I grew up hunting and gardening, abandoned them both as a young adult, then fell in love with both again later in life. Apparently, same goes for ice fishing. I have semi-fond memories of exhausty ski-doo-trailer rides on to the lake, sitting on a pail getting blasted by the elements, eye lashes freezing together, not catching much of anything, getting cold, and hearing stories about how at one time you caught way more and way bigger fish. When you’re a kid, those kind of stories are far from any form of consolation.
A friend of mine [who I met when shooting another video, coincidentally] invited me out ice fishing with him and a co-worker of his, and I just couldn’t say no. It’s January. In my usually busy food world, action had slowed. Gardening season was over. Hunting season was over. But ice fishing is just getting started. And I had a blast, despite it being a particularly slow day. Ice fishing is immeasurably more enjoyable when you’re protected from the elements in a shack, and more importantly, can see down the hole to watch the fish swim about. Add to that some camaraderie and wild-food action – I now get why folks enjoy it. I’m hooked. I want to go again.
A breakdown of the menu for some new friends that came by for dinner last night. Excluding the first course – a salad from the garden…forgot the photo. The first three courses were paired with an alsatian riesling, the following 3 with a right-bank bordeaux. Overall, a lovely night:
berkshire tenderloin on white bean purée, crispy sage
pickled whitefish, dill & chervil
seared antelope, fleur de sel, baby italian parsley
korean kalbi-style antelope on rice
camembert on lovely bread our guests made
chocolate espresso swirl cheesecake with vanilla latté
In a belated celebration of my brother’s birthday, we did a tasting menu of very fresh lake pickerel, paired with Tuborg and a 2006 Zind Humbrecht Turckheim Gewurztraminer [favorite white varietal of the birthday boy]. It was a heady lovely wine on the nose – showing honeyed apricot and pear. But it lacked in the palate department, both in structure and in concentration, so most dishes paired well with the beer better than the wine. The first dish on the left was pan fried, intentionally raw inside – which didn’t end up working out on the texture side – a bit ‘stringy’ and dense. Knowing that, the following dishes turned out very, very nicely.
pickerel ceviche on spinach leaves
wild onion grilled side of pickerel with crispy skin
pickerel stuffed with herbs en papillote
beer battered deep fried pickerel
pickerel ice cream with pluot sauce [kidding]
A memorable night as the food was particularly solid, and after a few drinks I was in a ranty, ‘assertive’ [read 'confrontational'] mood. Always good for some lively discussion.
Beautiful evening al fresco. 8lbs of crab, and 2 bottles of German riesling – one being a memorably heady and superbly structured 1976 Auslese. Add a sprinkling of bulgar salad, wood-fire grilled veg and honey-garlic apple-smoked pork chops + some interesting beers with good friends. I wish I could say it was blockbuster, as it reads well on paper, but unfotunately it was an evening generally fated to ‘meh’s and critique.
Years ago it hit me with music. Then almost with wine. Now with food? There’s a great quote in Mondovino from a senior Wine Spectator guy referring to the cost of reguarly subjecting something you love to disection and critique – it inevitably damaging your love for whatever it is you’re scrutinizing. Getting stuck analyzing the minutae and generally missing the bigger picture. I have some work to do to avoid going down that road with food.
Apologies for the post-sparseness – with spring finally arriving, my ambitious gardening plans have me leaping into action every spare moment I have. I’d be staining my fence right now were it not raining.
Pickled fish. I fall into a rare category of ‘like’ with pickled fish, as most are solidly in ‘love’ or ‘hate’ camps – most having the hate on. And honestly, I get it. Mushy fishyness isn’t my bag either. But this is not that.
One day, a farmer who pickles white fish by this recipe visited my dad. My dad is in the ‘love’ camp, and quickly declared it the best he’d ever had. My goose-hunting-uncle, also in the same ‘love’ camp, declared the same. My dad had a connection with a commercial whitefish fisherman [I didn't know that existed]. And the mission was on to pickle a whack of white fish. Not so much my mission, but one that I eagerly jumped on board for.
So a couple weeks ago, I was in my dad’s garage helping fillet about 100 lbs of fish. It was then salt cured. Then spent a few days in vinegar. Then two weeks in the final brine with some onion. The result? First, and foremost – a pleasant texture. Certainly the best that I too, have had. And nearly as important, it has no fishiness, but a very bright, acidic, pickle flavor that is also very pleasant. Good thing. Cause it looks like I have a few quarts of pickled fish to eat…
A few months ago, I had the good fortune of putting together a long menu using Yukon fresh water char. Fortunately for me, the friend who supplied the char was food-geeky enough to be compelled to go quite out of his way to hook us up with a bigger, fattier char: the wild ocean char. So he did.
I am sad to say that I do not have a photo essay of courses. I wish I had. It’s a shame. There were many. We ate it raw in a variety of preparations. Did some lightly charred. Lightly poached. Grilled. Baked. Cured and smoked – a crowd pleaser. We made a chowder again because it was so damn good last time. The bottom line is that the fish was indeed far huger, copiously fattier. A lot of tastiness going on. It’s a fish worth celebrating when you have one. So we did.
One of my new year’s resolutions: more fish. So far, I’d say I’ve hit the mark as this is the third batch of smoked fish this week! First atlantic salmon, then ocean char, this time: farmed steelhead trout.
Yes, farmed. And yes, I have mixed feelings about farmed fishes. Clearly, practices and methods can get dodgy. Mucking about with the ocean’s delicate ecosystems just seems intuitively wrong, and there certainly seems to be an endless list of terrible things various sources claim about farmed fish. Somehow, they’re still freely available for purchase, which makes me question if the science backs the doom and gloom.
But from a ‘hate it cause it’s not as good as wild on the table’ – there I don’t agree. I kind of wish it DID underperform, to tell you the truth – give me a solid reason to avoid it. I do love my wild salmon. But much like with other meats, I am in the camp that tends to appreciate fat. And a fish that doesn’t move much – much like a cow that doesn’t move much – sure puts on the fat! Secondly, I’m a cheapass – partly by choice and partly by necessity. I also use hyphons a lot.
So since I was doing evil deeds eating evil fat, from evil farmed fish, I figured I’d add insult to injury and brine it in some evil salt and evil sugar, then add some evil smoke carcinogens to the mix. I’d share the recipe for my evilness, but I got the cure recipe from a close source and havn’t asked permission to share. What I can tell you, is there’s smoke in it.
Excuse: 2 day seminar, attended by myself and a good friend who enjoys food and wine. Result: 8 courses paired to 4 beverages, 1 hangover. This wasn’t my first time with a menu of this scope, or wines of this caliber – but something – perhaps the reprieve of boredom from sitting through sessions on our butts all day – made this evening connect. I tried hard with the pairings – but I always do. Maybe I just got lucky on this menu. Whatever the case, it was fantastic, and here’s what went down:
First wine to pair: 2006 Paul Zinck Riesling Grand Cru Pfersiberg. I’d tasted it at the winery in Alsace, and scored it a 92. Found it here, had to try it. Fortunately, my geek streak left me with tasting notes to help with pairing: lemon and rock predominated on a dry structure.
First course: salmon sashimi. I always opt for the belly, which is in the center of the plate, but I was intrigued by the fat in the loin section, which are the foreground bits. The loin surpassed the belly – not a typical result. Yen put me on to fleur de sel to cut the fat, and this version had a light dosing of lemon and good quality olive oil. The lemon notes in the wine and the fish danced.
Second course for the white: salmon noodle soup. Fresh pho noodle, chive blossoms, lemongrass poached salmon, and broth. Simple, and parts worked well with the wine. Carbs and hydration were important inclusions in the menu.
Smoked salmon gummies on smoked salmon mousse. Still with the white. The texture from the cure was unlike any I’d experienced. Akin to gummy bears. The smoking was done in a flash post-alarm-not-going-off-pre-seminar. 25 minute smoke, so it was light, but the whole worked with the wine.
Seared but basically raw pronghorn antelope tenderoin with rutabaga and carrot, and horseradish. This method with antelope loin, nevermind tenderloin, is sublime. This paired with a 2003 Schulz Marcus Shiraz Old Vine, the best shiraz either of us had ever had. And my guest collects good Aussie shiraz. Smoothe, supple, alluring, concentrated, with lucious seared red meat. Man. Parker scored it 97, we were 98+.
Second course for the shiraz. Aussie shiraz has frequently given me cooked ginger and meat – ginger beef, essentially, on the nose. I wanted to go bold in flavor and asian. This is wok charred yu choy, with seared game, two textures. Both were marinated along the vein of Korean kalbi. First was calf elk loin, second was calf moose heart. We were both blown away by the heart – super tender and tasty. Best heart we’d ever had, and the dish rocked with the wine.
The next course with the red was a roquefort noir…but….having had lots of wine by that point already, I forgot to snap a photo. This course was paired with a Pelliterri Vidal ice wine: homemade whole-wheat bread with strasbourg foie gras mousse and compotine de fruits secs. Simple, rustic, but man does this classic pairing work. Anything sauternes/icewine/lateharvesty and foie gras.
Last course. Kind of. We went back to the antelope course cause it was so good. But finally, last pairing was with Williams Pear Etter. I paired it with a caramel sauce with anjoy and bartlett pears atop a creme brulee powered by vanilla bean from papua new guinea. The pairing, again, worked.
The denouement of the evening was a few crappy hours of sleep followed by a hungover morning of seminar sessions. In this case, a small price to pay.
A whole char is a pretty thing to behold. The skin is spotted and pinky-peach to a point that seems surreal for a fish. The three fish all had markedly different flesh colors ranging from paler pink to intense red like a sockeye salmon. Three of us batted around ideas of what to do with the fishes, and here’s what we came up with.
Cut from the belly. One of the mildest fishes I’ve ever tasted, and I felt like I could eat a whole plate of it. These particular lake fish were extremely lean, so it lacked the fat to be luxurious, but shone in it’s cleanliness of flavor profile. It struck me as having the flavor profile more the direction of rockfish sashimi more than salmon. Best pairing – Riesling
Tail pieces, gently pounded thin, seasoned with lemon, lime, red onion, salt, pepper, oil. The bed of zest and seasoning under the fish was a great idea, and the texture was lovely. Reminiscent of tartare presentations I’ve made a few times, it’s a style of eating raw fish that I think would appeal to even the non-raw-fish-eater. Best pairing – gewurtztraminer
Poached loin with Chive Beurre Noisette, Chard, and Thyme-Rice
I dig this dish with salmon, and it didn’t disappoint with char. I think this would be more successful with a thicker piece, done more med-rare, but otherwise, I was really happy with how this turned out. I chuckle every time I think of char being complemented with chard. Heh. Pairing: pinot noir
Almond Crusted Schnitzel
This dish was slotted as the one to go for crispy skin, and although it didn’t get there, the skin was memorable for me. It is so delicate, that in this preparation, we ate it with the flesh, and could hardly tell. It is tender, soft, and extremely easy to eat. We preferred it with a healthy squeeze of fresh lemon. Although robust from being fried, this dish worked better with white wine than red.
While filleting and deconstructing the whole fishes, it felt wrong to discard any, so it went into a stock pot. I’d also wanted to do a dish with cream sauce. Someone suggested chowder: genius. This was another of the top dishes for me. Yukon gold, a subtle fish vibe, saffron, mushrooms, heavy cream, and lots of tarragon. It was fantastic the next day as well.
Chili, citrus, onion, and fish just works. Plain, simple, on a round of toasted home-made baguette. Clean, flavorful, vibrant – very solid. In hindsight, this was a fortunate place in the menu to put this dish, as the freshness could act as a palate cleanser between two very savoury courses. Wine: Riesling.
Yellow Curry with Red Lentil
Indian yellow curry with coconut milk, on a bed of red lentils heady with fish stock and fresh garlic. The char collar atop the lentils got me excited every time I lifted the lid, and the curry filled the house with great smells.
Candied Char, 2 Ways
I’d have loved to cure and smoke char, but time constraints disallowed proper execution. So instead, we went with a ‘dessert’ course, candying the char as much as possible in the time we had. There were two camps, both in conceptualizing, and in preference for the final product. One went lavender-honey cure, and I went with the classic brown-sugar and kosher salt direction. The brown sugar one, with 2-3 hours time, resulted in a fruit-jelly-gummy-thinger texture. I preferred it rinsed of its cure. The lavender one was good, largely dominated by the lavender…and the lavender added from the garden.
It is important to note that these were freshwater char from the Yukon. They were extremely lean and delicate – which presents some unique challenges in their preparation. For example, we were excited to get some ‘fishyness’ out of the fish stock that was very lightly perfumed – not a typical problem with fish or seafood in general. Always fun to take a wonderful ingredient in multiple directions, this will remain a memorable night. Or perhaps ‘morning’ would more appropriate than ‘night’, as I believe the clock hit midnight and we still had 4 courses or so to put out.
Wine-pairing-wise I was quite pleased. We had a 2004 Paul Garaudet Monthelie Cuvee Paul from Burgundy that was a nice treat, and a good complement to the fish. Pinot Noir and perhaps gamay would be two of the only red varietals I’d go with for Char. One the white side, we had a 2005 Leon Beyer Riesling Reserve - clean, fresh, with vibrant acidity which made it a solid pairing. We also had a 2006 W. Gisselbrecht Gewurtztraminer Reserve that worked well with the more forcefully flavored dishes, as its heady nose of citrus fruits and perfume could stand up to quite a bit.
Rather than sliding into bed at my usual time last night to do some reading, I was just getting started on an 8+ course, 3 wine pairing dinner with friends. What else does one do when a guest arrives from the arctic, bearing fresh-water char?
next: the 8 courses, and some thoughts on working with the fish