Thursday, December 13, 2012

A Superior Supper

This was a sort of herring-inspired tapas supper, if you will, or perhaps smorgasbord would be more appropriate to northern provenance of the fish, and the Nordic twist I administered to a classic French preparation, fish quenelles.  Whatever you want to call it, a superior supper, indeed.

Quenelles de brochet, pike dumplings, is a standard in the cuisine of Burgundy and the northern Rhone.  Like most dumplings, it probably had humble origins--a way to use up bits of fish for the dumplings and the bones for the sauce.  But most of the quenelles recipes I'd encountered were from the haute cuisine end of things, exceedingly rich and fussy to make.  In these high-end versions, the fish was there to hold as much butter, cream, and eggs as possible.  The traditional lobster, shrimp, or crayfish sauce that anointed these ethereal pillows of poisson does not scrimp on the fat, either.  Which is okay with me, from time to time, but since we planned to sample a variety of dishes, I didn't want that much richness in the quenelles.

This was a preparation that had intimidated me for a long time--well, until last week, to be honest.  It seemed to have the potential to be phenomenally delicious, but the one time I tasted it in France, the dumplings were kind of rubbery, and fishy tasting, and the one time I tried to make it at home, following a New York Times recipe, was an expensive, extremely messy disaster--turned out the recipe in the paper was wrong, and my email prompted a correction, which was very small consolation, indeed.  I never made the corrected recipe.

I'm not sure what prompted me to try fish quenelles again--perhaps just to test the versatility of my splendidly fresh herring.  In one of Rick Stein's books I found the streamlined quenelle recipe I'd long been looking for.  This one used bread soaked in milk--a "panade"--to hold things together without too much butterfat.  Also, unlike every other quenelle recipe I had encountered, it did not ask you to push the fish paste through a sieve (how appetizing does that sound?!).  Before the days of the food processor, sieving the puree was probably necessary to achieve a smooth texture in the dumplings; modern technology has eliminated the need for that step, but a lot of French recipes have not caught up.  (Madeleine Kammen notes that she could never forget learning to make quenelles, pounding the fish in a mortar and pestle; she was always reminded by the painful bursitis in her shoulder....)

Although rich, most classic quenelle preparations make a dumpling that must be pretty bland.  There is rarely any seasoning besides salt and perhaps a bit of white pepper.  I wanted my dumplings to be flavorful independent of rich sauce, so I gave them strong, northern notes with apple cider vinegar, grain mustard, and shallot (and a nod to Mme Kammen with the pinch of quatre-épices, "confit spice," that I learned from one of her books; I have a tin of that in my spice drawer at all times).

Carrying on the Nordic theme, my chowder sauce is heavy on the hardy roots--rutabaga, parsnip, and celery root.  I toned down the smokiness of the bacon by first water-blanching the meat.  The sour cream and lemon added at the end of cooking gives this sauce a nice acid lift; it would be a bit flat without it.

Do not worry if you don't have herring caviar.  A garnish of chopped herbs would be nice, too--some snipped chives, perhaps, or a little dill.  I think thyme leaves would suit it, too.

While I was roasting my potato slices in duck fat for the caviar canapé, I added the "tails" of the parsnip and rutabaga, sliced in half the long way.  They made for a charismatic, savory garnish, and a very rustic-looking counterpoint to the elegant dumplings and roe.

For the other dishes in our Nordic tapas spread, Mary mixed leftover broiled herring with its homemade chile mayo accompaniment for a lovely canapé served on toast:

I combined smoked whitefish, apple, and roasted beets in a dressing of Smude sunflower oil, cider vinegar, some honey, about a quarter teaspoon of mustard seeds and a generous pinch each of caraway and cumin seeds, some shallot, I think.  A bit of a mess in the plate, but fresh and flavorful:

And then those luxurious rounds of duck-fat-roasted potatoes with sour cream and a liberal topping of the herring roe, home-cured:

I think we're going to start seeing more and more chefs exploring the possibilities of Lake Superior herring.  Anybody out there need a menu consultant?  I'm available....

Herring Quenelles with Nordic Chowder and Caviar

6 ounces skinless, boneless Lake Superior herring
1 tablespoon minced shallots
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ cup fresh bread crumbs
1/3 cup whole milk
1 teaspoon grain mustard
1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
1 egg
3/8 teaspoon salt
A few grinds of black pepper
2 tablespoons sour cream mixed with ¼ cup cream

Melt the butter in a small saucepan and add the shallots.  Just as the butter starts to sizzle, remove the pan from the heat and stir in the bread crumbs, then the milk.  Refrigerate until well chilled.

Cut or scrape away the line of brown-gray fat running down the herring fillets and discard.  Cut the fish into ½-inch cubes and place in the bowl of a food processer with the bread-shallot-milk mixture, the mustard, vinegar, confit spice, egg, salt, and pepper.  Process to a  very smooth puree, about 2 minutes.   Then, with the processor running, add the cream mixture and process just long enough to incorporate.  Refrigerate this mixture until you’re ready to make your quenelles.

Bring a saucepan of water to a simmer.

Using two kitchen tablespoons, shape quenelles, little football shapes, from the fish mixture.  They should be about 2 ½ inches long and just over an inch wide.  Poach the quenelles in the water, adjusting the heat to keep a gentle simmer, for 3 to 4 minutes, until they are firm.  Keep warm in a warm oven until ready to serve.

Root Vegetable Chowder

2 tablespoons each celery root, rutabaga, parsnip, and onion, in very small—less than ¼-inch—dice
1 ounce slab bacon, blanched in boiling water for 2 minutes, drained and minced
1 teaspoon butter or oil
2 teaspoons flour
½ cup fish, chicken, or vegetable stock
½ cup whole milk
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons sour cream
Lemon juice
Herring caviar

Heat the bacon and butter in a small saucepan over medium heat, and as the bacon begins to render fat, add the vegetables.  Cook for about 3 minutes, until the onion becomes translucent.  Sprinkle the flour over the vegetables, stirring with a wooden spatula.  Combine the stock and milk and slowly add to the pan, scraping with the spatula to deglaze.  Add a couple of good pinches of salt and a few grinds of pepper.  Simmer for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. 

The chowder can be made two or three days ahead to this stage, and finished just before serving.  When you’re ready to serve, heat the chowder and stir in the sour cream and a squeeze or two of lemon juice, if you like.  Taste for salt and pepper and add more if needed.  Ladle some chowder into shallow soup bowls, place the warm quenelles atop the chowder.  Sprinkle herring caviar here and there on top of the chowder and the quenelles.  Serve.

Text and photos copyright 2012 by Brett Laidlaw

Monday, December 10, 2012


Having stooped to the depths of writing about avocadoes in this journal supposedly devoted to northern foods, it was probably in everyone’s best interests that I took a little break. The hiatus was not planned, just happened, as each time I considered a possible topic for a post, my inner editor said, “Meh.” I needed some fresh inspiration, and I got it from a road trip that Mary and I took up to the South Shore of Lake Superior (aka “The Cheesehead Riviera”; I just made that up...), destination Halvorson’s Fisheries in Cornucopia, Wisconsin.

There we watched the herring boats come in on a chill but beautiful afternoon. They had to break through a couple of inches of ice in the harbor—the trip was a preview of things to come, too, as our northward drive took us from the dusting of Dunn County snow to nearly a foot along the shore. We loaded a cooler with fresh off the boat herring—including several whole fish that yielded a pile of roe—along with smoked lake trout and whitefish. 

Lake Superior herring is an under-appreciated, misunderstood fish.  Its reputation suffers, I think, from its being confused with other fish known as herring to which it is not, in fact, closely related. The Lake Superior herring, Coregonus artedii, is more closely related to trout and salmon than it is to the saltwater herrings so well known in northern Europe. It’s a reasonable surmise that Scandinavian and German immigrants in the northland mistook this freshwater fish that schools in vast numbers for the ocean fish they knew from home—there are, indeed, superficial resemblances in size and color. And when you consider that for many people, their main association with herring is with the pickled variety, perhaps of indifferent quality, there’s a general reluctance to embrace the lake herring as the superb and versatile food fish that it is.

 As for the name confusion, lake herring is variously known as cisco, bluefin, and, where it occurs in smaller lakes, tullibee. There have been efforts in some circles to “rebrand” lake herring as cisco, but I doubt that is likely to gain much momentum—especially since I’ve seen smoked herring and smoked cisco resting side by side in the cooler case in lakeside fish shops over the years. There’s little consensus on what to call what, it seems, at least at the local level.  So I don't think the term herring is going away.  We just need to work on spreading the word about what a delightful fish it is to cook with.

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve prepared herring in a half dozen ways, and I’m still not tired of eating it. Last night a herring fillet went into a Sichuan-inspired dish with fermented vegetables and tofu in a hot bean sauce. On the our first night back from Corny, I simply fried fillets in a cornmeal dusting and served them with a crunchy, savory garnish of fried bacon, leek, and jalapeno, with a splash of apple cider beurre blanc. Other nights I fried chunks in a tempura-like batter for the best fish tacos I’ve ever eaten; broiled it and served it with a chile-laced mayonnaise; whizzed it up in the FP to make herring quenelles, fish dumplings that I served in a chowder-inspired sauce; and we snacked on the salted herring roe atop rounds of garden potatoes roasted in duck fat, with a dollop of sour cream.

That roe, by the way, is where the real money is for the Lake Superior commercial fisheries, Maureen Halvorson told me. Completing the ironic herring circle, it is shipped to Scandinavia, where it is considered a delicacy—even though it comes from a fish that does not exist anywhere near those northern European shores.

Here are a few more shots from our quick, fishy trip to Corny:

The beach at Corny, "The Cheesehead Riviera"

Cornmeal-dusted pan-fried lake herring with crunchy garnish, cider beurre blanc

It just occurred to me on this trip that they wear orange jumpsuits so they'll be easy to see if they fall overboard....

This was not the first time the three-hour drive to the South Shore was a time trip--that short distance often takes you to another season on the shore.

Waiting for the herring boats

Ice on the deck

The South Shore herring fishery is thriving; Halvorson's added another boat this year, bringing the fleet to four.

" the rooms of her icewater mansions...".

Text and photos copyright 2012 by Brett Laidlaw