Monday, July 12, 2010
Summer Lake Trout Chowder
Chowder must be one of the most evocative words in the culinary lexicon. Just hearing it, or seeing it in print, I'm taken to a gray clapboard Downeast clam shack on a nor’easter day, steam glazing the inside of the windows while wind-driven raindrops pelt the outside, and I smell a briny duet of freshly shucked clams and salty smoked bacon, all those flavors seeping in to yielding potatoes in a rich milky broth, and you sit down to that supremely comforting meal wearing a big fisherman’s sweater, and all is right with the world.
The thing is, though, all those comforting images, the steam, the rain, the big fisherman’s sweater, the fragrantly steaming cauldron, they take me to a cold weather place, the shoulder seasons, late October, early March. But I like to eat creamy fish soup in the summer, too. That’s mainly when we have local fish around here.
So I came up with this dish, which is almost like a light, delicate fish and vegetable hot pot. It doesn’t simmer the live-long day, it isn’t thickened at all, and it has no bacon in it. Shocking, that last one, I know. I wanted to taste the fish and the vegetables without porcine interference.
I don’t mind traveling for great food. In fact, I love it. This past weekend, on a mini-vacation out at Bide-A-Wee, we made a day trip up to the South Shore of Lake Superior, popped in to a couple of galleries in Port Wing, took a walk and a swim on the beautiful Cornucopia beach, had lunch at the Village Inn in Corny (whitefish sliders, the Inn’s signature fish chowder). But the main event, and the purpose of the trip, was to stock up on fish at Halvorson Fisheries, down on the Corny docks. We bought lake trout and herring, fresh and smoked of each kind, not pounds and pounds but enough for several meals.
Coming home down Wisconsin 25 we stopped at an honor-system farm stand where we picked up a few peppers, a zucchini, and then passing the Dallas turn-off we saw a sign for the Dallas Farmers’ Market, a brand new venture of Ann Lee (Viking Brewing Company) & friends. On the shaded grass just off the sidewalk in front of the brewery a half dozen tables were set up. An Amish woman sold baked goods and a few vegetables. Our neighbor Tina had carrots and raspberries. Another table had an appealing array of young vegetables--green beans, zucchini, kale, tiny scallions, new potatoes, napa cabbage; vegetable soup in the raw--as well as a few gleaming trays of red currants. Next table down, a young man and an older one were standing behind containers of thrilling red--the first tomatoes of the season, romas and cherries. We bought a mixed pound of those, and picked up something else from most of the other tables.
This modest little market reminded me of what I love about farmers’ markets, what I’m afraid I’d nearly forgotten over the past seven-plus years of selling our bread at one most Saturdays through the summer. And it made me glad that we’ve decided to take a break from the market baking while I work on the book. I’m so looking forward to experiencing a variety of markets this summer, but from the customer’s side of the table, for a change.
Back at Bide-A-Wee in the late afternoon, we lit a fire for cooking--not to grill, this time, just to keep the chowder pot bubbling--and we prepped the vegetables for the soup. The wilds of Bide-A-Wee provided a couple of nice additions to the pot: wood sorrel and wood nettles. The nettles added depth of flavor and some dark green spots of color. The wood sorrel brought tart, lemony high notes and a pretty bit of garnish. For the nettles you could easily substitute spinach, and regular garden sorrel would do in place of the wood sorrel, though wood sorrel is easy to find even in the city--our Saint Paul garden is full of this tasty "weed".
The base for the soup was no fancy stock but pure water we brought back from the spring on the Cornucopia beach. And nothing but the salt came from outside Minnesota and Wisconsin. Each summer for the past few years we've made a road trip--a pilgrimage, just about--to Corny, at least once a summer. Each time I'm just astounded at how good our local "seafood" is. Lake trout is probably my favorite, while Mary is a big herring fan, and we both love the sweet, flaky whitefish, as well. Every year I ask myself, why do we so rarely see this fish in Twin Cities markets? Occasionally the herring shows up, and Whole Foods often has Canadian whitefish. I don't think I've ever seen lake trout for sale here. Maybe there's an answer out there; maybe it will remain one of those vexing mysteries.
This was one of the best things we've eaten this summer. The fresh trout was sweet, tender, and unctuous, and the smoked fish gave it a subtle campfire note. All the vegetables were distinct, and delicious. I was going to add some tomatoes to the soup, but I forgot to do so, and just used the quartered cherry tomatoes as garnish; and now I realize, that's what I meant to do, all along.
You could do this recipe with whitefish or herring. If the fish is impeccably fresh it will be good, though different. Working from the fish markets in town, you could keep it local by using walleye and a bit of smoked rainbow trout. But if you have the chance to make it with great, fresh, local lake trout, and the smoked version of same, well, I can guarantee you won't be sorry. It is as simple as it is delicious, and another illustration of the guiding truth that good cooking is mostly in the shopping.
Summer Lake Trout Chowder
4 cups water
4 new potatoes, golf ball-size, sliced ¼-inch thick
4 baby carrots, about 5 inches long, sliced on a long diagonal (or equivalent in larger carrots)
1 medium sweet onion, sliced thin
1 small zucchini or yellow squash, in very small dice, ¼-inch to 1/3-inch
A good handful of very young green beans, washed, stem end trimmed
6 ounces fresh lake trout, skinned, cut into 2 chunks
3 to 4 ounces smoked lake trout, in large flakes, about 2/3 cup
40 leaves of wood nettle, washed, blanched, and chopped (or a good cup of spinach leaves)
½ cup wood sorrel leaves (or a few small leaves of garden sorrel)
A few small cherry tomatoes, quartered
3 Tbsp heavy cream
2 tsp butter
Salt to taste
In a large saucepan combine the water, potatoes, carrots, and onions with two good pinches of salt. Bring to a simmer and simmer briskly for 12 minutes. Add the green beans and diced zucchini, and simmer for six minutes. Add the fresh and smoked trout, and simmer for 6 minutes.
Add the blanched, chopped nettle leaves (or spinach) and most of the wood sorrel, keeping a few sorrel leaves back for garnish. Simmer for 3 minutes.
Divide the fish and vegetables between two shallow soup bowls, leaving the broth in the pan. Add the cream and butter to the broth, taste for seasoning, then bathe the fish and veg in this lightly rich broth. Garnish with the reserved wood sorrel leaves and the cherry tomatoes.
If you like, save the skin from the lake trout and crisp it in a little oil in a fry pan, or directly over the coals of a grill. Use the crisp skin as additional garnish.
Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw