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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
next: the 8 courses, and some thoughts on working with the fish
What does one do with oil that has been dirtied with deep fried fish? Make more deep fried fish. That, and store it outside in the meantime, as there are far more pleasant odors to have lingering in your kitchen.
For the potato debaters in yesterday’s comments: today’s were red norlands. I liked them better. Maybe it was the oil temp, maybe not. Didn’t have russets, as we didn’t grow any last year.
Yesterday I was maintaining my oil temperature at a 4-5 setting on my electric range. I normally deep fry on gas outdoors, so this is new to me. Today I held my oil at 7-7.5. Notice the golden crispiness? I knew yesterday’s execution was weak at the time, and figured I knew why, so it was satisfying to step it up many notches tonight.
It was also superior because of the Tuborg and Pilsner Urquell. What a fine pairing, greasy food and beer. They helped with the batter, which I eyeballed rather than following a recipe. Here’s roughly what it was:
About 2/3 of a 1/2 liter can of Tuborg that I dropped on the floor, open, which proceeded to foam all over our kitchen floor, requiring significant cleanup, and making my socks stick to the floor afterwards.
Tsp of baking powder
1/2 tsp kosher salt
I added flour a little at a time until the consistency was like a heavy crepe or loose pancake batter. I figure maybe 1/3-1/2 cup. I mixed with a fork just enough to blend, and to try to preserve some of my drop-on-the-floor-foam-achievement. Bubbles in the batter are good.
It is worth noting that my wife and I found the Northern Pike a little too soft for deep frying, relative to say cod or even pickerel. So it won’t go very high on the list of ‘favorite fish for deep frying’. And yes, we’ve done halibut, and for the record, in my opinion, halibut is too firm. [I really don't get why people freak out about it, to be honest]