In Praise of Whitefish

“…and the fish which swam in its clear water could not be surpassed in quality or quantity in any other spot on earth. They manufactured their nets of the inner bark of the bass and cedar trees, and from the fibres of the nettle.”

– from William Warren, History of the Ojibway People, Based Upon Traditions and Oral Statements (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1984, p.87)

So wrote William W. Warren, a fascinating historical figure with a critical role in Great Lakes history. Born in 1825 on Madeline Island to an American fur trader and Mary Cadotte, daughter of a major fur trader Michel Cadotte, of Ojibwe-French descent, and his Anishinaabe wife, Ikwesewe of the White Crane clan. In 1847, he moved to Crow Wing, Minnesota, to work as an interpreter in the fur trade and began to collect stories of the Ojibway / Ojibwe people in the area. Read more on his background here, or more on the Indeginous fishing culture of Lake Superior here). His work was originally published in 1885, thirty tears after his death, so the story of whitefish in Lake Superior goes back a long way.

Edward Benton-Banai (The Mishomis Book:The Voice of the Ojibway, 1988, p.100) suggests the bounty of whitefish in Lake Superior drew the Ojibway to settle further and further west along the shores of the waters they called Anishinaabewi-gichigami (Anishinaabe’s Sea). The Anishinaabe people called the whitefish “Adikameg”, a symbol of abundance and fertility according to Basil Johnston (Ojibway Heritage, 1990, p.53). The story of the Ojibway migration and generations of plenty were tied to the story of whitefish.

Today, the story of this beautiful silver flash of a fish is woven into the culture and the economy of the people surrounding the shore of Lake Superior and up through the lakes of Canada. A member of the salmon subfamily Coregoninae, the flesh is delicate and white, and still caught in abundance across much of the lake.

Whitefish, freshly caught, photo credit: Thill & Sons Fish House, Facebook page

Our latest trip to Marquette, Michigan, (which we detailed here) featured a stop at Thill & Sons Fish House, where they take the Linda Lee out fishing on the lake and sell their catch at their retail shop, right at the dock.

Thill & Sons, photo credit: Thill & Sons Fish House, Facebook page

ON our trip, not only were we able to get beautiful whitefish fillets caught early that day, we also bought a good chunk of smoked whitefish and a completely unexpected surprise – whitefish livers. We’re starting with the fillets and a quick side story.

One of my fondest memories of food involves catching rainbow trout in a mountain lake in Colorado, cleaning the fish at the campsite and then cooking over a fire, sauteed in onions and a brown ale. This delicate whitefish deserves the campfire treatment. Unlike at the campsite, here at the cabin we have access to PS Seasoning’s Tackle Box Fish Seasoning, a good blend of mustard, celery, and pepper. The fish has been de-scaled and we’re cooking the fillets with the skin-on.

We have a large cast iron pan specifically for cooking over the campfire, which is a nice bed of coals from local hardwoods. After the onions simmer in butter until they are starting to slightly caramelize on the edges, we add about a 1/2 cup of a dark lager to steam the onions a bit more and prevent burning over the fire. In this case we used Six Pointer, a Munich dark from Iron Dock Brewing which we picked up at the brewer while in Marquette.

When the onions are soft and deep golden, we add more butter and layer in the whitefish. We have a top we can add to the pan to essentially steam the whitefish and keep them very moist.

We then served the fillets with wild rice and asparagus and enjoyed another offering from Iron Dock Brewing, their Belgian-style Blond Ale.

The fish is so tender and flaky, it tends to take on the flavors of it’s preparation quite nicely, much closer in flavor to some of the coveted ocean fish like a halibut or flounder, than some of the “gamier” fresh water fish like the trout or pike. Future approaches may include a roulade or a fish stew, treating the fillets more like scallops or lobster are traditionally treated. This fish deserves to be the star of the story.

But we still have more story to tell, we have two more characters to play a role – the smoked whitefish and the whitefish livers. The smoked whitefish is a natural for a smoked whitefish dip/mousse which we have done on many occasions. We removed the skin and bones from our piece and discarded them, but they could have been re-purposed as the flavorful base of a fish broth.

Once our smoked whitefish mousse was prepared, we turned our attention to the whitefish livers. Having no idea what to do with a whitefish liver, we asked the fish monger, who suggested stewing them in milk with onions and claimed the taste wasn’t all that different than chicken liver. A bit further research later led us to Gruenke’s Inn, in Bayfield, WI, which claims to have been the original place to popularize whitefish livers, and still serves them sauteed or deep fried. Based on the fishmonger’s comments though, we were leaning toward a pâté.

We sauteed the livers with wild leek bulbs (ramps) in butter with salt and pepper for only a few minutes to just cook through. As the livers rested, we deglazed the pan with a 1/2 cup of house malt vinegar. We pureed the livers and wild leeks in a blender with just enough malt vinegar from the pan to enable it to blend fully into a stiff, butter like consistency.

We served the whitefish mousse on caraway rye toasts with wood sorrel, which adds just a hint of lemony flavor. Playing off the traditional cornichons often served with pâté, we served that on pumpernickel toasts with pickled wild leek bulbs and scapes (h/t Alan Bergo, Forage Chef). The liver pâté definitely had similarities to chicken liver pâté we had done in the past, that deeply rich, uniquely liver taste with perfectly creamy mouthfeel. More Iron Dock Brewing Blond Ale on hand is the perfect complement.

Enjoy it on the dock with the sun going down and you have the perfect setting – the perfect setting for continuing the story of abundance that is Adikameg, the fish that swam in its clear water that could not be surpassed.


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