Gone fishin'? Jon Wipfli can help you out with the cookin'.
On June 11, the classically trained chef behind the Minnesota Spoon, the 2017 cookbook Venison, and the award-winning Animales Barbeque Co. will release Fish: Recipes and Techniques For Freshwater Fish.
It’s a natural segue for Wipfli, given that the native Wisconsinite grew up fishing walleye, crappie, and bluegill at his family’s cabin in Vilas County. In his 20s, he moved to Montana and learned to fly-fish. Later, he got into ice-fishing and “caught the muskie bug” thanks to a group of hunting friends. But even those experiences didn’t prepare him to write a whole cookbook on freshwater fish. In the name of research, he fished with the pros in Michigan, Wisconsin, and the Dakotas for everything from steelhead and whitefish to lake trout and herring.
Wipfli doesn’t teach fishing techniques in the book, but he does offer methodical instructions for cleaning, scaling, gutting, storing, and filleting your catch for maximum freshness. If you’re not much of a fisherman, that’s fine; you can buy your fish (Wipfli recommends the Fish Guys), but to ensure you get the best product, take the time to inspect your specimen.
Smell is one big indicator of freshness: “If the smell raises alarm, then you probably should be alarmed. Every fish is going to have a fish smell, but it shouldn’t be a rotting fish smell,” Wipfli says. The firmness of the flesh is another important freshness factor. If you stick your finger into the flesh of the fish and the imprint stays, that means the skin is deteriorating and is starting to lose its bounciness. If the indentation raises right back, you’ve got a fresh fish. Buying a whole fish? Look at the eye; one that's clouded and opaque means the fish has been sitting there for a while.
So you have your fish and you’re ready to cook, but maybe you’re intimidated by fish’s delicate nature. Poaching is a great way to keep it intact; cooking a whole fish is another way to avoid disaster. Steaming is also a good option. If you’re searing fish and want to avoid sticking, use a “super-hot” stainless steel pan with a thick bottom and use a high-heat oil, like grapeseed oil. Pat your fish dry with paper towels, and when your pan and oil are hot, lay your fish into the pan.
One of Wipfli’s personal favorite ways to cook fish? Over an open fire. (Yes, he has instructions for that, too.)
How do you know your fishy feast is done? Wipfli goes by feel. When fish is raw, it’s soft. As it cooks, it becomes firmer, but there's a point where too firm becomes overcooked. Knowing where the line is just comes with experience. Wipfli recommends that if you’re cooking multiple pieces of fish, cut into one fillet and make sure there’s nothing that’s completely red (for salmon) or grayish (for walleye).
If you can’t remember all the rules, no worries. That’s what Wipfli’s book is for, complete with crisp, step-by-step photos by local photographer Colleen Eversman. And as for the recipes, Wipfli wanted to lighten up this time around. “With the venison, I felt like we missed a style of cooking which was a little bit lighter, a little bit fresher, and maybe had a little bit more diversity. And I think we were able to do that with fish,” he says.
His recipes are refined yet simple, with a focus on coaxing out natural flavors. “One of the things I try to avoid is using a ton of spices. In the book, and just in general in cooking, I use a lot of salt and pepper—fresh cracked black pepper. That’s our base,” Wipfli says. When he does want to kick it up a notch, he uses chilis and fresh acidity in the form of limes and lemons. “Those flavors help elevate the flavor of fish,” he says.
What to pair with your perfectly prepared fish? Wipfli recommends vegetable-based sides like marinated cucumbers, corn succotash, and shaved asparagus salad. In fact, the cookbook is near carb-free, save for a sandwich or two. “I don’t think that’s a reflection of how to eat all fish; I think that’s just a reflection of how I generally eat currently,” Wipfli says.
Even if you’re a novice in the kitchen, you’ll enjoy Fish’s celebration of the natural, sustainable food source available right in our backyards. (Or at least nearby.) If you’re inspired to cast your line in Minnesota’s many lakes and rivers but don’t catch anything, don’t get discouraged.
“Success when fishing isn’t measured by fish caught, follows, or inches measured,” Wipfli writes in the cookbook. “It’s all about getting outside, drinking some beers with friends, and learning about what’s happening in the natural world that surrounds us.”