species and has big flakes that hold together. -Dick

Edited by budrichard (log)
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I apologize if this is a repeat, but I wanted to write it down before I forgot it. I'm watching Anthony Bourbain: No Reservations (in Montana), and somebody (I'm not watching that closely...I'm on eG after all) made a comment about freshwater trout that might be applicable. He said that the flesh of the fish "turns to mush" when the water temperatures rise. I wonder if the mushy fish that you are experiencing is a seasonal thing? From what I remember from McGee, water temperature affecting fish flesh texture makes perfect sense: the meat-degrading enzymes in fish are active at much lower temperatures when compared to land-mammals. Maybe the higher water temperature means that the fish flesh starts degrading faster than it would during cooler temperatures.

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I apologize if this is a repeat, but I wanted to write it down before I forgot it. I'm watching Anthony Bourbain: No Reservations (in Montana), and somebody (I'm not watching that closely...I'm on eG after all) made a comment about freshwater trout that might be applicable. He said that the flesh of the fish "turns to mush" when the water temperatures rise. I wonder if the mushy fish that you are experiencing is a seasonal thing? From what I remember from McGee, water temperature affecting fish flesh texture makes perfect sense: the meat-degrading enzymes in fish are active at much lower temperatures when compared to land-mammals. Maybe the higher water temperature means that the fish flesh starts degrading faster than it would during cooler temperatures.

I've seen that episode - one of my favorites. Jim Harrison is a really interesting guy.

I guess I'd have to wonder what temperature we're talking about, since I'm talking Lake Superior, which according to Wikipedia has an average temperature of 40F in the summer.

As far as my fish experimenting - heck if I've had time to do anything this week. The minute I get my motivation up for a project, my work schedule gets crazy. But I'm still very interested, and this thread has sparked lots of ideas. Keep 'em coming!

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...I guess I'd have to wonder what temperature we're talking about, since I'm talking Lake Superior, which according to Wikipedia has an average temperature of 40F in the summer...

Mushy is a problem at temps more like 65+

Of course, shallow water temps / surface layer temps can vary a lot from the average.

QUIET!  People are trying to pontificate.

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