Here below, the epistemology of a northern pickled fish.
I used to do a lot more kitchen experimentation than I do these days. I would wrap lobster up in wonton skins, brown those like potstickers, and serve them with a fermented black bean sauce; encase a trout in a crust made from pounds of salt; simmer down elaborate sauces of exotic provenance. I had a run of really good dishes, which one evening ran aground on the now infamous "Brook Trout, Beets, and Bacon," which still sounds to me like it could work, but which, at least as I prepared it some years ago, most assuredly did not. Oh, how it did not work.
I don't think I'm exactly a stodgy cook now, but I do tend to lean toward variations on the classics rather than flat-out innovation or experimentation. In general, I'm more than happy to eat that way, tweaking preparations that I know make the best of what's available in the here and now. Once in a while though, I'm happy to be jolted out of my rut--however pleasant a rut it is--and given a chance to try a new technique, or new ingredients--or old ingredients in a slightly different form.
In the case of this ceviche of Lake Superior whitefish, I wasn't quite jolted--more like nudged, gradually, to try something quite simple but also somewhat risky. I've said it before and I'll say it again: I'm really a rather cautious eater; I only want to eat delicious things, and so I'm hesitant to undertake dishes that might not ring the delicious bell, and which might leave me, at dinnertime, with a plate of something I have to either choke down or chuck out. Such a sensibility really does work against innovation. But--
Three things came together, over a period of several months, to produce this dish--which is quite a freight of influence when you consider it's just a few slivers of cured fish, but here goes:
1) My discovery, last fall, that raw Lake Superior fish could be delicious.
2) My desire to make more use of things growing wild out at Bide-A-Wee.
3) Inspiration provided by "tweets" from chef Rene Redzepi at Noma restaurant in Copenhagen ( @ReneRedzepiNoma ).
The first two are self-explanatory, the third perhaps less so: Noma is a restaurant intensely devoted to making delicious things from intensely local, Nordic foods. The website states: "Noma is not about olive oil, foie gras, sun-dried tomatoes and black olives. On the contrary, we’ve been busy exploring the Nordic regions discovering outstanding foods and bringing them back to
It's a forager's restaurant, in other words, but one raised to the nth degree of culinary refinement, a restaurant that has been named the best in the world--an impressive accolade, even given the subjectivity of such ratings. The few dishes listed on the website menus seem sort of normal: scallops, watercress, oysters, asparagus, veal, sorrel. The inspirations that chef Redzepi "tweets" about are, to a forager, well, inspiring: unripe juniper vinaigrette; a dessert of hay and chamomile; grilled onions, wild thyme, and gooseberry juice; "pig in the swamp with swamp juice." Frankly, I have no idea what most of these things would taste like, or even what they literally are, in some cases. But I find Noma's inventiveness with these down and dirty local ingredients utterly compelling. I mean, I've got gooseberries and chamomile and hay, and rhubarb, fennel, sorrel, currants, raspberries, blackberries, venison--this is stuff from here. Finally, it seems, there's a world-renowned chef who has embraced The Trout Caviar Manifesto, to wit: Our stuff is as good as anybody's stuff, and part of the reason it's good is that it's ours.
But that it's ours is only part of the reason it's good. It has to stand on its own, in the end, and then the trepidation comes in, for me, to create something really novel and delicious "with foods that aren’t part of any system of formalised cultivation." It's a bit of a game, really--I mean, who cares what two people in Saint Paul ate one evening in July of 2011. But to me it's also expressive, and goes again to that persistent question of why we forage, which I will answer this time around by saying that it's to know something, first by looking for it, then by finding it, then by cooking with it, then by eating it, and finally, for me, by writing about it.
I said this was a lot for a few bits of fish to support, but I'm in too deep to turn back:
Green apples, they fascinate me. Apples fascinate me, ever since I became co-proprietor of our unruly Bide-A-Wee "orchard." And I'm impatient--I don't want to wait for ripe apples to do something with them. I used some green apple juice to flavor a cocktail a while back, but mostly I just taste my way around the land, spitting out mouthfuls of incredibly sour, astringent green apple, until the miraculous day of ripening occurs. Then it occured to me, putting green apples together with my interest in raw local fish preparations, that that highly acidic juice might work like lime juice in a traditional Latin American ceviche.
When I got down to trying it, I found that I'd succumbed to impatience again. The apples were so green, it was difficult to get any juice out of them. I pureed a couple of cups in the food processor, and had to add some water to get it to blend. I then ran that pulp through a food mill to press out the juice, and strained that through cheesecloth. The resulting juice had some nice apple aromas, and was fiercely astringent. I did not think it would taste good on its own, but I wasn't going to give up. To 1/4 cup of green apple juice (the apples were green, but the juice was now a forbidding brown) I added 2 tablespoons of sweet cider, and 1 tablespoon of apple cider vinegar. That tasted acidic enough to cure the fish (and curl your hair), but balanced enough to enhance the flavor of the dish, as well.
The dish would need some other flavors. An onion element, in the form of pickled ramps, was a natural. Salted milkweed buds as garnish, another shoe-in.
We have growing on our land in great, wild profusion, groves of prickly
I've done a bit with our local prickly ash berries, but mostly in its dried form, after the shells open in the fall to disgorge a hard, black seed--skip the seed and keep the husks. I took that approach because dried is how I've always seen Sichuan pepper. But our local prickly ash spice, though fragrant and interesting when green, didn't hold those qualities when dried. Well, duh, then why not use them fresh and green? And so I did.
One final herbal, savory element: honewort, a new wild green to me this year, thanks again to Sam Thayer's books. This prolific umbelliferous plant also goes by the name wild chervil, but it doesn't taste or smell like anise-y chervil. It's more celery-like, to my taste, and a tablespoon or so of chopped leaves and tender stems brought a real depth of flavor to the dish. Thayer says honewort makes an excellent broth, right up there with stinging nettles, and I believe it. I also used a few of the green honewort seeds, which had the same flavor, even more concentrated.
I took a few thin slices from a fillet of Lake Superior whitefish, quarter-inch thick or so. I tossed those with some fleur de sel and set them aside while I prepared the rest. I crushed and roughly chopped a generous teaspoon of the green prickly ash berries, and chopped the honewort, stripped off a half teaspoon of the seeds. Sliced one pickled ramp bulb. Mixed everything into the fish, along with a splash of canola oil (wished I'd had some good local sunflower oil in the house, but alas). I let it cure in the fridge for a couple of hours, stirring from time to time.
I served it sprinkled with a few salted milkweed buds. The first bite of a dish like this always fills me with terror. The first bite told me the apple mixture had "cooked" the fish, set up the proteins so it did not taste precisely like raw fish, but had a pleasant texture, both firm and yielding. Having assured myself that it was not yucky, I attempted a more subtle critique. The crunch of pickled ramp was excellent against the fish. The prickly ash berries were in chunky pieces, and when you bit one--wow. A citrus explosion (so nice in a northern ceviche) and just a fleeting hint of the numbing quality. The honewort greens gave resonant background flavor, the seeds were intense points of the same flavor.
It tasted like nothing I'd ever eaten, and like something I'd very much like to eat again. It tasted vividly of where we live, and told me something new about that place. Expressive, that's how the best food is, I think, and this one was there.