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The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down,
Of the big lake they call "Gitche Gumee"....
"Lake Huron rolls, Superior sings, in the rooms of her ice-water mansions...". I can't think of that song without getting goosebumps: "The searchers all say they'd have made Whitefish Bay if they'd put fifteen more miles behind her...".
But let us not dwell on past tragedy. Let's think happier thoughts: Let's think about fish. Of which Superior has plenty, and excellent fish, at that. But our own inland sea is an underappreciated resource, it seems. We splash out big bucks for Alaskan salmon and halibut, Atlantic striped bass, what-have-you, while we seriously underrate some of the best and freshest fish around--Lake Superior whitefish, herring, and lake trout.
It's not entirely our fault. From the Twin Cities we can crest the Superior height of land to gaze down on Lake Superior and the port of Duluth in about two hours' driving, but it's generally easier to find Norwegian cod than a fresh bluefin herring in our local fish markets. Things are getting a little better. We find Superior herring pretty regularly at Coastal Seafoods and the Seward Co-op during the season; Whole Foods often has wild whitefish. Smoked fish from theDockside Fish Market in Grand Marais, MN is sold at Coastal; Seward carries product from Northern Waters Smokehaus in Duluth; and smoked fish from Everett Fisheries in Port Wing, WI is available here, too. By the time it gets to the metro retail outlets, Lake Superior fish is not quite the bargain that it is when you purchase it from the source on "the shore," whether north or south, but it's still relatively cheap, worth looking for.
Still, there's nothing like getting it at the source. We've made a trip each of the past two summers from Bide-A-Wee up to Cornucopia, WI, for a meal at The Village Inn and a stop at Halvorson Fisheries for fresh and smoked fish. We stroll the long beautiful beach in "Corny," take a swim, wander the backroads, mosey home to grill a piece of lake trout over the fire, or put together an utterly satisfying, totally local fish chowder.
As much as I love the rugged North Shore on the Minnesota side, I've really come to appreciate the more pastoral, mellow feeling of Wisconsin's South Shore. It has a laid-back, relaxing vibe, and the scenery, though less dramatic than the North Shore's, is no less beautiful. And there are orchards, berry farms, wineries, whitefish livers....
While the general feeling along the South Shore is relaxed, that wasn't the case at Halvorson's when we stopped in last August. The next day was Cornucopia Day, which meant fish boils galore, and the whole crew was hard at work at the fishery, filleting whitefish and herring, fresh off the boat, as fast as ever they could. Which was pretty fast, believe me. Quite a scene.
Our experiences with Lake Superior fish in 2009 made me appreciate that resource all the more, and made me want to do more with these wonderfully flavorful, versatile fish in 2010. I'm resolving to get up to the South Shore more often. And one day we might just strike out east from Bide-A-Wee, follow highway 64 all the way to its end, and see what Lake Michigan has to offer.
Back at the cabin from our Corny visit last summer, I made a grilled fish chowder, coloring the fish and vegetables over the coals before combining them in the soup pot. Here's a stovetop version that we made recently at Bide-A-Wee using Superior fish--fresh herring, smoked lake trout--that we purchased in the cities.
Lake Superior Fish Chowder
1 thick slice bacon cut into 1/4-inch lardons
2 tsp butter
1 small leek, white and light green parts, slit, rinsed, sliced
1 small carrot sliced thin
1/2 a small onion, sliced thin
1/2 a small celery root in small dice (about 1/2 cup), or one rib celery, chopped
2 small potatoes, peeled and sliced
1 1/2 cups chicken, fish or vegetable stock
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup cream
1/4 cup dry white wine (optional)
2 tsp flour
salt and pepper
couple sprigs fresh thyme
2 bluefin herring filets, about 1/2 pound total
1/4 pound smoked lake trout, skin and bones removed, broken into chunks
Render off the bacon over medium heat, remove from pan, reserve. Add butter, onion, leek, celery root or celery, pinch of salt; cook slowly until the onion is translucent. Sprinkle the flour over the vegetables and stir with a wooden spatula to mix the flour into the fat. Cook for about 30 seconds.
Add a bit of the stock while stirring with the wooden spatula to deglaze and dissolve the flour into the stock. Add half the remaining stock, stirring. Add the rest of the stock. Combine the milk and cream, and ladle some of the now hot stock into that mixture. Slowly pour the stock-milk-cream mixture back into the pan. Add the carrots, potatoes, thyme, and a pinch or two of salt, couple grinds of pepper. Bring to a simmer and cook partially covered for 20 minutes.
Add the white wine if using, the fish, and the reserved bacon. Simmer for 10 minutes. Serve.
Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw