Smoking one's own food, by many accounts, is not for beginners. There are food safety issues to consider, not to mention the tending of embers and an obsessive control of temperature over the course of several hours, before a perfectly smoked porketta or piece of fish emerges ready to eat.
But the result, says the introduction of "Smoke on the Waterfront: The Northern Waters Smokehaus Cookbook," is worth the effort. It is the singular alchemy of imbuing food with the flavors of the land — like the "spicy green lick of spring alder smoke" and the essence of "smudgy, dense winter oak."
"Your wood is your wand. It's your flourish, your trick, your magic. ... Experiment with it. Find your own magic," the authors write.
That magic has been a key ingredient at Northern Waters Smokehaus for 25 years. The Duluth deli, in the DeWitt-Seitz Marketplace, showcases smoke and other kinds of food preservation techniques — pickling, brining, rendering fat and more. It's a wildly popular stop for provisions at the gateway to the North Shore.
A mail-order business in recent years has turned its reach national, so smoked Lake Superior trout, salmon pâté, andouille sausage and its bestselling Cajun Finn sandwich (in kit form) can be enjoyed no matter how far one resides from Minnesota's northern port city.
Now, the recipes for Northern Waters' favorites are available to everyone. "Smoke on the Waterfront" was released last month, a long-awaited group effort to put to paper the inherent magic of the Smokehaus.
"We've been talking about making a cookbook probably ever since the shop opened," said Mary Tennis, the former general manager, who was with the company for 18 years. "But like most food businesses, we didn't have time to sit down and write this."
The challenge was translating the production team's lists of ingredients — and the knowledge of Northern Waters Smokehaus founder Eric Goerdt — into dishes that could be scaled down and made at home. "A lot of the recipes are things that truly just lived in his brain," said Nic Peloquin, kitchen manager.
The team also needed to drill down the focus — was it a book about the deli itself, or about the bigger topic of preserving food?
"Food preservation, how to make food last through the seasons, through life, has kind of been a central problem of humanity as long as we've existed," Peloquin said.
In many ways, this book is an ode to the ancient, passed-down practices of making food last, especially in a place where the growing season is short and winter is harsh. In an age when anything can be delivered, even the food from Northern Waters' own Duluth shelves, firing up the smoker at home makes a kind of statement.
"It's glorious," Tennis said. "It's an extremely empowering, beautiful way to treat a piece of fish, or to treat an abundance of cabbage. There's something in it that connects you to the food in a way that is immensely satisfying, and I think it is universal."
And giving people the tools to make their own versions of Cajun-spiced smoked salmon, for example, is just better for the environment.
"It's good to eat regionally," said Ned Netzel, who assists with social media and customer service for the Smokehaus. "I don't want to tank our mailer business, but there is an amount of carbon footprint involved with that."
Still, the authors know some readers might be intimidated about putting a 12-pound brisket on a kettle grill and, as even the two-page recipe concedes, "babysitting" it until it reaches the correct internal temperature.
"We bring it to whatever level you're at, and I think our focus really was to describe those processes really well and make people understand that hey, it's about time and temperature, and if you can achieve those things consistently, that's where you're going to be in your best spot," said Greg Conley, the Smokehaus' human resources coordinator, who co-wrote the book's highly detailed "treatise" on grilling and barbecue smoking.
Not ready to embrace backyard smoking, or a 12-page "duck sequence" that culminates in a recipe for Three-Day Duck Poutine? There are recipes for some simpler composed dishes, such as a pasta with smoked salmon, that could be made with good quality store-bought smoked fish. Recipes for sausage fillings can easily be formed into patties and cooked in a skillet.
No one at Northern Waters is worried about giving away trade secrets about how the sausage is made (literally).
"Somebody that's not up to these recipes, or even if they are, we know their home-smoked versions are not going to put us out of business," Conley said. "It's just too much trouble."
The book's release coincided with a move for Northern Waters Smokehaus. Last month, it went from the ground level of DeWitt-Seitz, where, since the pandemic, guests' only interaction with the deli was through a window, to the basement. Now, instead of cramming into a corner to wait for a Cajun Finn to go, visitors will find a greatly expanded kitchen and indoor dining space about four times the size.
"Just having an indoor dining area post-COVID, it's like we can invite people back in and really get back to that hospitality that we used to be able to provide even in cramped quarters," Peloquin said. "It's kind of like being reborn in a bigger, newer, fresh way."
But even with this change, Northern Waters Smokehaus remains deeply rooted in the flavors of northern Minnesota, winter and all.
"This place is really, in some ways, a love letter to Duluth," Conley said.
"I think that's another aspect of the preservation theme. It's preserving ourselves," Peloquin said. "Especially through the winter, we're creating meals and food that fill you up, and, essentially, fill your soul."
Serves 4 to 6.
Most hams are quite large. We're talking an average somewhere around 10 pounds for a whole boneless ham — so even half a ham will yield a bunch of food. Leftovers are an inevitability. For those interested in really stretching out the usage, we offer this recipe. Keep in mind that the level of seasoning, particularly salt, can be adjusted to your taste. We've included recipes for Swedish gravy and sweet 'n' sour sauce, but these meatballs would also land favorably in a soup, skewered with peppers on the grill, in a stir-fry, or as a pizza topping. As with any meatball, we recommend making several batches of them at once. Freeze the excess raw on a greased or parchment-lined pan. Once frozen, place them in a sealed container to allow for quick and easy meals in the future. From "Smoke on the Waterfront: The Northern Waters Smokehaus Cookbook" (University of Minnesota Press, 2023).
• 1/4 c. milk
• 1 slice white bread, crust removed
• 1 large egg
• 1/2 c. onion, minced
• 1/2 tsp. nutmeg
• 1 tsp. salt
• 1/2 lb. ground beef (or any ground meat)
• 1/2 lb. smoked ham, ground
• 4 tbsp. olive oil or any neutral oil (unsalted butter for the Swedish version)
Combine milk and slice of bread in a small saucepan. Over low heat, bring milk to a gentle simmer until the bread absorbs it (a couple of minutes).
Using a fork, shred the bread and milk, then place it in a mixing bowl. Add egg, onion, nutmeg and salt to the bread, mixing it into a loose paste. Add the ground meat and ground ham, mixing it by hand until just combined, making sure not to overwork the meat.
Make a small patty — 1 inch wide, ½ inch thick — and fry it over medium heat. It should cook rapidly, 3 to 5 minutes. Taste and adjust salt/seasonings accordingly, and test with every flavor adjustment. When you are satisfied with the flavor, form meatballs to your size preference.
Once the meatballs are formed, bring oil or butter to medium heat in a large skillet, and brown your meatballs on all sides. At this point, you can finish cooking them through, or just par-cook and finish by simmering them in whatever sauce you want to use (see recipes).
Sweet 'n' Sour Sauce
You can adjust the amount of sugar to swing the sauce toward your preference — sweeter or more sour.
• 1 1/2 c. water
• 1/2 c. distilled white vinegar
• 1/2 c. ketchup
• 3 tbsp. cornstarch
• 3 tbsp. soy sauce
• 1 (8-oz.) can diced pineapple with juice
• 2 tbsp. sugar
• Diced jalapeño, optional
• Scallions or chives, chopped, for garnish
Whisk water, vinegar, ketchup, cornstarch, soy sauce, pineapple, pineapple juice, sugar and optional jalapeño together in a large saucepan. You can do this in the same pan in which you cooked the meatballs, but be sure to drain off any excess oil before you add the ingredients.
Allow the sauce to simmer for about 3 minutes. Return meatballs to the pan and simmer until cooked through.
Serve as a stand-alone appetizer, or over rice or lo mein noodles. Garnish with chopped scallions or chives.
• 4 tbsp. butter
• 3 tbsp. flour
• 2 c. beef broth
• 1 tsp. fish sauce
• 1/2 tsp. nutmeg
• 1/2 tsp. garlic powder
• 1 c. heavy cream
• Salt and pepper, to taste
• Chopped parsley, for optional garnish
In the pan in which you cooked your meatballs, add butter, then bring to a medium heat until foamy. While the butter is heating, scrape the browned bits off the bottom of the pan.
Once foamy, slowly incorporate flour, whisking until it turns a light brown color. Slowly whisk in broth. Whisk in fish sauce, nutmeg and garlic powder. Slowly whisk in cream. Bring to a light simmer until sauce starts to thicken. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Return meatballs to pan and heat until thoroughly cooked. Serve over mashed potatoes or egg noodles and garnish with chopped parsley.
The Cajun Finn
Makes 1 sandwich.
The bestseller on our menu by a very wide margin — to the tune of outselling nearly all our other options combined — and while we have many other delicious options, we're not going to mess with success. The Cajun Finn wouldn't have made it onto our menu without the combined efforts of then-deli manager Meghann Jones, owner Eric Goerdt, and local/global music legend Alan Sparhawk, who wanted a fish sandwich with our Cajun-seasoned smoked Atlantic salmon. Eric freestyled a sandwich very near to the product we offer today, and suffice it to say, succeeded in making a great sandwich. From "Smoke on the Waterfront: The Northern Waters Smokehaus Cookbook" (University of Minnesota Press, 2023).
Scallion Cream Cheese:
• 1 lb. cream cheese
• 1/2 c. green onion
• 3 tbsp. water
The Cajun Finn:
• Stirato roll, cut in half horizontally
• Scallion cream cheese
• Lettuce, preferably spring mix
• Roasted red peppers
• Smoked Atlantic salmon, Cajun-seasoned
Prepare the scallion cream cheese: Allow the cream cheese to soften to room temperature. Slice the green onions all the way to the root. Using a food processor or blender, blend the onions with the water. Add the onion purée into the bottom of a standing mixer, followed by the cream cheese. Mix until smooth and light, adding more water, if necessary.
Assemble the sandwich: Slice a stirato roll in half, and layer bottom piece with scallion cream cheese, lettuce, pepperoncini, roasted red peppers and Cajun-seasoned salmon. Spread scallion cream cheese on the remaining half of the stirato roll and top sandwich.
Serving size varies.
The keys to the braise are the browning and caramelization of the meat and vegetables, and the steady incorporation of those unique flavors into the sauce. Begin with 1 cup of liquid per pound of meat, and adjust as necessary — based on the size of the cooking vessel, for example — to ensure that the surface sits just barely up the side of the roast. Any higher, and you're effectively just boiling the meat. Braising is a great way to take fatty, sinuous, chewy or otherwise undesirable cuts and turn them into melt-in-your-mouth delicacies. One benefit of living so close to the woods in northern Minnesota is the availability of wild game. Even if you yourself do not hunt, someone you know usually does and hunters trying to pawn off their quarry on anyone who will take it is something of a trope. "My family doesn't like the taste," is a common excuse. From "Smoke on the Waterfront: The Northern Waters Smokehaus Cookbook" (University of Minnesota Press, 2023). Provided photos
• 3- to 6-lb. roast
• Salt and freshly ground black pepper
• Mushroom powder, optional
• 1/2 c. olive oil
• 1 yellow onion
• 4 carrots, diced
• 1/2 bunch celery
• 6 cloves garlic, smashed
• 2 to 3 bay leaves
• 1 tbsp. herbes de Provence
• 6 juniper berries (if using venison)
• 2 tbsp. tomato paste
• 6 c. chicken stock
• 1 1/2 c. red wine
• 2 tbsp. balsamic vinegar
• 5 tbsp. unsalted butter
• 5 tbsp. flour
Season roast liberally with salt, pepper and mushroom powder, if using. Let sit for at least 2 hours to pull moisture from roast and improve browning when roasting.
In a heavy-bottom roasting pan, heat olive oil over medium-high heat, and brown both sides of roast well, about 25 minutes.
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
Remove roast from pan and set aside. In drippings, sauté onion, carrots, celery and garlic to clean bottom of pan and begin the sauce. Add the bay leaves, herbes de Provence, black pepper, optional juniper berries and tomato paste. Once vegetables begin to stick to the pan, add the stock, wine and balsamic vinegar and bring to a boil.
Return roast to pan, cover, and place in oven. Braise until fork-tender, 2 to 3 hours, depending on the size of roast.
Carefully remove roast to cutting board, and cover with aluminum foil. Let sit while preparing gravy.
To prepare gravy: Melt butter in a large skillet or saucepan, incorporate flour with whisk to form a roux. Cook for a few minutes over medium heat until it starts to brown. As you toast flour, it loses its ability to absorb liquids, so aim for a light brown roux when preparing this recipe. Strain liquid from vegetables and aromatics into a large saucepan, add roux to strained liquid and whisk to incorporate. Bring to a boil, and allow to thicken, whisking often.
Once the gravy is complete, slice or carve meat, dress with gravy. Serve over pasta, rice, mashed potatoes or roasted vegetables.