The annual Svitak fish fry was the highlight of my summer as a child. After my father brought home the fish, the work fell to my mother, who dipped walleye and northern pike into eggwash and crushed cornflakes. The oil in the deep fryer crackled as she dropped in the fillets, her face flushed from the heat. Once cooked, the fillets were sprinkled with enough salt to give a doctor a heart attack, before my mother served them with lemon wedges and a big smile.
It was the best meal of the year.
The pan-fried sunnies and crappies were mighty fine, too, after we had spent an occasional afternoon on the water, but nothing beat those deep-fried fillets dredged in Kellogg’s crumbs.
Ahhh. Freshwater fish.
I’m preaching to the choir with Keane Amdahl, author of the new “Lake Fish: Modern Cooking With Freshwater Fish” (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 231 pages, $24.95), though he would politely — and enthusiastically — offer a suggestion:
There’s more to cooking freshwater fish than frying.
He makes his point clearly and creatively in this cookbook, with chapters dedicated to the primary local fish available to Minnesotans: bass, catfish, cisco, crappie, northern pike, perch, smelt, sunfish, trout, walleye and whitefish.
From Soft Scrambled Eggs with Cisco Roe to Grilled Northern Pike With Fresh Summer Gazpacho, Grilled Smelt Caesar Salad, and Sunfish Arancini With Lemon Aioli, Amdahl wants us to stretch our repertoire.
He makes it easy with uncomplicated recipes that tap into global dishes, for which fish may not be the first protein that immediately comes to mind. When it does, with Amdahl’s help, the ingredient seems a natural.
But before we dip a line into the water and hope for dinner, let’s hear what Amdahl, an occasional fisherman, has to say about cooking this abundant state resource.
Q: What’s unexpected about local fish that cooks need to know?
A: They’d be surprised at how diverse the options are and how widely they could be used in a variety of different dishes. That’s what I wanted to highlight in the book. When I cook at home, I cook whatever I feel like eating. If I feel like curry, I make curry. If I want a burger, I make a burger. I tend to cook very globally in my own kitchen.
I wanted to bring that to the book, too, to say, “Here are recipes that aren’t necessarily uncommon, but that you might not think of for lake fish or sometimes even seafood in general.” These recipes are versatile. If you don’t like fish, you could swap out a different protein if preferred, or tofu, and make it work.
Q: Did you find that working with a variety of fish created different cooking challenges?
A: Small fillets cook up very, very quickly, and in terms of timing dishes, that could be a little challenging, but it’s not too hard. Sourcing was the biggest challenge for me when doing the book, but that’s less of an issue with home cooks. I couldn’t rely on me strolling to a lake and catching enough fish to test recipes, so I had to commercially source some. A lot of my fish came from Red Lake Nation Fishery and they do a really great job processing the fish and delivering it. I was really impressed with the quality of what you get, especially in terms of frozen fish. It was beautiful. Today we can buy farm-raised catfish at most major grocery stores, and farm-raised largemouth bass from California is becoming available there, though it’s sold mostly to their local restaurants.
Q: Do you have preferences for what fish you cook, or do you like variety?
A: I always like the variety. One of the biggest issues is that we’re habitual eaters. If we find a restaurant we like, we tend to go to that restaurant more than others. It’s the same at home. A lot of people tend to make the same types of dishes or work with the same types of food because that’s what they know. Diversity in diet is something that is often overlooked.
I like having a lot of different foods at my disposal and especially like to knock down misconceptions about food, such as catfish. It’s a beautiful, readily available, cheap, sustainable fish. But people are like “Catfish, eew! Tastes like mud.” Not true. If caught and cleaned well, it’s fine and, if farm-raised, it’s beautifully fresh. Same is true of largemouth bass. Many anglers treat it purely as a sport fish and say it tastes muddy. But you can get some really beautiful fish.
Q: Do you have a preference for cooking techniques with fish?
A: A simple pan roast is one of the best ways to cook fish, searing it off with a little oil and butter. It works with any species, anytime, anywhere. You always get beautiful texture and flavor. I wanted to avoid an emphasis on fried fish because that’s all everyone wants to do with fish. There’s a reason for it, because it’s really a great way to cook fish. But there are so many other ways to cook it.
Q: Any advice to home cooks to avoid mistakes?
A: When cooking fish, there are a couple of problems. The first one is fear. People fear cooking fish at home like no other ingredient. I don’t understand why. It’s not harder than any other proteins. It’s quicker. It can make dinner faster.
People also are afraid of fish sticking to the pan, so they poke and prod it, which means it will stick. The key is to make sure the fish is dry before cooking it. People ask me why the breading falls off fish when they are working with it, and it’s because they are not drying off the fish enough. The same is true if the fish is sticking to the pan: It wasn’t dry enough to start with.
People also cook fish too long because they are looking for a golden brown crust like they see on TV. Once again, the fish is not dry enough before they start.
Whole Grilled Bass With Citrus Chimichurri
Note: From “Lake Fish,” by Keane Amdahl.
• Zest and juice of 1 orange
• 2 garlic cloves, finely minced
• 1/2 c. chopped fresh cilantro
• 1/2 c. chopped fresh parsley
• 1 tbsp. red chile flakes
• 3 slices lemon
• Several sprigs fresh thyme
• 1 lb. whole bass, gutted and scaled
• Olive oil
Preheat grill. In a small mixing bowl, stir together orange zest and juice, garlic, cilantro, parsley and chile flakes. Season with salt and pepper, and set aside.
Place lemon slices and thyme sprigs directly into the cavity of the fish, and coat skin with olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Place fish on grates of hot grill and cook for 4 to 5 minutes. Flip and cook for 4 to 5 minutes longer.
Remove skin from fish. The meat should easily pull away from the bones. Serve flaked fish with chimichurri on the side.
Serves 2 to 4.
Note: Fresno chile peppers look like an orange or red version of the jalapeño, and are usually milder. Panko breadcrumbs are larger and lighter than the traditional crumb, which could be substituted. From “Lake Fish,” by Keane Amdahl.
• 1/2 c. mayonnaise
• Juice of 1/2 lemon
• 4 (4- to 6-oz.) skinless walleye fillets, cut into 1-in. chunks
• 1/2 red onion, finely minced
• 1 to 2 fresno chiles, finely minced (see Note)
• 1 egg yolk
• 2 tbsp. roughly chopped fresh tarragon
• 1 1/2. panko breadcrumbs (see Note)
• 1 c. vegetable oil
Stir together mayo and lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper, and refrigerate until needed.
Place walleye, onion, chiles, egg yolk and tarragon in a blender and pulse to combine. The mixture shouldn’t be perfectly smooth, but should come together easily. Form into about 8 (2-inch) patties. Refrigerate walleye cakes for at least 20 minutes. Dredge chilled cakes in panko and refrigerate for at least another 15 minutes.
Add vegetable oil to a skillet over medium-high heat. When oil is shimmering, add 4 fish cakes and cook until golden brown, about 2 to 3 minutes. Flip and cook for an additional 2 to 3 minutes. Drain cakes on a paper-towel-lined plate. Repeat until all the cakes have been cooked. Serve with lemon mayo.