Before my current life as a "Professional Fishing Guide" and educator, I spent many hours toiling in restaurants. Being 30 years old and working in a "Friendly's" is not what I'd call being "on top of the world" ;-) To put it bluntly, it sucked. But it paid a few of my bills and enabled me to spend plenty of time on the water. I worked at an Italian restaurant as a dishwasher when I was 16. The owner could have played a part on "The Sopranos" without any acting, if you know what I mean! I was at the aforementioned place for about a year. Most of my restaurant work was as a waiter, but I always asked a lot of questions and tried to pay attention to food prep/cooking methods. I worked at a little gourmet restaurant in Ithaca with a Japanese Chef who was trained at Ritz Escoffier (sp???) and I learned a lot. Around 5 years at "Thai Cuisine" in Ithaca also taught me quite a bit. (BTW, just because someone owns a restaurant doesn't mean they necessarily know how to best take care of and prepare fish!) I'm no Chef, but I know enough good to excellent fish recipes to keep me satisfied.
When you have a great piece of meat or fish, you've already won 75% of the battle. A fresh piece of walleye sauteed in a little butter with some salt and pepper is pretty tough to beat. Half the key to a "great piece of fish" is taking care of the catch from water to table. Fishing clean waters like the Finger Lakes is a great way to begin!
In the Finger Lakes Region we have an abundance of great eating fish – lake trout, rainbow trout, landlocked salmon, brown trout; pike, pickerel, walleyes, perch, bass etc – all are excellent eating. Keeping a few of these fish for the table does no harm to the fishery and in some cases is beneficial for the fishery (more on that later.)
One of the greatest benefits of fishing is being able to procure fresh fish from the water of our choice. When we buy fish at a supermarket or order a fish dinner at a restaurant we have no idea where the fish came from, not to mention how long its been sitting around and how it was handled. As a fisherman (or woman ;-) we have total control of these variables. Control of these factors is everything! In the summertime the difference between a lake trout caught, bled and put on ice immediately vs. a laker that is caught and put on a stringer or in a pail is that the first fish will provide a terrific meal, and the second will be a rancid spoiled tasteless piece of flesh.
So care of the catch is very important. A live-well is a good way to keep fish fresh. They stay alive until you are ready to kill them, clean them and refrigerate or freeze them. Keep in mind that cold water fish like trout and salmon will perish quickly in a live well during warm water periods, like from late spring through early fall. If I’m going to keep perch, walleyes, bass or panfish they will go into the livewell pretty much year around. The only time I use it for trout and salmon is from around November through May – again, depending on water temps. I’ll still bring the cooler, but I’ll keep the fish alive as long as possible in the well. Trout and salmon do fine in water temps up to the mid-50s in the livewell.
A cooler with plenty of ice is probably the best way to keep fish fresh. I never go trout fishing in the summertime without my ice-filled cooler. NEVER! What happens if you go out to jig some lake trout in the summer and you catch one that’s swallowed the jig or is mortally wounded and you don’t have a cooler? You then have three choices, none of which appeal to me. You can release the dying/dead fish, maybe try and convince yourself that it will be alright, and basically waste it (which to me is unthinkable), you can keep it and let it spoil (again…) or you can get off the water and try to find some ice (a pain in the butt!) Although we have an over-abundance of lake trout in many of our lakes, I’m not going to waste a fish or waste my time, so whether I originally planned on keeping it or not, it’s going into the cooler.
As for whacking the fish (Tony Soprano here…), you can use anything heavy and blunt. Of course, I take care of that if you’re on a trip with me. I generally take my fingers and insert them into the fish’s gills by going underneath, so the mouth of the fish is pressing against the palm of my hand. Then I pry upwards, basically breaking the neck of the fish. It can require some effort with bigger fish, but it kills them instantly and bleeds them at the same time. I let them bleed out for a few minutes then they go into the cooler.
Filleting and trimming the fish is an important part of fish preparation. Check a cookbook or go online and there should be many diagrams on filleting fish. Oily fish like trout and salmon (and saltwater species like bluefish) have a dark lateral line. This is a fatty stripe that runs along the skin side of the fish. This tissue should be removed as it doesn’t taste good (it can be fatty/chewy – in a non-appealing way ;-) and can contain contaminants. You may also find fatty deposits up on the back of the fish or near where the fins were – remove these too.
If the fillets have an inordinate amount of blood or stomach contents on them give them a quick rinse under the faucet and then dry them off with paper towels. You don’t want to soak fish in water – ever! Fish absorb brines quickly and by soaking a fillet in water you are basically marinating the fish in a tasteless substance. Good way to have tasteless fish!
I’ve found that fresh fillets keep well in the refrigerator for about 3 days. So if you catch the fish on Sunday, they will be excellent until Wednesday. If you don’t think you’ll be eating the fish within that allotted timeframe, freeze them – don’t take a chance. The best way to freeze fish that I've found is to use a couple layers of plastic wrap, then freezer paper. Make sure you get all the air out of the packet. Do one layer of plastic at a time. A vacuum sealer can work great too.
Some fish just don't hold up well in the freezer! One of my best clients used to keep lake trout, then they suddenly didn't want them anymore. They didn't like them. I asked if "they tasted 'off.'" Yes was the answer. I surmised that the fish were being frozen and spoiling in the freezer. So the next time we went fishing and they caught a lake trout, they kept it and ate it right away. Here's their quote: "We came home and cooked the fish immediately...you were right, it was fabulous!"
Before we get into a bunch of recipes, I’ll give you my feelings on the Finger Lakes and catch and release vs. selective harvest.
The major species that are most abundant and underutilized in the Finger Lakes are chain pickerel, sunfishes (like pumpkinseeds and rockbass) and lake trout. Some lakes like Hemlock Lake have fewer pickerel but they are very large. Other lakes like Cayuga are loaded with smallish pickerel. If I’m fishing a lake with very few, but large pickerel I’ll usually release most of them and only keep an occasional fish. Why kill trophy fish? On a lake like Cayuga, that’s currently loaded with numerous pickerel, I’ll gladly keep a limit of them. This is the criteria I usually use.
As for “panfish”, the name says it all. Cayuga’s loaded with BIG sunfish and bluegills. Great eating and there’s no harm in keeping a bunch of them. Rockbass are also terrific on the table. Yellow perch are one of most sought after fish around.
Lake trout are overabundant in Keuka Lake. In Keuka and Skaneateles Lakes they are stunted. Small fish (17”) are developing eggs. When growth rates are very slow, fish will mature at older ages yet be smaller specimens. In these fisheries I feel that conscientious anglers have a duty to keep fish.
I won’t keep largemouth bass out of a lake like Cayuga Lake that is constantly pounded with bass tournaments. The largemouth bass on Cayuga need all the help they can get. With smallmouths I release 90% or more of them that I catch, but if I do keep them I’ll keep smaller fish in the 13” to 16” range. Landlocked salmon are 100% stocked fish in all the Fingers that have them except Skaneateles Lake, which occasionally harbors some wild ones. They are very susceptible to fishing pressure (they’re easily caught!), but they do taste great. So if I’m going to eat some I’ll keep one or two at the most. Contrary to popular belief, many landlocked salmon will die after the stress of spawning and being caught repeatedly by tributary anglers. I can count the “post-spawn salmon” I’ve caught in the Finger Lakes on a couple fingers of mine.
JG RECIPE FOR SMOKED TROUT, SALMON OR BLUEFISH
1 gallon H2O
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup salt
1/2 dozen garlic cloves
1 to 2 whole onions cut into chunks or sliced
1/2 dozen to a dozen peppercorns
Tablespoon or two of thyme
Mix the brine ingredients making sure to dissolve all the salt and sugar. Chill the brine in the refrigerator if possible. Otherwise make sure you use cold water for the brine.
When I catch fish that I know I'm going to smoke, I fillet them "for the smoker". I make a cut behind the gills down to the backbone, turn the knife and fillet right to the tail. Then, without removing the fillet I cut the fillet into pieces using the fish frame as my cutting board. With a 7lb. laker I get around 4 pieces per side. I then cut out the rib cage and remove any blood/veins. Pat dry with paper towel (you may give them a quick cold rinse if necessary) and brine the pieces or freeze them for up to 3 weeks.
Brine in plastic or glass containers for 14 to 18 hours. Remove pieces from brine then rinse with cold water and pat with paper towels and set on greased racks to dry. You can use a fan if you want.
Make sure you allow the fish at least 2 to 5 hours to dry after brining them. The fish should have a shine to them - the pellicle. (If the pellicle never forms, often times it's because the fish were spoiled.) Air drying time in the outdoors on a windy day can take less than 90 minutes.
The amount of time you smoke the fish depends upon the temperature you are smoking them at, how well you want to cook/dry them and how smoky you want them. I generally like to smoke fish for 4 to 6 hours. I set my Masterbuilt Smoker at around 235 degrees. Make sure you check your fish after three hours or so. It will take some practice to get a feel for how long to smoke them.
Try to keep your fish pieces relatively the same size, or if they are differently sized, have the same sized pieces on each rack and keep the thicker pieces on the bottom.
I use alder wood chips for most of the process. It's milder than hickory but not as mild/weak as apple.
Do all these steps properly and you'll be very impressed. I've had enough different people offer to buy my fish off me, that I'm convinced I could have been a "professional smoker." Honest. BTW, I never have sold them.
A good tip here to make your fish the very best:
* If you bleed out your fish before filleting them, your fillets will be much cleaner.
* Do not freeze oily fish like lake trout for more than three weeks. They can spoil in the freezer and turn rancid. You've been warned!
John's Lake Trout Chowda
This recipe works great with lake trout, northerns, walleyes and/or just about any freshwater fish! I enjoy both Manhattan and New England style chowders. With this recipe you can make both at the same time with ease.
A large soup pot or 2 large pans
6 to 8 or more slices of Salt Pork (Bacon will suffice)
2 large onions sliced and diced (use 4 or 5 if they are med. sized)
(finely chopped celery)
4 to 5 large Potatoes peeled and diced into 1/2" chunks
A few pounds of fish fillets (preferably fresh Finger Lakes lake trout!) skinned, trimmed then cut into chunks approx 1" to 1 1/2" in diameter
Milk, Half and Half and/or heavy cream (for New England Style)
Can of Chopped Tomatoes (or fresh tomatoes for Manhattan Style)
Freshly ground pepper
Salt to taste
(Butter - option on New England style)
Thyme (for Manhattan Style)
Get your soup pot on the stove and crank heat to medium-low. Add in the sliced salt pork. Let the salt pork fry up for awhile. It takes time to render the fat out of salt pork. If you don't use all the salt pork you bought, freeze the rest. It freezes well and won't go bad anytime soon.
Once you have some grease from the bacon/salt pork on the bottom of the pan and the salt pork has browned, remove the salt pork/bacon and add in the onions (and celery). Save the salt pork for a garnish to be crumbled and added to the chowder when served. Don't worry if your pot looks 1/3rd filled with onions! They'll cook down. While the onions cook you'll have time to prep your potatoes. The key to the flavor of this chowder is the onions carmelizing with the fat from the salt pork. Let the onions cook down! You cannot cook the onions too long! Allow the onions to get mushy - they'll look like they've melted!
Once the onions are mush, dump your cut up potatoes into the pot. Add enough water to cover the potatoes, then cover the pot with a lid. You can crank the heat up to medium now. Set your timer for around 12 minutes and check the potatoes with a fork every few minutes after that to see if they are done. You want the potatoes to be almost cooked through. This is important. You are better off over cooking the potatoes rather than undercooking them. While the potatoes are cooking you can cut up your fish.
Once the potatoes are almost fully cooked you'll do the following:
For New England Style Chowder: Turn the heat down to med-low and add milk or half + half (or heavy cream). Use your judgment as to how much to add. I'm sure if you're making this chowder, you've eaten chowder before and can guesstimate what the soup should look like ;-) Once you've added the milk/cream, it is time to add your fish.
After you add the fish, you'll want to season the chowder with plenty of freshly ground black pepper, salt to taste and a few dashes of cayenne pepper (to taste.) If you don't like spice - don't add the cayenne! Keep the heat low and stir occasionally. DO NOT ALLOW THE CHOWDER TO BOIL! You'll wind up with the cream separating! If you do let it boil by accident, simply add more milk/cream and don't let it happen again! But it's much better if it never boils. Once the fish is cooked you are done. ENJOY!
If you like thick "diner style chowder" you can make a roux on the side by adding one part butter to one part flour. Heat this up in a separate saucepan and cook it for a few minutes making sure to mix things thoroughly so there's no chunks of flour. Then add this to your chowder. Keep in mind that no good places I've ever visited around Massachusetts do chowder like this! It's mainly 24 hour diners far removed from New England that have perpetuated the myth that good chowder is full of filler and thicker than molasses.
You could have added a splash of white wine to the mix before you added the milk/cream for a different flavor. If you want, you can also throw a stick of butter on top of the chowder for added calories and flavor. (Don't say I didn't warn you!)
WARNING: Allow the chowder to cool in the pot for awhile before refrigerating. And then keep the top of the container off of it as it cools in the fridge. Otherwise it can spoil or separate. I don't like to freeze the New England style either. It gets messed up.
For Manhattan Style Chowder: Turn the heat down to med-low and add in a can of chopped tomatoes and some water until the consistency looks good to you. Then add in your fish and season with freshly ground black pepper (the more the merrier!), salt to taste and a few dashes of cayenne. Add in a some thyme for appearance, flavor and aroma and as soon as the fish is cooked through you are ready to enjoy!
JG Recipe for "Po' Man's Crab Cakes" - aka Pickerel (or pike) patties. PS - I'm no culinary genious, so parts of this recipe were gleaned from other recipes I've tried.
I've been playing around with fish cake recipes for the past bunch of years. Asian fishcakes are often elastic in texture. The "fish balls" fry up nicely and can be dipped in a sweet and sour garlic chili sauce for some great eating. By simply combining the pureed fish with a binder, like beaten eggs, you'll get the elastic texture.
Lately I've been going with keeping things simple and having a less elastic texture. You can do this by mixing equal parts pickerel with mashed potatoes and then adding roughly one beaten egg for every 1+1/2 to 2 cups of fish/potato mix. Add about 1 TBSP of either cajun seasoning or Old Bay and you'll have great cakes that have a soft mashed potato-like texture on the inside and nice browning on the outside.
2 Cups of pickerel - Fillet your pickerel, skin the fillets, cut out the rib cage (and discard) and then cut up into domino sized pieces. Run pieces through a food processor or blender until chopped up. No need to over-process them.
2 Cups of mashed potatoes
1 Large egg
1 TBSP either cajun seasoning or Old Bay. You can also just do salt/pepper or whatever you like.
Heat up around 1/2" of oil in a skillet until you see the oil shimmering (you can place a 1" square of bread in the oil - if it starts frying up aka bubbling, the oil is hot enough.) Place patties in the oil and fry until browned - it'll likely take 2 to 3 minutes per side. Remove patties and pat down with paper towel. Enjoy as a main course, a sandwich or later on.