Fish is pretty close to the perfect food. Beyond the plethora of health benefits, it’s a fairly versatile and elegant ingredient. Once you know how to cook it, the possibilities are practically limitless. While a lot of people like their fish fried (and there’s nothing wrong with that), there are many simple cooking treatments that really enhance the delicate flavor of freshwater fish that don’t include batter and oil.
Chef, writer and television host Amy Thielen is no stranger to freshwater fish. Committed to cooking with local resources, Thielen often gets her hands on fish that are still flapping their tails. The author of The New Midwestern Table and host of Heartland Table says when it comes to fish, “the lack of a crust opens up a world of flavor possibilities.”
Thielen shared three crust-free recipes for freshwater fish: Freshwater Fish with Meyer Lemon and Rosemary, Freshwater Fish with Pine Nuts, Tangerine, and Capers, and Freshwater Fish with Red Chiles, Garlic, and Sage.
[Ed. note: Want more from Thielen? She demystified eggplant, the fruit that is both hated and loved -- and often misunderstood.]
Jennifer Russell: For those of us who may not have access to fresh-caught fish, what should we know or look for when we're buying fish from the market?
Amy Thielen: I live in northern Minnesota. If I’m not cooking fish my husband caught, I’m buying it from my local grocery store. If you get fish from a regular sort of place like this (not straight off the boat or from a specialty fishmonger, which is always preferable), it pays to memorize the day the fish come in the door. Just ask them. Our day is Tuesday, which is the day I go supermarket trolling.
You can always buy fresh-frozen too. It’s a second choice, but not always bad. If I’m using frozen fish, I’ll thaw it quickly and then lay it on a towel-lined sheet tray. Blot it well, use high heat, and rub it with a little flour right before sautéing because it’s going to throw off more moisture in the pan and thwart your efforts at browning.
[Ed. note: If you have questions about sourcing fish, Seafood Watch is a great resource. They recommend what to buy or avoid, and help you select items that are fished or farmed responsibly.]
JR: What are some alternatives to frying fish?
AT: I’m a huge fan of sautéing fish and butter-basting it with a bunch of different flavoring elements: garlic, nuts, herbs, hot peppers, whole chunks of Meyer lemon. As you spoon the foaming butter over the fish, the aromatic elements not only cleverly flavor the fish, but they brown lightly and crisp up, so that in the end you have a copper-brown filet of fish topped with golden pine nuts, crisp sage leaves or burnished wedges of Meyer lemon.
With that in the pan, you’re more than halfway to dinner. Sometimes I think that the lack of a crust opens up a world of flavor possibilities.
When I’m in the mood for some restorative, feel-good cooking, I like to steam. I buy some filets of white fish -- usually walleye -- and curl them into coils, each fastened with a toothpick. Then I steam them in a bamboo steamer basket until just-done -- it usually takes about 4 minutes -- and serve the fish in a little bath of ponzu sauce with fresh lime juice. It’s so tender and delicate. Steamed white fish is one of the most decadent textures ever.
JR: Does the preparation vary for different types of freshwater fish?
AT: Mostly it varies according to their size. I have had good luck cooking many of the smaller fish whole and serving them on the bone. (Either you’re a fish eyes person or you’re not. I know the whole head preparation skeeves out some people, but for me, a nice, shiny fish eye is a good indicator of freshness.)
Both bluegills and rainbow trout require nothing more than a roll in seasoned flour and a quick browning in a hot oil-slicked pan. Their skins crisp nicely and it’s easy to pluck their filets clean from their bones.
The tiny springtime smelt do well fried whole too. Though in that case you just pop them in your mouth whole; their miniature bones literally dissolve in the hot fat.
Most of the freshwater fish you find -- walleye, perch, northern pike, bluegills, bass -- have meaty white filets with a flaky cooked texture. They’re all great for pan frying and deep frying.
But there are a couple of types of freshwater fish that require a different cooking method. Sturgeon, for instance, is a very meaty, firm-fleshed fish with a high ratio of interwoven fat. It’s so rich, there’s little point in crusting it, so most cooks like to sauté it. (In my experience, cooking a thick filet of sturgeon feels a lot like cooking a beef tenderloin steak.)
Then there’s burbot, which is uncommon but not unheard of. Its tightly knit stacked fibers resemble monkfish -- its structure also doesn’t take well to deep frying. That one’s usually quick-poached in briny brown-sugar water, sauced with melted butter and christened “poor-man’s lobster.”
JR: What advice can you offer to those who feel intimidated about cooking fish?
AT: The only thing to worry about is overcooking it, and you can always slip it back into the pan when it’s done.
The best thing about sautéing fish is that it gives you such great visual cues. Remember that you want to put it into the pan skin-side down (if it has skin), and you want to cook it about three-quarters of the way through on that first side. You can actually watch the opaque doneness move up the side of your filet.
Slip the tip of your spatula under the fish and lift up to check the bottom. You want that to be dark golden brown -- not light, but decidedly amber. Cook until the edges turn brown and the pale doneness has crept all the way up, until just the top of the filet is still translucent. Flip the fish and baste a little with butter, then immediately move it to a waiting plate.
If you follow these clues, you’ll never go wrong.
JR: Your flavor combinations blow my mind. Can you talk about your approach to flavoring fish, and some of your favorite ingredients to use?
AT: It’s no secret that I love butter, especially browned butter. It goes without saying that I love nuts browned in butter and herbs infused in brown butter. Basically, I love the idea of throwing aromatics into the foaming butter I use to baste fish. It feels so joyfully improvisational. In recent years I’ve been experimenting with that.
For my book, I dusted chunks of monkfish with paprika and threw shallots and sliced almonds into the butter, all of which crisped and cooked in the time it took the fish to test done.
Lately I’ve been experimenting with combining Meyer lemon and fresh rosemary, which is a rustic classic, but still feels dramatic when you squeeze the blackened lemon over the fish on your plate. (Buttery fingers are a bonus, in my book.)
I’m also really excited about cooking fish with pine nuts, strips of tangerine peel, and capers -- it feels like the antidote to the winter blahs. I know I’ll be doing this often in the coming months.
I crave spicy food, so fish basted with hot peppers, garlic and sage really hits all my coordinates.
JR: Sauce or no sauce?
AT: I love a good sauce with fish. Romesco or pesto, both thinned to a sauce consistency, or homemade garlic aioli are good choices.
JR: Are you a fan of fish soups and stews?
AT: Yes, absolutely.
When I was trying to develop a fish soup for my book, I took a lot of inspiration from the Nordic fish stew tradition. I love how they keep it simple: potatoes, dairy, fish, maybe some dill. This is a good blueprint for bringing out the subtle flavors of freshwater fish.
But when I’m in the mood for big flavors, or when the fish I’ve got on hand is fresh but maybe not spankingly so, I make fish stews in the Asian style: either a nice Southeast Asian curry or a more Chinese-inspired fish broth with fish and tofu.
JR: What sides do you like to serve with fish?
AT: In the summer, what does fresh fish need? Maybe some sliced tomatoes and corn on the cob.
But when it’s cold outside, I like to serve fish with something to sop up all the juices. I’ve tried a bunch of different starchy sides to accompany fish, but I keep coming back to rice: white jasmine or round rice, or with an earthy fall fish dish, natural wild rice or round brown rice. For me, it’s usually a side of rice or maybe a dish of mashed squash or creamed rutabaga.
I know that it’s popular to serve fish with mashed potatoes -- and I’ve done it myself -- but something always feels off with that to me. Mashed orange squash seems to do a better job in my opinion.
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Jennifer Russell is a founding producer at The Splendid Table. Before coming to radio, she made historical and arts and cultural programming for public television. She claims to have come out of the womb a food lover -- when other girls played house, she played restaurateur. Follow her comings and goings on Twitter: @jenejentweets.