Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Baja Minnesota

It's not that we don't enjoy the traditional foods of winter, the braises, the stews, the soul-satisfying soups that simmer a long age on the wood-burning stove--we love that kind of food, we dream of it on sweltering July days, yearn for sweater weather and the steaming stewpot, crusty warm bread to dunk in collagen-rich broth.

But now it is the last week of February, Mardi Gras just past and images of Carnivale dancing in our heads, and while we're not cruise-taking, beachy sort of people, we appreciate a little southern comfort, from time to time. This time around, we took it out in tacos--southern comfort with a northern twist.

I love the idea of fish tacos, but in reality I'm frequently dissappointed by them. Too often they consist of indifferent (even unspecified) fish wrapped in not-so-fresh tortillas deluged with overbearing gloop--sour cream, watery salsa, shredded lettuce, boring pink tomatoes, even cheese!* Like many simple foods, a good taco relies on the quality of its few components, and each must be top-notch. The components of a great fish taco: the tortillas, the fish, the condiments.

First, the tortillas: Ours were freshly made--Mary-made--flour tortillas, which are nothing more than flour, water and fat, but in this case, what wonderful fat: in lieu of the traditional lard (which would be great), a combination of Hope butter and duck confit fat. The tortillas came out supple, silky, tender and incredibly fragrant from the duck fat with its many-times refreshed infusion of the quatre-épices spice mixture that flavors our duck confit. What a loaf of fresh homemade bread is to a plastic-bagged supermarket loaf, that's how these tortillas compared to the usual commercial product (not that there aren't some good ones out there; and, I would still make these tacos even if I had to use store-bought tortillas).

Second: The fish. The perfect fish for fish tacos: walleye. Who knew? Walleye is the "state fish" of Minnesota, of course. As a cherished symbol of our cultural identity as Minnesotans, its culinary qualities are, of course, vastly underrated. Now, this is not to say that the eating qualities of walleye have gone unnoticed here. Heck, everyone knows that they eat way better than northern pike ("slimy jackfish," my Grandpa Leitkie used to call them, but we still ate them), or bass. Neck and neck with perch as fish-fry fare, for sure. But because of its north-woods, cabin life associations, walleye doesn't have much of a gastronomical rep. At your typical supper club you'll get a choice of deep-fried or baked "almondine", if you can get it at all. Also, ordering the "state fish," even in a Minnesota restaurant, can be a bit of a buyer-beware situation, as it was revealed a couple of years ago that many restaurants were actually serving a farmed fish similar to walleye called "zander," imported from Europe. Euro-trash zander dressed as walleye, the shame!

I write the above as a great big mea culpa: Before buying the walleye for these tacos, I can't remember the last time I purchased it. I was always afraid it would pale in comparison to the taste memory of fresh-caught walleye from cold Lake Brereton in eastern Manitoba, where my family had a cabin when I was growing up.

When I decided to make fish tacos, I knew I wanted to make it with local fish. Looking into the counter at Coastal Seafoods, however, the choices were few. Farmed rainbow trout from Star Prairie is always available, and it's a fine product, but I wanted a thicker fillet, and preferably white fish, to work with. That left me with walleye, and here I must admit that "local" must be a relative term--this fish came from Canada, fished through the ice with nets, probably in Manitoba or Saskatchewan (at the store I was originally informed that it was from Lake Superior, but that didn't sound quite right to me, and a little more checking got me a more accurate answer--thanks to Chris at the Minneapolis Coastal store). The company that brings us this fine fish is the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corp., and here's a pretty fascinating video showing how we get fresh Canadian fish from under the ice in the dead of winter.

And the quality of this fish, well, it was fantastic--smelled as clean as a northern lake, sliced up into dense, pearly fingers. I used larger chunks of fish than you usually get in a taco. That way the flavor of the fish came through even with the breading and the condiments. The flavor was all you want from walleye--sweet, clean, toothsome, utterly edible.

Finally, "the gloop," that is to say, the condiments: Something tangy-creamy is good; sour cream would be fine, sparingly applied, but I had made some home-cultured "crème fraiche" using Cedar Summit cream. It melted onto the hot battered fish. A fresh crunchy salsa is de rigeur, but we're far from tomato and cucumber season. I used sweet corn, frozen from the market last summer, which I simmered for a couple of minutes in a little water, butter, and salt. To the al dente corn I added some chopped red onion (market), and a small apple (Bide-A-Wee), peeled and diced almost the same size as the corn kernels. Crumbled a dried red chili in there, splashed in some of our own cider vinegar. In spite of the red onion and chili, this salsa was looking very Minnesotan, indeed--quite pallid. I remembered some pickled anaheims I'd put up in 2008. They keep forever, so I chopped a couple into the mix. They looked nice and added a bit of zing.

I put together another little salad of Wisconsin black radish and North Dakota blood orange...lying: the blood orange was from wherever those come from, surely a good distance from our beloved home in Zone 4. I peeled and julienned the radish, tossed it with some salt and let it set awhile. Squeezed it out and rinsed it. Zested the orange on a Microplane into the radish slivers, peeled and sectioned the orange, squeezed the juice out of the remaining membrane and tossed it all together (except the membrane), simple as that.

Now the batter, well, that was an instance of sheer genius. While a couple of inches of oil were heating in the wok I had Mary beat up an egg white to pretty firm peaks. To the beaten white I added a good pinch of salt, then ice water, about half a cup, I'd say, then around a quarter cup of corn starch and maybe a third cup of AP flour. I mixed that up quickly, not to develop any gluten; the batter was like very thin pancake batter. I salted my walleye fingers, tossed them in cornstarch to just barely coat them, then into the batter, lift and drain off excess, into the hot oil (canola). Cook till just lightly brown, turning them around, about three minutes total. I had quite a bit of batter left after cooking the fish, and half an onion just sitting there; these made tempura-battered red onion slices, of which I could have eaten a good many.

Remember the watercress? That added the essential fresh, green, seasonal component to the dish. Way better than shredded iceberg. But I probably didn't need to say that. I had high hopes for the corn and apple combination in the salsa; on its own it wasn't as good as I had hoped, but in combination with the cream, fish, great tortillas and the rest, it more than held up its end.

I know this sounds like a rather elaborate procedure for tacos, but it all came together quite naturally, because I was just working with what was on hand, nor reinventing the wheel in concocting any of the various parts.

The Lake Superior Special Ale we drank with this was in honor of the walleye coming from Superior, so I thought at the time. Since the U.S. and Canada do share Gitchee-Gumee's bounty, and since this meal relied entirely on its union of north-and-south-of-the-border components, we'll just say, "Hands across the water!" and "Cheers!" It went down right nice, eh?


*Our friend Melinda, aka Nomenclature Tsarina Lulu, has strong opinions about a variety of topics, and we concur with her judgment that the only proper unions of fish and cheese are in a tuna melt and a Filet-O-Fish sandwich.

Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw


Hunter Angler Gardener Cook said...

I too am a no-cheese-with-fish person, but I might add Greek saganaki, which combines shrimp and feta.

el said...

That DOES sound terribly elaborate for mere taco-making, but I am quite sure the lengths you've gone to were well worth it.

Oh and culinary kismet again: your post on the chix soup made me think tortilla soup which of COURSE led me to make fish tacos with the girl last week!!! How strange! Masa tortillas, Atlantic hake, greenhouse salad and cilantro with my canned salsa. MmmMMm.

(FWIW I think pike is far superior to walleye and I can say that b/c I claim no MN affiliation any longer. My trip back to meat-eating was a fly-in fishing honeymoon in ON. I found the pike better fighters and better on the plate, y-bones be damned>.)

Teresa Marrone said...

Oh, I agree with El... I usually prefer good, clean, flaky northern pike to walleye. Don't get me wrong, I love a nice eatin'-sized walleye too, when it's fresh from the lake. But pike is severely underrated in my book.

Years ago, I was travelling with a bunch of folks from the Hunting & Fishing Library (a series of books I worked on as managing editor) and some guys from In-Fisherman magazine. We were up on Deer Lake, north of Grand Rapids (a stunningly clear, aquamarine-blue lake), and we had a mess o' fish that I cooked up for this gang of hungry anglers after a day of filming and fishing.

One of the In-Fish guys (Jan, I think his name was) was from Holland, and he told us about the zander; he was interested in the walleye, to see how it compared. He thought the walleye was OK, not much better than zander (remember, he can fish for it in his home country, and gets to eat it fresh), but he just about died of happiness when he sampled the northern pike, which had been prepared in the same way as the walleye and smallmouth we were eating. He thought the pike was far superior, and could not understand its poor reputation.

I think there are two keys to excellent walleye--or pike, for that matter. First, it must be impeccably fresh, and if frozen, it has to be properly frozen immediately after cleaning. Second, it must be of the right size. A walleye over about 3 pounds gets to tasting a bit muddy, even when just-caught-fresh (not always, but usually, anyway) and one over 5 pounds should be released immediately, both from a flavor standpoint and from the ethics of it. The best northern for eating is also under 4 pounds. Remember that both of these fish are predators; they eat smaller fish, and the older they get, the more contaminants they accumulate in their flesh, esp. in the lateral line. For best taste and also a health standpoint, it's always best to remove the lateral line (the dark band of flesh that runs along the outside of the fillet) from gamefish, esp. predators like walleye and northern.

Anyway, enjoyed your post; I adore fish tacos when properly prepared (which is the exception to the rule around here).

Fred said...

All I can say, is you made me pretty hungry as I read your story. It sounds awfully good and fun. For myself, I will take any fresh fish from our northern waters and relish its unique taste and beauty. Watercress too, even though it may come from a more southerly stream. Merci, mon ami.

Faith said...

My best tacos of recent memory were at , of all places, California Pizza Kitchen!! (starving after Avatar in Rosedale) and I ordered them because they said they were using wild mahi. I know, not local, but I really don't want to eat farmed fish. Turned out the restaurant made their own salsa that came with it, and these were on flour tortillas, the fish was pan sauteed, not deep fried. EXcellent!! thanks for your post, yes it sounds like a lot of effort but you obviously love to cook and that is what it looks like, a lot of play for you!!

Charles Leck said...

Brilliant blog! Wonderful! I don't think I could ever duplicate your recipe but it will serve as a broad guideline to try something of the same sort, starting with the wonderful fresh walleye. Around here, we thank you again for blogging and making us constantly hungry for good, fresh, local food. Numm!

Trout Caviar said...

Perhaps there is a shellfish exemption to the rule, Hank. Linguine with clam sauce frequently gets a dusting of parm. Greek food is not my strong suit; I wouldn't have thought of the shrimp and feta dish.

El: "Mere" tacos?!? Why, I oughta...! Those were no mere tacos. Really, it was Mary's amazing tortillas that put it over the top. And actually, it only seemed elaborate because I'm such a verbose recipe writer. The corn relish took about five minutes to throw together, the radish and orange thing less.

I've had a craving for good tortilla soup since having a not-so-good one at a Wisconsin diner a couple weeks ago--basic midwestern chicken soup with a few bits of FLOUR tortilla in it! Unclear on the concept, fer sher.

We never see hake here. I wonder why.

Fred: You're always hungry. I can't take credit for that.

Hi Faith: What I said to El. Deep-frying is always a bit of a pain, but I just did those bits of fish in a couple of inches of oil in the wok. Kind of messy but not difficult. Thanks for the taco tip--if I am hungry at Rosedale I'll know where to go!

Charlie, you're too kind! This was not, I repeat, anything like rocket science. There are several components but most could be made ahead. Maybe I'll work up a lamb taco recipe--which reminds me I've not yet put up my lamb pasties post. On the way.

Thanks for writing, everyone~ Brett

Trout Caviar said...

The topic of northern pike vs. walleye deserves a separate comment. Where to begin?

First: Fly-in fishing honeymoon, El? How romantic is that! Love it.

It's been so long since I dropped a line in a lake.... Unquestionably pike are better fighters. They'll go deep, they'll go airborn. Landing a walleye is often compared to reeling in a wet sock.

On the eating qualities, my only side-by-side experiences come from those childhood vacations at the family cottage in Manitoba. Basically we ate everything we caught, and we didn't discriminate between walleye and northern, we enjoyed both. The pike did elicit remarks about those fiendish Y-bones you mention, El. The frisson of fear, that death might come for dinner if you swallowed wrong, how did that affect the repast? Hard to tell. Pike also had a bit of a stigma because of the slime. But we skinned the fillets, so at dinner that wasn't an issue.

And while we appreciated both walleye and pike, the little perch was king of the table, hands down. Maybe in part because we didn't have them as often.

Teresa, your tips for enjoying walleye and pike are great. Thanks for posting them. Thinking about the reaction of the Dutch guy, that makes sense to me from my trips to France. There are some classic dishes involving pike. Maybe the best known one, quenelles de brochet (brochet is pike; brochette is stuff cooked on a stick; the similarity in the words has no doubt created some surprises at the table), tackles the bone question by turning the pike meat into a paste, which is blended with cream, egg, etc. and formed into rich, airy, fishy pillows, football-shaped, that are poached and served with a lobster or crayfish sauce...um, I just drooled on the keyboard...one sec.

All cleaned up: How cool would it be to make that dish here, all local, fish me a pike, trap me some crawdads from the stream? I think I have a project for the summer...! Meritage restaurant in downtown St Paul had that dish on the menu once. Don't know if they still do.

There's also the "matelote," pike or other freshwater fish cooked in a wine sauce.

Sylvie, are you out there, can you add anything here?

I do think I saw zander, or sandre in French, once or twice in the Loire region.

Needless to say, there are many fish which we disdain that are considered delicacies in other parts of the world. Carp tops the list. And think of all the fish that used to be "trash fish"--monkfish, skate, bluefish, mackerel--that now fetch top dollar.

In you watch the videos I linked, you'll see that a lot of pike comes out of the lakes and into the processing plant. Where does it go? Not to our fish markets in the Twin Cities. Coastal carried pike, once, for like about five minutes, a couple of years ago.

I saw it but didn't buy any. Twelve bucks a pound for slimy jackfish? Take off, hoser....


Teresa Marrone said...

Pike quenelles, yes... excellent fare. I've made them, long ago... wonder if I still have the recipe about someplace. And let us not forget the many variations of gefilte fish, for which pike is often a main ingredient. If they are well made and properly served (like at Mama Batt's on Chicago's near south side), holy hell, talk about GOOD.

Certainly, one man's trash fish is another woman's pleasure. Recall that wild-caught Alaskan salmon was considered of such poor quality that it was used in the school lunch program for many years (as well as turned into cat food, no doubt)... until some wildly clever person figured out how to brand it (Copper River was the first, I think, to hit it big). Now folks gladly pay $15-$25 per pound for it, even when it's been (badly) frozen and cryovac'ed to be sold out of season.

Another comment about trash-or-treasure: I have read that the much-despised eelpout is netted here in the Land of Sky Blue Waters and shipped to the east coast, where it is sold at very high prices under the name of ling cod. Around here, if one is out on the ice on, say, Mille Lacs right about now and an eelpout dares to take the hook, the typical response is to beat it senseless and then throw it out on the ice as far from the angler's fishin' hole as possible. I must admit that I am not enamored of the way that they wrap themselves around my arm when I catch one... but they deserve a better fate than that cruel death. They are darn fine eating when the skinned backstraps are gently boiled and served with drawn butter. On the ice, of course.

Sylvie said...

sorry, joining the conversation pretty late. I must confess I don't know pike very well. The area of France i grew up in did not have them, so I did not get to eat (some) pike until later in life and never prepared it myself. Quenelles, matelotes, also fish pie in the English style - all good preparation. Other ideas here (In French, but I know you'll be fine Brett):

Can we talk about eel instead? Another trash fish for some and treasure for others?

PS - I enjoyed reading the creme fraiche making post.

Trout Caviar said...

Thanks, Sylvie. That's a great site for pike cuisine! Reading French recipes makes me believe I can actually read French--grace au langage très simple, le vocabulaire répétitif!

Eel, well, I'd love to talk eel, though we don't have a local population here. I have noticed lampreys (not the bad kind, but native species) in our streams in spring, and wondered, the way omnivores are wont to do....

What do you do with eel?

Cheers~ Brett

Fred said...

Well make sushi with that eel, of course.

Sylvie said...

Eel? same type of preparation as pike where you can take advantage of the firmness of the flesh. Matelote (try it with cider since you make your won)' "anguiile au vert" floured, sauteed, lighly stewed with green herbs (spinach, sorrel, parsley, watercress) white wine and the sauce finished and thickened with eggs creme fraiche; in curry etc

Of that's making me hungry!