Pheasant and Cranberries

A recent trip to Minnesota to visit good friends included a bit of cooking, as any trip to visit good friends should. A later post will address a wonderful dining experience we enjoyed at a local restaurant, but for now we’ll focus on some of the dishes we created together. A bountiful harvest of pheasant provided inspiration and we further challenged ourselves to incorporate cranberries in each dish.

We allowed for global inspiration and the main dishes were decidedly more global fusion than Great Lakes Cuisine. But our opening tasting bites stayed pretty close to home and fall neatly within our definition of Great Lakes.

Pheasant - Cranberry

The bites were presented smørrebrød style (our passion for smørrebrød has been covered here and here) with two served on whole grain rye from Rubschlager, brushed with duck fat and toasted. The bite on the far right above is a turducken terrine, the middle is a pheasant breast mousse, and the far left is a country pâté of pheasant dark meat.

The turducken terrine was the result of leftover turkey from Thanksgiving, which had been roasted with onions, apples and savory. A combination of light and dark meat was then pureed with a bit of apple and turkey fat until fairly smooth. The process was repeated with a smoked duck, and chicken was poached with lemon and herbs, and treated the same way. The mixture was layered and allowed to cool overnight. We served it with a spiced cranberry/stone ground mustard.

The pheasant mousse was made from poached pheasant breasts, pureed very smooth with shallots, herbes de Provence and cream. A bit of gelatin was added to help give the mixture body and then allowed to cool. We then piped the mixture onto beet crisps and topped with a wine candied cranberry.

The country pâté consisted of finely chopped (not pureed) poached pheasant dark meat, carrots, onions, and spices. It was topped with a quick pickled relish of red onions and thin sliced cranberries.

Just to satisfy those of you who are curious, the main courses were a PiriPiri spiced pheasant and a Korean BBQ-style pheasant. The spiced pheasant breast included sumac and grated cranberry in addition to more traditional spices and allowed to marinate overnight. After being grilled over very high heat, it was served on a caramelized corn waffle with a spiced cranberry syrup. The Korean BBQ pheasant played off the flavors of Kalbi ribs, with pureed pear and cranberry added to the marinade of soy, sesame, and spices. A portion of the marinade was later reduced to provide a sauce, topped with the quick grilled pheasant breast, and served with turkey broth rice and a kimchi/bok choy slaw made with thick-cut bacon.

In every variation, the rich flavors of the pheasant were highlighted by the tart fruit of the cranberries – a natural Great Lakes Cuisine flavor combination.

Pickled Pike

The many smaller lakes in the Great Lakes region provide a variety of species of fresh water fish. Some folks shy away from preparing the Northern Pike due to the additional row of bones (“Y” bones), which can make it a bit trickier to prepare.  There is a fairly simple technique to handle the bones, detailed nicely here. But my current favorite preparation is to pickle the pike in a similar manner to herring. The pickling brine dissolves the additional row of bones and allows for cleaning the fish in a standard fillet. The result is a very firm, delicious pickled fish flavor, unlike the far more oily herring, which stays soft even upon pickling.

Northern Pike

Pike strike hard and are aggressive fighters. They have a nasty habit of swinging their toothy jaws violently back and forth as they are brought into the boat.  They’re a lot easier to handle on the pontoon boat than in the row boat, but the firm, white flesh is worth the bit of adventure. We prepared them according to the following recipe and then enjoyed them as a local version of traditional smørrebrød.


Dark rye, herb butter, pickled pike, sour cream, pickled red cabbage.

Pickled Pike

2 pike fillets (standard fillet, no need to avoid “Y” bones), cut into 1 inch chunks

Dissolve 1/2 cup salt in 2 cups of cold water and place in non-reactive container to fully submerge the fish. Refrigerate for 24 hours.

Drain, rinse, and cover with white wine vinegar. Refrigerator for 24 hours then remove and drain.

Heat 1 cup wine vinegar, 1/2 cup sugar, 4 cloves, 2 bay leaves, 1 tsp. mustard seed, 1/2 tsp. whole allspice, and 1/2 tsp. whole peppercorns in a medium saucepan over medium heat until boiling, then allow to fully cool. Thinly slice 1 sweet onion. After pickling brine is fully cooled, place fish and onions in jars and cover with brine. Refrigerate for at least one week.

In Praise of Smørrebrød

Nordic cuisine has ascended in recent years to join the culinary pantheon of fine dining, a welcome broadening of the traditional European references for modern American experimentation. Such a re-emergence of Nordic influences generates an interesting confluence in the Midwest, particularly in Wisconsin and Minnesota, where immigrants settled a few generations ago.  They brought with them a great number of culinary traditions, including the open faced sandwich – smørrebrød. In the simplest form, this is a specific style of rye bread, spread with butter, and topped with meats and accompaniments, eaten with a fork and knife. These sandwiches were a traditional lunch offering, and the butter was intended to keep the bread from getting soggy under the toppings. The name literally means “butter bread” in Danish.

If you want a more in-depth description of the current Danish traditions, the blog – goes into the more formal service traditions as well as the line-up of sandwiches that have become somewhat standardized in Denmark. We would rather refer you to a passionate expert, than try to do justice to the tradition in this short piece. And while we’re referring to experts, we’d also recommend the blog and cookbook from Brett Laidlaw, Trout Caviar, which is where we started our more in-depth reading on these Danish open-faced sandwiches.  He views them as a canvas for expression of his love of local ingredients and local traditions. Throughout both his cookbook and his blog, he captures much of what we consider Great Lakes Cuisine.

The particular local love we wanted to express on our version of smørrebrød was for smoked meats. We have explored the smoked meat topic before, but we made a recent pilgrimage to Wittenberg, WI to the temple of all that is smokey, meaty goodness – Nueske’s.


After you walk in through the wooden doors, you are greeted by exquisite aromas of smoked meats and visions of endless meat cases of sausages, bacon, and pork chops. There are free samples of buttermilk and Sprecher Root Beer.  You can buy a hot dog for $1.50. This is like smoked meat nirvana.  And if you sneak in to the back room off to the left of the main room, there are two low, refrigerated open coolers of odd and ends, the bacon ends and the sausage casing mishaps. This is where we found Thick-cut Bacon and Smoked Liver Pate.  Our impulse purchase was a small package of smoked chicken. We also found Rubschlager’s Rye and 10 year aged cheddar and blackberry jam and more than just a little bit of campfire happiness.  The result of the happiness was this:

Food Pictures 004

We took great liberties with the traditional preparations, but stuck to the rye bread, butter starting point. It may not be apparent in the pictures, but we actually quartered the slice of bread, so each open-faced sandwich actually became a two-bite appetizer. Herring is traditionally the first served and we honored that with our offering here.

Food Pictures 005

The pickled herring is prepared by Bay View Packing Company in Milwaukee, WI. They use imported Atlantic herring, which is not related to the lake herring of Lake Superior (Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl from Minnesota Monthly details the differences here with great piece of culinary history). We topped each piece with a dill cream, pickled onions and pickled green peppercorns (in place of the more traditional capers). A fresh sprig of dill would have been a nice addition.

Food Pictures 008

Our smoked chicken was diced fine and prepared as a chicken salad with plumped currants, celery, and candied, spiced walnuts. We used a malt vinegar mayonnaise which took on the smoky flavors of the chicken when the flavors were allowed to meld overnight. Topped with a slice of pear and additional candied, spiced walnuts, this was a sweet and tangy, smokey and rich bite.

Food Pictures 002

Our final sandwich was Three Little Pigs – a smoked pork liver mousse on roast pork loin blanketing a piece of smoked, thick-cut bacon. The inspiration for the mousse was actually two different sources.  We had a version of Fedt (Danish for “fat”) based on the recipe at which came out wonderfully using the Nueske’s bacon drippings, apples, and onion caramelized together, then pureed. Discovery of a recipe from Amy Thielen’s cookbook, The New Midwestern Table, for braunschweiger mousse was another inspiration. She uses mascarpone cheese whipped into braunschweiger to add richness and and a velvety texture. So of course we whipped our fedt into our smoked liver pate.  This, my friends, was goodness. The topping is finely diced, house-pickled red onions and watermelon radish. And our happiness was complete.

Find your happiness, express it through food. Traditional and new. Simple and complete. This is Great Lakes Cuisine.