I've been having a lot of fun with herring since I swung by Halvorson Fisheries in Cornucopia, Wisconsin, on the South Shore of Lake Superior, on the way home from Bide-A-Wee on Monday. Well, sort of on the way home. I mean, I did start out at Bide-A-Wee, and wind up home in Saint Paul--which is basically a home-to-home trip now--but the stop in Corny required a little detour, roughly five hours of driving. The roundaboutness of my route started to sink in as I crossed the towering bridge over the Saint Louis River from Superior to Duluth, and I thought, "Hmm, you know, when the quickest way back to Saint Paul is via Duluth, you've gone just a little out of your way...".
And then when the mild afternoon turned into a bit of a blizzardy evening and I was still just past Pine City, a good 60 miles to home, and the lane markers on I-35 disappeared, traffic was crawling along, the headlights showed a white-out, snowflakes the size of handkerchiefs, and I pondered, "If this doesn't let up I'm not going to make it home tonight, I'm going to have to find a place to stay, with two dogs, and a cooler full of fish...", and I looked at the trip odometer, which showed 160.2 miles, and then I looked at it again, what seemed like an hour later, and it read 163.4, well, at that point it didn't seem like such a swell idea, my little detour.
But as I continued on south I hit the rain/snow line, the white turned to wet, I could see the road again, and we made it home safe and sound. As I walked in the door I smelled this amazing smell, and there was Mary taking a tray of fresh, hot gouda gougères out of the oven, those fabulous little choux paste cheese puffs, and I'm thinking, "Shower, martini, gougères, fresh fish...", and I'm thinking, "My wife: I think I'll keep her."
That's all prologue to a week of much herring. Here we go:
Pickled herring, for which I adapted a recipe from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall of River Cottage fame. I wasn't looking to pinch someone else's recipe, was just seeking a general method, but when I saw that he uses apple cider and cider vinegar, I wound up following the recipe pretty straight. It's still evolving, just two days in the jar, but it has a much more delicate texture and subtler flavor than any of the commercial versions I've had.
It was in the process of making the pickled herring that I came upon the inspiration for the dish above, herring crudo with cider mustard cream and frizzled leeks. See, the first step in preparing the pickled fish is brining it, soaking it in salt water for a couple of hours. Once I had done that (I lightened Hugh's brine, which seemed really salty), I tasted just a sliver of the raw fish, to see how salty it had become. What I tasted was this brilliantly fresh fish, just mildly salty, with a fantastic texture, yieldingly firm it was, to coin an oxymoron; it tasted, in brief, how I always hope the fish at sushi joints will, though it rarely does.
I knew I had to come up with a dish to show it off, and I thought of the honey-mustard sauces you often get with gravlax, and that thought led to this reduction of cream, sweet cider, cider vinegar, with some yellow mustard seeds and a little Dijon mustard. The frizzled leek looks pretty and adds a crisp contrast to the softness of the fish, the richness of the sauce. Crunchy gray sea salt brings more texture and...salt. This is rather a cheffy dish, to be sure, such as I rarely attempt anymore, but it's really not difficult. It all depends on the freshness of the fish, of course. You could make it with any "sashimi-grade" fish from a reputable fish monger. I've since learned (Thanks, Google!) that lightly salt-cured, essentially raw herring is practically a national dish in the Netherlands. (I undertook this research after the fact, to see if there were any health concerns to be aware of, like, Of course no one eats raw herring, because of the deadly herring worm that eats your intestines from one end to the other! If the Dutch thrive on raw herring, I'm much comforted. They've always seemed a particularly vigourous, ruddy sort of folk.)
That was our first course last night, and we followed it with herring milkweed à la meunière, skinless fillets lightly seasoned, dusted in flour, fried in an oil-butter mix. La meunière is the miller's wife; she brings the flour, I guess, a small but important contribution to the dish. For the sauce you cook good butter--maybe three tablespoons for two people--over a medium flame, and as it starts to brown--to turn noisette, hazelnut color--you toss in capers, traditionally, but I used my little pickled milkweed pods. I added also a couple teaspoons of the pickling brine, and a good squeeze of lemon juice, and you're good to go. Very, very good. Everyone tends to think of herring as an oily, rather heavy fish, but in a preparation like this, and with the freshest fish--and skinless, at that--that's the furthest thing from the case. This fish was notably light in texture--fluffy even came to mind--under the crisp flour jacket.
We drank some of our own cider, the 2009. Talk about a happy meal. Somewhere along the way it occured to me that the heart of this meal was wild foods. The milkweed, another small but vital component, I picked on our land this summer, and of course the herring swim free, and apparently still thrive, in Superior's "ice-water mansions." I mention this because, with all the attention paid these days to the trendy aspects of wild foods, we tend to forget that all food was originally wild. All of our cultivated vegetables and fruits and grains are manipulated versions of something Great Nature first made. My point here is a little fuzzy even to me, but I was just surprised to realize that herring with milkweed pickles was wild food--the herring came from a fish market (albeit one that sits on the shore of Lake Superior) and the milkweed pickles from a jar in my fridge. There are also jars of pickled ramps in there, and fiddleheads, and chanterelles, and jams and jellies from blackberries, wild plums, etc. In our house, wild food is not a separate category of food; it's just food. And I think that's good.
I bought some smoked lake trout and whitefish at Halvorson's, but I decided to try my hand at smoking my own herring. I used my standard brine, a half cup each of salt and brown sugar to a quart of water, brined it for around ten hours, and now I'm smoking it hot, trying to keep the temp around 220. That should take three hours or so. I have an idea about a dish that will involve the smoked herring and all things apple--some kind of reduction of sweet and hard cider, cider vinegar, fresh or perhaps dried apples. Of course I'm using apple wood to smoke it.
Finally, salted herring. I have no idea what I'll do with that--well, I have fleeting notions, a fish pie, pasty, empanada-type thing has occured to me. The fillets we used for the meunière dish were big, so I took off the tail ends and tossed them in salt, left them in the fridge overnight. Now I'm letting them dry a bit, and I'll probably freeze them. We will probably see them again some time in February....
I guess it could go without saying, at this point, that I find it inspiring to have ingredients of this quality to work with--and I also have frozen burbot (eelpout), and beautiful butterflied smelts in the freezer, brought back on this trip. But being by Superior at the end of November has a melancholy, elegaic quality to it, as well. Part of it was that marbled gray sky, the flat gray lake, and the out-of-season feeling of a summer place sliding into winter. Part of it is the sense that commercial fishing on Lake Superior is itself rather a marginal, vestigial activity, so few are left that ply this trade. Without descending into the maudlin, I still have to wonder, five years from now, ten, will I still have the chance to make an impetuous detour, load my cooler up with blindingly fresh herring, whitefish, or lake trout?
A few shots through the car window, traveling west on Wisconsin 13 from Cornucopia toward Superior:
Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw