In 1983 the US Federal Courts affirmed that indigenous people in the Great Lakes region could exercise their rights to certain natural resources granted in treaties signed in decades past. Those rights included the right to spearfish on the traditional fishing grounds, covering much of the northern area of the current state of Wisconsin and Minnesota. This precipitated what became known as the Walleye Wars. And despite the media hype and the dire predictions of over-fishing, after years of allowing spearfishing, walleye is still a plentiful fish across much of the Great Lakes region.
Walleye, sometimes called walleyed pike or yellow pike, is named for the tendency for the eye to go an opaque white when caught and their beautiful golden color.
Considered by many here in the Great Lakes region to be the finest eating of our available freshwater species. Commercially fished on the Great Lakes in Canada, walleye are only available wild caught in the US, which may add to some of the desirability of fresh caught walleye. Any commercially harvested fish come from Canada. Thankfully, we have access to wild-caught walleye from family and friends, particularly in late spring and early fall. The flesh of the wild-caught, fresh fish is slightly firmer and more delicate in flavor than the frozen options.
Recently we’ve paired pretzels with our walleye, playing up the Germanic traditions in the Great Lakes region. First, we prepared a rather traditional Wisconsin Fish Fry – Walleye, Cole Slaw, Potato Pancakes, and Marble Rye, served with Three Sheeps Oktoberfest.
We ground the pretzels and dried herbs until similar to bread crumbs, and added a bit of garlic salt. The walleye was dipped into a 1:1 mix of milk and eggs, then dredged in the pretzel mixture. We baked the walleye, though the traditionalists would insist on deep frying. The Three Sheeps Oktoberfest was a perfect pairing on a chilly, autumn night by the lake.
The texture and the delicate flavor of the baked walleye is reminiscent of the flaky delicate flavor of crab in a really well-made crab cake. So why isn’t a walleye cake a thing? It could be cultural – crab cakes being so clearly identified with the East coast. Fish cakes are also common in Asian traditions, but not as often in culinary traditions in the US. We often enjoy the salmon “burgers” from Rushing Waters, which they even sell in a package along with crab cakes, yet they don’t make a “Salmon Cake”.
The best crab cakes we’ve enjoyed have no bread crumb filler at all, but most people would likely identify the difference between a “burger” and a “cake” being the addition of bread crumbs, mayonnaise and egg to the “cake”. We elected to use the pretzel crumbs again in this application.
- 1lb walleye fillets
- 1 cup pretzels, ground to a bread crumb texture
- 1 egg
- 1/2 cup mayonnaise
- 1 Tb dried herbs
- 1 tsp garlic salt
- 2 Tb butter
Heat oven to 375. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper and place the walleye fillets on the pan, skin side down. Melt 1 Tb. butter, drizzle across fillets and sprinkle with garlic salt and herbs, then place in the oven. Cook time will depend on the thickness of the fillets, start checking at 5 minutes of cook time for thin fillets. Cook until just white through out. Rather under cook than over at this stage as these will get cooked again to finish. At this stage we are trying to just get to a flaky texture. Remove from oven and allow to cool.
Whip egg and mayonnaise, then add 1/2 cup of the pretzels. Flake the walleye fillets off of the skin, and add the flaked fish to the egg mixture. Refrigerate for 30 minutes to allow pretzel to absorb the liquid, then remove and form into 1/2 in. thick patties. Coat the patties with the remaining pretzel crumbs. These can be made up to this point in advance and refrigerated until ready to cook.
Heat 1 Tb butter in a frying pan (preferably cast iron) at medium heat. When melted, add patties to pan but do not crowd. Cook until nicely browned on both sides.
We chose to serve our walleye cakes on a bed of Bibb lettuce. We topped the cakes with a puree made of roasted red peppers and confit tomatoes with garlic. We also had a good friend’s Bread and Butter Pickles from their home garden and our own smoked then pickled red onions.
This is a beautiful showcase for walleye – the delicate fish still holds the flaky texture, given an extra layer of flavor by the addition of the pretzel. If I had access to wild leeks, the leaves finely diced and added to the cakes would be a really nice touch or perhaps a reprise of the charred wild leek “pesto”. The pickles, a hallmark of Great Lakes Cuisine, add the perfect counter-point and even those with just a mustard vinaigrette would be delicious. Though the fish cake approach isn’t common in the Great Lakes, we would submit the walleye cake has all the makings of a nice addition to Great Lakes Cuisine.