Fish Fry Friday Nights

The Friday night Fish Fry is a tradition throughout the Great Lakes region, varying slightly with ethnic touches city by city, and even neighborhood by neighborhood. In the Milwaukee area, our favorite old school fish fry can be enjoyed at Jack Pandl’s Whitefish Bay Inn, a place that is worth visiting for the history alone. Order the perch and enjoy the potato pancakes with applesauce. Another Milwaukee favorite is the Fish Fry they serve at the Lakefront Brewery Beer Hall, which includes a traditional dinner, a live polka band, and family style seating (not to mention Lakefront’s fantastic beer offerings!). There are many great options throughout Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Cleveland, and nearly every Great Lakes city.

The Christian tradition of not eating meat on Friday’s in lent lead to a regional obsession with delicately crispy white fish and french fried potatoes on any Friday of the year, though unfortunately cod is substituted far too often for freshwater fish. When the batter is made with a light, highly carbonated beer, the oil is clean and hot, and local, freshwater fish fillets are used, it is the perfect way to start the week-end. The right amount of carbonation in the beer creates a batter resembling a Japanese tempura. Find a place with a house-made tartar sauce or, even better, a house-made malt vinegar to really accent the fish. We’ll share a house-made chive mayonnaise in this post that could work as well.

Despite our love for the occasional Friday night Fish Fry, fried food in general is not our preference and so we’ve adapted a number of very traditional Great Lakes fish into our version. After all, that is what Great Lakes Cuisine is all about – innovatively finding ways to adapt traditional, ethnic dishes.

The key to this dish is the Smoked Chubs from Ewig’s in Port Washington but an alternative is the smoked whitefish which they will ship. The chubs are native to the Great Lakes and are actually known as a bloater or coregonus hoyi (though there is much confusion between freshwater and ocean varieties). The small, silver skinned fish is oily like sardine, but far less “fishiness” in aroma or flavor. They look a bit liked smoked sardine but are technically in the salmon family. Port Washington was once home to a thriving commercial fishing operation, but now Ewig’s is the lone testament to the once teeming whitefish catch. In honor of the town’s history, we offer this dish.

Port Washington Fish Fry2

We harvested the smoked flesh to top the very delicately flavored freshwater whitefish and served it with sauteed greens and small hash browned potatoes, prepared similar to rosti.

Port Washington Stuffed Whitefish with Baby Rosti (Hash browned potatoes)

1 lb. freshwater whitefish filet
4 smoked chubs
2 egg yolks
1 Tbs. finely diced onion
1 Tbs. finely diced chives
1 Tbs. stone ground mustard
3/4 cup vegetable oil
1 tsp. salt

1/2 cup sour cream

3 large Yukon gold potatoes
1 Tbs. salt
1 tsp. freshly ground pepper
1 Tbs. melted butter
1 Tbs. vegetable oil

2 cup baby kale
2 cup baby spinach
or preferred greens
2 cloves garlic
2 Tbs. vegetable oil

Place the egg yolks, onion, chives, and mustard in blender and process until smooth. With the blender running, add oil in a slow drizzle. The result will be 1 cup of chive mayonnaise that will intensify as it sits. Remove the flesh from the smoked chubs, being careful to remove skin and bones.

Port Washington Fish Fry1

Fold 1/2 cup of chive mixture into the smoked fish flesh and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. Combine remaining 1/2 cup of chive mixture with sour cream and refrigerate.

Shred the potatoes on the largest holes of the grater, then mix with salt and pepper and allow to stand 30 minutes. Heat oven to 375. Working in handfuls, squeeze as much water out of the potatoes as you can, as this will lead to crispier potatoes. Combine butter and oil and brush sheet pan with half the mixture. Working in small handfuls, form the potatoes into 2 inch disks, about 1/2 inch thick, and place on the sheet pan then top with remaining oil mixture. Bake until browned on the underside (about 30 minutes), turn and finish until browned. Finish fish and greens while potatoes bake.

Remove smoked chub mix from refrigerator. Slice fish into 2 inch pieces. Lightly salt and then drizzle with a small amount of vegetable oil. Rinse greens and finely dice two peeled cloves of garlic. In a large cast iron pan or non-stick saute pan, heat on stove top at medium high heat, with 1 Tbs. vegetable oil and garlic. When garlic is fragrant, add greens, sprinkle with sea salt, and cover pan. Greens will wilt as you finish the fish

In another large cast iron pan or non-stick saute pan, heat on stove top at medium high heat, with 1 Tbs. vegetable oil. When sizzling hot, place fish in the pan, skin side up for 1 minute, then carefully flip over. They will have a tendency to stick slightly. Remove pan from heat and top each piece with a heaping spoonful of smoked chub mix. Remove potatoes from oven. Place fish in oven on a middle rack with the broiler on high. Remove when golden brown, about 5 minutes.

To serve, place the wilted greens in a small pile, top with piece of fish. Mini-rosti are served with the sour cream mixture.

Port Washington Fish Fry

The texture of freshwater whitefish is naturally soft and mildly flavored. The smoky-chive mixture adds just the right amount of flavor and the crispy potatoes hint at the traditional fish fry flavors and textures. Another variation would be to serve a larger piece of fish on a larger potato crisp. Either way, be certain to have plenty of ice cold beer on hand to wash down each flavorful, crispy bite.

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Smoked Whitefish Mousse

For nearly 300 years the Ojibwe thrived on the shores of Gitchii Gamig, what we now call Lake Superior. Fishing on the creeks, smaller lakes, and on Lake Superior was a near constant through the seasons, using nets formed of branches in the summers and fishing through the ice in the winter.

One of the prized treasures was the Adikameg, a slender, silver bullet of fish, now known as freshwater whitefish. The flesh is tender, flaky, and beautifully white when properly prepared. Available around the world, this member of the salmon family has thrived in Lake Superior waters for ages, were the dark cold waters provide the perfect environment for them to thrive. Fishing both by line and by net, the Ojibwe harvest could be prepared for immediate consumption but also preserved for longer by drying on racks in the sun or over low fire.

Whitefish Smoked

The dried whitefish would be added to stews or corn meal and likely was used more the way bonito flakes are prized today. They would have added flavor and protein to dishes and proper drying would preserve them for far longer than fresh fish would be palatable. On a recent trip to Hawaii I was re-acquainted with Dry Aku, their version of dried skip jack which undergoes a far simpler process than bonito flakes and may be a bit closer to the historic process of the Ojibwe.

The recipe we share here for smoked whitefish is a world away from those dried fish preparations, but the base ingredient is the beautifully delicate flakes of whitefish taking on the smokey flavors of a hardwood fire. We feel it falls right into our Great Lakes cuisine traditions.

Smoked Whitefish Mousse

1 lb fresh whitefish fillet

1 tsp sea salt

½ cup heavy cream

8 oz. cream cheese

1 Tbs. fresh lemon juice

1 Tbs. fresh chives, chopped

Prepare smoker for a low heat, hardwood smoke. We used applewood chips for our preparation. Place whitefish fillet into the smoker with a sprinkle of sea salt. We went for an hour on a fairly thin fillet shown above, but time will depend on fillet thickness and smoking temperature. When in doubt, on this preparation go longer rather than shorter as whitefish firms up as it smokes and a bit of texture is helpful in this approach. Allow to rest over night.

Remove skin and flake fish into food processer. Add heavy cream and blend until just fully mixed then add cream cheese and lemon. Continue blending until smooth. In a bowl, mix whitefish mixture with chives. Chill 4 hours or overnight to allow flavors to blend. Serve with crackers, rye bread toasts, or on cucumber rounds.

Whitefish Smoked1